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Alice Waters’s Vision Bears Fruit

In 2001, thirty years after its founding, Chez Panisse was named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. The precocious upstarts in Berkeley have certainly come a long way. On opening night in 1971, the staff of the restaurant that would change American cuisine boasted a nearly complete lack of industry experience.

Alice Waters"I wanted it to feel like the experience I'd had in France," Alice Waters explained of the vision she brought to Berkeley from her year abroad. "Of course, as we moved along, we realized that the ingredients were quite different from the ones that were used in France so it got harder and harder to put this French mold on the experience."

No single factor can explain the remarkable success of Chez Panisse, but near the top of any list would be the staff's early recognition that the best food comes from the freshest, highest quality, local ingredients. If that seems like an obvious statement in 2002, American foodies have Waters to thank. As Russ Parsons recently noted in the Los Angeles Times, "There is probably no restaurateur in America who has done more for the farmers' market movement than Alice Waters."

Chez Panisse Fruit presents more than two hundred sweet and savory uses for fruit in the kitchen, delicious recipes for appetizers, entrees, soups, salads, and desserts. The recipes, along with Patricia Curtan's beautiful linoleum block print illustrations, serve to lure home cooks toward a more intimate understanding of fruit. Filled with detailed descriptions of apples, strawberries, and everything in between, Chez Panisse Fruit explains when each fruit will be in season, what it looks like when it's ripe, how to distinguish and select among varieties, and why to buy directly from local, organic suppliers.

"Another wonderful book from Waters and crew," Library Journal cheered, "invaluable both as a reference and a cookbook."

Dave: In anticipation of your visit, we had a dinner party on Tuesday. With the exception of the mixed greens and the bread, our whole meal came directly from Chez Panisse Fruit. We served family style: Grilled Salmon with Citrus Sauce, Poulet a la Normande, Citrus Risotto, Cherry Soup, Wine-Poached Pears with Warm Chocolate Fondant, and Vanilla Custard with Raspberry Coulis.

Alice Waters: You had a pretty fruity meal.

Dave: We did, but with meat and fish and the rest, it didn't seem excessive. Was Chez Panisse Fruit long in the making? It's been six years since you published Chez Panisse Vegetables.

Waters: They're always long in the making in that we keep learning things. This book represents what we've learned about fruit in the thirty years we've been in existence - picking up information, making decisions about one thing or another, and moving on.

It probably would have come right after the vegetable book but I wanted to wait until the same artist, Patricia Curtan, was available. She said she'd never illustrate another one.

Dave: It's a beautiful book. Someone in our office happened upon a copy yesterday and immediately said she wanted to buy it, just for the pictures. Why was the artist reluctant to illustrate another?

Waters: She worked so hard on the vegetable book. It takes a long time to do those linoleum block prints.

People are attracted first by the beauty of the book, then they start reading about the fruit. They realize there are things in there that are so easy to make, and it's not just sweets but savory as well. It's doing exactly what I'd hoped it would do: make people think in a whole different way about fruit.

Dave: There are two hundred recipes but the book isn't entirely about how to prepare fruit. It's also about where to find it, how to know when it's ripe, and so forth.

Waters: That's what's really important: that people know what's in season, what it looks like when it's ripe, what the different varieties are and what they each taste like, and the reason that we need to buy them from local, organic suppliers.

It's a point of view. Also, I'm trying to bring you around the table to eat with your friends. I'm glad you served it family style - that's great. That's how I think of eating.

Dave: In the restaurant you serve a single fixed-price menu that changes each day. You mentioned in another interview that you don't know how else you'd do it because that's how you cook at home. I like the idea of bringing that perspective to the dining-out experience, particularly for people who don't ordinarily prepare nice meals at home.

Waters: I really like having someone who knows about food and what goes well together make a meal for me.

It took us a long time to get that right, but when you have sophisticated cooks it's very difficult for a customer to order from the menu and understand what the chefs have in mind. It's great when someone is making those decisions for you.

Dave: In The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, Patric Kuh discusses Chez Panisse at length. He mentions, for instance, the early decision to name dishes literally, according to what was on the plate. He writes, "Instead of calling a dish by a pretty name, they called it by its ingredients."

How much has the restaurant evolved? When you started Chez Panisse, clearly you had some kind of vision.

Waters: I wanted a simple, one-star, French - absolutely French - restaurant. I wasn't thinking of an American restaurant. I was a Francophile. I am a Francophile.

I wanted it to be small, intimate, with probably not more than about forty-five seats. I wanted it to feel like the experience I'd had in France. I wanted to have tarts out on the table when you walked in, real flowers on the table when you sit down. That's what we tried to do. Of course, as we moved along, we realized that the ingredients were quite different from the ones that were used in France so it got harder and harder to put this French mold on the experience. Although I tried for a pretty long time! I kept writing the menus in French; I calligraphed those for years.

