When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse on Aug. 28, 1971, the Berkeley restaurant served pâté en croûte, roast duck with olives and plum tart for its first night of service.
The 50th anniversary celebration was a more casual affair. Chez Panisse is still doing takeout, and the restaurant won’t reopen until October. But the mood was festive as a small, masked group — including a few original staff members — gathered on the sidewalk to hear Waters speak about those early years of building “a restaurant that felt like a home,” working directly with farmers to source local, seasonal ingredients, and paving the way for the farm-to-table movement.
“Fifty years is proof that this works,” said Waters.
California walnut farmer Craig McNamara called Waters “a philosopher with ideas for how we should live.” Another farmer and chef, Matthew Raiford of Georgia, recalled the first time he met Waters and couldn’t help but “fanboy out.” And Fritz Streiff, a Chez Panisse employee of 50 years, credited Waters with “dismantling the hierarchical culture of restaurant kitchens.” He called the restaurant “a remarkably egalitarian place” from the start.
Waters’ impact on the Bay Area’s food scene goes far beyond one restaurant. Her Edible Schoolyard project has brought 6,000 hands-on programs to schools around the world. Construction will begin later this year on the just-announced Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education, a training center and UC Davis collaboration that will be located at its Aggie Square campus in Sacramento. And restaurants and businesses across the country are helmed by Chez Panisse alumni.
As Waters spoke during the anniversary celebration, an ACME Bread Company truck pulled up for delivery, giving Waters the opportunity to talk about founder Steve Sullivan, who first started baking bread as a Chez Panisse busboy in the 1970s.
We sat down with Waters to hear more about the institute, her new book, “We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto” (Penguin Press, $26), her plans to reopen the iconic restaurant next month and the future.
Q: Can you tell us more about the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education?
A: I feel like its time has come. We need a big center for teaching food service directors, cooks and staff in public schools how to feed children deliciously, affordably and regeneratively. We’ve designed it so we can actually feed people, too, probably 350 at a time. We want to teach a regenerative way of cooking, but also reimagine a way of running a restaurant and food service on campuses. We have to design the spaces to support and inspire the people who work there; where everyone has a meaningful job. There’s no back of the house. It’s one house.
Q: That’s how you ran Chez Panisse from the start, right?
A: Yes. When I started Chez Panisse, I had never worked in a restaurant kitchen before, and I was just thinking about how we did it at home. I thought it was important to have the expertise of a whole group of people. And it was very important to me that I do the prep work for my own meal. How strong is the garlic? You’re smelling it and pounding it. It’s the way we have cooked since the beginning of time.
At some point, it became a place for men to dominate, I dare say. Some of them have been extraordinary at teaching us, but we are very vulnerable right now because of fast food culture and its values. It takes a lot of work to step out of that system and say, “I can do this differently.” Chez Panisse always had a lot of female chefs working there, too. I think of Lindsey Shere. She had the most wise and generous demeanor. She was a perfectionist, but she taught everyone how to do pastry and how to taste.
Q: Your new book is a plea for Americans to commit to a slow food culture …
A: We can’t expect that food is going to be cheap. It can be affordable. But cheap is something else. I’ve done a whole book which is going to come out next year about school lunch. And I have purchased all the food retail organic, and I have made every dish, including culturally diverse foods, for less than the reimbursement from the USDA. We’ll have instructions on how to make it for six people or 100, so it can be used in cafeteria kitchens.
But this current book is about understanding the urgency around climate and health right now. Just think that as recently as 60 years ago, we ate entirely locally and seasonally in this country and entirely without pesticides or herbicides. This was in my childhood, and yet here I am 70 years later. It only happened with advertising and trying to make money off of food and making us think that we couldn’t cook and that everything should be fast and cheap and easy. And it’s destroyed everything, including our values. That it is OK to eat in your car. That we should be able to get anything we want 24/7.
Q: How did you wrangle an entire UC system to join you in your endeavors?
A: You know, they have their own local food initiative. They also have a carbon neutrality initiative for 2025. Janet Napolitano (UC president from 2013 to 2020) asked, “Why couldn’t food be part of the carbon neutrality initiative?” I said it could be, and it should be. There are so many extraordinary people in California who have been thinking about the environment for so many years, and there is so much that we need from the leadership of a great land-grant university like the UC system.
What we need for these students is hope, and this is the most hopeful and delicious project that is addressing climate change. And the beautiful thing is there is land. There are 265 acres owned by UC in Richmond, and they have never cleaned it up since the war. They could do that in a year with a cover crop, I bet. That gives me hope. We could plant a garden every day on a campus.
Q: What are you most excited about doing when you reopen Chez Panisse in October?
A: I really want to celebrate a lot of people who have worked here at the restaurant over the years and have contributed so much. We’ll have many guest chefs and also guest producers, whether it’s ACME Bread Company or Bob Cannard’s farm, chef Suzanne Goin or chef Gilbert Pilgram. We want to bring them back and taste their food again.
For more food and drink coverage
follow us on Flipboard.