Dave: When you started, no one in your restaurant had prior experience, right?

Waters: I think there was one guy who had waited on tables in Austria.

Dave: Could you have gotten away with that if you weren't in Berkeley? It seems like a fortuitous confluence of time and place and mission.

Waters: It was a fortuitous situation. I think it could only have happened in a couple other places around the country, maybe in New York or Cambridge, a place where there was a pretty sophisticated, traveled pool of people that understood what we were trying to do.

And we were really lucky to have the university as a resource. It's always been a wonderful resource for employees, for a brain trust. It doesn't always make for a good cook, but...

Dave: ...but what you were trying to do was different, and I imagine that coming to that challenge without any preconceived notions of how things must be done would help.

Waters: It helped us. We didn't have any notions. I just had a taste in my head from France. I wanted it to taste like that, but I didn't know how to get it there. Fortunately that memory was vivid, and the experience was really absorbed. I didn't know what I had taken in at the time, but apparently I'd taken in everything.

I'd been without experience and then all of a sudden that whole aesthetic about my life appeared.

Dave: Whenever someone writes about you, inevitably they talk about that year in France. One writer called it "a conversion."

Waters: An awakening, really.

Dave: Growing up in New Jersey, your family had a garden, right? Did you sit around the table together to eat? What were meals like in your home as a child?

Waters: At that time, in the fifties, you had to sit at the table; that was just part of growing up. I didn't know any families that didn't gather at the table. And even if the food was not brilliant it was nutritious, and we had that exchange going on.

Dave: My mother is a great cook, but what she's known for more than anything is the duration of her meals.

Waters: You mean you had to be there several hours?

Dave: The phone might ring during the meal, and if we were between courses, for example, one of the kids would answer. We'd tell the person on the line that we were eating. They'd ask, "Should I call back?" And we'd tell them, "No, no. We just had salad. The entr�e won't be ready for at least another half-hour."

I appreciate it a lot more looking back. I know so many families now that don't cook, that might only sit at the table together on holidays or special occasions.

Waters: I'm sort of shocked by that. My whole purpose now is to try to educate people about the relationship of food to culture and food to agriculture. We really need to be engaged in that process and bring our children into the whole experience. It's around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.

Right now in this country we're being educated by fast food values. Unconsciously or consciously, that's what's happening, and they're giving a very strong message: that it doesn't matter whether we eat hamburgers and hot dogs every day of the week; it doesn't matter whether you sit at the table by yourself, or if you eat in the car and just throw the stuff in the garbage. Food should be cheap and labor should be cheap and everything should be the same no matter where you go; whether it's a McDonald's in Germany or one in California, it should be the same. And this message is destroying cultures around the world. Needless to say, agriculture goes with it.

We need to come to some consciousness about food, and right away.

Dave: I loved the Wendell Berry quote you cite in the introduction:

Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.

On the one hand, biogenetics is more and more in the news; on the other hand Fast Food Nation has been on our bestseller list since the week it came out in paperback.

Waters: It's fantastic.

Dave: Another great book, Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, just came out.

Waters: That's a lovely one. She's a good friend.

Dave: Did she work at Chez Panisse?

Waters: She did.

Dave: How long ago was that?

Waters: Oh, a long time ago now. Right before she was opening Greens Restaurant, so twenty or twenty-five years ago.

Dave: There's quite a movement toward organic agriculture and local ingredients right now. It's not just you screaming out in the wilderness.

Waters: There is a big movement, but big compared to big - it's very small when you're talking about one or two percent of food that is organically grown. It's a huge increase, but it's nothing in comparison to fast food.

Dave: Chez Panisse Fruit extols the virtues of simplicity in cooking. "Restrain yourself from doing too much," the introduction tells us. Essentially, the mantra is to exploit what the food has to offer, not to dress it up into some unrecognizable form.

Waters: Precisely. Even Alain Ducasse says that cooking is eighty-five percent finding the ingredients to cook with. I thought that when I had said seventy-five that was huge; he said eighty-five and so I went right on up there.

It's very easy to do that other part if you have some great ingredients. I'm hoping that comes through loud and clear in this Fruit book: that if you do get great strawberries, you mix them with a little water and sugar, maybe a squeeze of lemon, and you have the best strawberry sherbet you've ever tasted.

Dave: I worked for about twelve years in restaurants, but I never understood how delicious a tomato could be until I went to a tasting at a farmers' market here in Portland. We have a number of them around the city.

Waters: I went yesterday to the one downtown. When I find some things that I've not seen before I'm always kind of thrilled.

Dave: What did you find?

Waters: I found this red garlic, a variety of garlic that I hadn't seen. I'm a garlic professional, you could say, but I hadn't seen this beautiful variety with little maroon...almost stripes going around. Splendid. I have two heads that I bought and I'm taking home. That was a thrill for me.

And I loved the woman who had salads. She had this black, wooden bowl where all the greens were mixed just like it would come to your table - what a wonderful presentation! I met a guy, Ken, who has an artisan bread company; he's doing all of his bread with organic flour. I was impressed with that. I also met Sahagun, who had such beautiful handmade chocolates.

I was delighted that there was that kind of sophistication and life about things. There were hundreds of people there. That's what markets need; they need a lot of buyers to encourage the farmers to come in.

Dave: Elsewhere you've spoken about organic produce in major supermarkets: it's great to have organic food out there, basically, but yet if it's not being handled correctly or if it's not fresh it's only giving people the wrong idea about organic farming.

Waters: And it costs at least thirty percent more.

It's wonderful that you can get some of the fruits, particularly, but I find that a lot of them aren't local; a lot are brought in from California or Mexico. I wish they were local apples or local pears. If I had to buy these items in a supermarket, I would ask them, "What date does it come in? What hour of the day does it come in?" And I would be there waiting for it to arrive because they can't possibly take care of it the way they need to unless they have somebody out there hawking it in the produce section.

It's not grown for shelf life. If it's perishable at all it's immediately damaged. The berries, even salad greens...they just can't be kept like that. And you're paying more for them because you're paying the middleman. So that's discouraging.

Dave: Talk about the Edible Schoolyard project.

Waters: It's a project in a middle school in Berkeley, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, with about a thousand kids. And it's an idea for a curriculum that could be put in every school in this country, from preschool all the way through college.

The purpose is to engage kids in the growing, the cooking, and the eating of their school lunches as a way of teaching them very important values. If we don't learn to become stewards of the land, if we don't understand where our food comes from, we're headed for some environmental disaster.

Dave: I feel like I had a very good public school education, but never during those years was I offered the opportunity to learn about gardening or the cultivation of food. That seems so strange in hindsight.

Waters: Doesn't it? Maybe it was thought that you learned that at home. It's just not part of biology and nutrition, which are considered serious things. But this other stuff is not serious. It's thought not to be essential, but it's fundamental to our lives.

We eat every day, and if we do it in a way that doesn't recognize value it's contributing to the destruction of our culture and of agriculture. But if it's done with a focus and care it can be a wonderful thing. It changes the quality of your life.

Every other culture devotes time to this. It's not a new idea. People have always foraged during the seasons for what was close by. They picked it, and they brought it to the marketplaces, and they sold it to people in the neighborhood. People brought it home, cooked it, and ate it with their families. It's ritual - a sacred ritual, I think, in most households around the world.

Something happened. We got disconnected through mass transportation, televisions, distractions of every sort. Cooking was thought to be drudgery. Eating nonseasonally...we've changed in twenty years. We lost that connection with nature in a generation. I think people are unhappy because of it. There's something missing in people's lives. That's the sense that I have. These kids at the school, they're hungry, they want to eat; but they're also hungry for attention. They're hungry for everything that comes with that food. That's what they're really hungry for: somebody to sit down and talk with them.

Dave: Did you work with the state to set up the program?

Waters: We've helped the state to define a program with a garden and kitchen in every school, but this program was pretty much financed with private funds.

Dave: What trend is coming next in restaurants?

Waters: I hope it's going to be a real commitment to sustainability. I see that beginning. I know that most restaurants I've eaten in around the country get salads and some vegetables and fruits locally, but they're taking the next step, realizing that meat and poultry and eggs are important, too. Everything. That's a very important step. And I think it's going to dramatically change the emphasis. Once you get connected with those farmers and you realize that you're dependent on one another, that awareness brings community together.

I feel a lot of that happening here in Portland. It reminds me a lot of the Bay area. Quite like Berkeley.

Dave: You have eight books now. You're a lot of things, I suppose, but it's probably safe to say that you're an author.

Waters: They're collaborations, really. I'm more of a director-producer, and if I get the right combination of people then I love to put that together, to try to say something that's greater than the sum of the parts. I hope people feel that there are a lot of voices in this book besides my own. That enriches the information.

Dave: What other food writers do you recommend to people?

Waters: I'm always going back to Elizabeth David. I continue to be a fan. I can read and reread and find something important in there. I love her French Provincial Cooking.

Ten Speed Press is bringing out some reprints of books that are my favorites, and I'm so pleased to see them: Richard Olney's French Menu Cookbook and When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman, which I've always liked.

I like Paula Wolfert because she does so much research into cooking, particularly of Middle Eastern countries; she's looking for ways of using grains and greens. I value cookbooks that are doing that kind of research. It's very important for our diets that we bring all these traditional methods to the preparation. We make couscous at the restaurant now by hand. I just love to know about those processes and that somebody is preserving them. So much information from these cultures will disappear if people don't pay attention.

Dave: You mention in your writing that you tend to have a number of cookbooks open when you're preparing a menu, and you might borrow a bit from each one. It's a bit like that producer-director role, bringing talents and ideas together to create something new and exciting.

Waters: That's what I do. I've always done that. At the restaurant, if I want to make a country pat�, I'll look up Elizabeth David's and Richard Olney's pat�s; I'll look up Jane Grigson's. I'll flip through any other favorite books I have to see what recipes there are. I get a sense of it, and I begin.

You have to be a little more precise about desserts, but I'm looking to get a feeling and obviously I don't always have access to every ingredient. There are vegetable ragouts and a million variations of them, fruit soups and a million variations of them - but it's just important to get the concept. Those are wonderful, those basic kind of recipes. Once you have the vinaigrette, the mayonnaise, the fish fum�, the good chicken stock...once you have the basic things down it's so easy to put together a meal.

Dave: Fup, our store cat, is embarking on an adventure, going off into the woods with another cat and a dog. I'm wondering if you have any advice to offer her about...

Waters: ...foraging?

Dave: Right. Diet on the road.

Waters: I think you bring a little olive oil and vinegar and some bread, but that's my life support kit. I am always looking for what's grown wherever I am, out there in the median strips or people's backyards. It gives me lots of clues to what I might find in the farmers' markets.

What is locally available? It's an amazing thing when you open your eyes that way. There are many more edible plants in the landscape than you can ever imagine. I was making mental notes as I was walking this morning, and I thought, Ah! Chestnut! I saw wild fennel. I was thinking about dandelions. Particularly going out in the woods, there's likely to be some good wild mushrooms.

That's one thing I was very jealous about at the farmers' market yesterday: little morels, every one of them perfect. I gave some of them to the Slow Food head that was having us to dinner last night, and I told him he had to have them for breakfast today, so I'm going to call him and see whether he made them with his eggs. They were so beautiful. That's something that we bring down from Oregon. It's much more difficult to find grown in California.

Dave: What do people need to know about The Slow Food movement? Where should they start if they're interested in learning more?

Waters: Oh, they need to know everything! Slow Food is an international movement that began in Italy about twenty years ago. It was started by a guy named Carlo Petrini in opposition to a fast food restaurant being put into the main piazza in Rome. So he said, "Hey, enough's enough." He was interested in the preservation of traditional foods and artisan methods, and just living a slow life - really the opposite of what we're talking about with fast food: coming around the table with simple foods and simple cooking, taking time.

It really caught on because he used these beautiful metaphors. Like the ark - just like you put endangered species into the ark, you preserve them and take care, you put endangered foods and traditions in there too, to protect them. Then there's of course the snail, the symbol of slow food. Carlo believes in this grassroots effort, that if everyone pays attention and gathers in little groups called convivia, whose purpose is to educate people about buying food, real change can happen. I think Chez Panisse has been a convivium for its whole life.

What's amazing about the movement is that it has the great good spirit of Italian sensibility around food, art, and life, but it's also very politically radical about ecology. There's a way that when those two things come's very strong.

Now it's in forty-five countries. They had an international meeting in Bologna two years ago and gave Slow Food Awards. They invited eight hundred journalists from around the world and translated into five languages simultaneously. People from Mauritania, North Korea...I've never seen such a diverse group, ever, for a food gathering.

They gave awards to people who were deeply committed to sustainability and biodiversity. One guy that received the award was from Turkey. He'd never been outside of Turkey before. He had taken bees that were about to be endangered because of redevelopment and moved them up to the top of a mountain. For thirty years he'd been caring for these bees that were important in terms of medicine and health. He came to Bologna to receive his award. It was an amazing experience for him - and for everyone there.

There were twelve of these people, all of them doing remarkable things. It made you really understand the part you play in this whole movement.

Alice Waters visited Powell's Books for Cooks and Gardeners on June 16, 2002. Her appearance was certainly one of the tastiest in memory. Staff members had prepared two desserts from Chez Panisse Fruit and Pastaworks kindly provided wine to accompany the snacks.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Art of Simple Food: Notes,...
    Used Hardcover $24.00
  2. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The...
    Used Hardcover $4.50
  3. Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

  5. French Provincial Cooking (Penguin... Used Trade Paper $12.50
  6. Local Flavors: Cooking & Eating from... Used Hardcover $14.95
  7. The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The... Used Trade Paper $6.50
  8. Chez Panisse Vegetables
    Used Hardcover $15.95
  9. Chez Panisse Fruit Used Hardcover $14.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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