Her friend, film producer Tom Luddy, encouraged her to start a restaurant. So they found a little house in the neighbourhood. Over the past 50 years she has built a movement from that house, one that broke through its walls and went global, an institution that chef Daniel Humm recently called “the most important restaurant in the history of this country”.
“In the beginning, I was looking for taste,” Waters tells me, about those early years at Chez Panisse. “I had in my mind the way food tasted in France, and I couldn’t find it in this country at that time. So we resorted to backyard gardens.”
They began to realise that only the organic, local, seasonal farmers could give them that taste. So she bought from them directly, without a middleman, at market price. She didn’t make the farmers travel to the city but went directly to them, bought everything they had, built a menu around it and returned with food scraps for compost. It gave the farmers financial security and the restaurant an alternative economy.
But Waters also wanted diners to know where their food came from. So Chez Panisse began to list the names of the farms on its menu. That simple move ignited farm-to-table. Waters launched a global style of cooking: simple, hyper-fresh, ingredient-first. She brought the word mesclun (Provencal for a tender green salad) into the American vocabulary.
It’s been 50 years since Waters opened Chez Panisse, and 25 since she launched her non-profit, the Edible Schoolyard Project, whose goal is to give every American pupil a sustainable, local, school lunch. Now, she is building out her legacy. What can she construct to outlive her?
“I’ve always wanted to see a model from beginning to end,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do at Chez. I wanted to go all the way.” She wanted to buy everything organically. She wanted people to learn a lesson while eating their dinner.
Next up is the state of California. She’s working closely with the University of California school system, one of the most powerful university systems in the world, with 10 campuses, nearly 300,000 active students and a budget of $US41 billion ($56 billion).
The university system still holds contracts with big food conglomerates such as PepsiCo, but it’s also on a path to sustainability at every campus, as ESG goals become increasingly en vogue. Most California farmers are trained on the UC Santa Cruz campus, which teaches regenerative and organic farming. They have an ambitious goal to be carbon neutral by 2025.
“It’s like the university is poised,” she says. “If we could decide that food was part of carbon neutrality for the whole University of California? Just think of what it would mean.”
Waters won’t share much more with me yet. But her vision builds off the Chez Panisse model and is inspired by Denmark, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture. (More than 11 per cent of Denmark’s farmland is used for organic production, almost double the EU average. Copenhagen is 90 per cent organic.) She’s talking about community-supported agriculture on a massive scale. Chez Panisse, but for California, and then the country, and then maybe the world.
In a culmination of her life’s work, Waters is opening her own Institute for Edible Education at UC Davis. She wants it to be a happy place, with a kitchen classroom and a garden classroom. She sees demonstrations from chefs from around the world, with practical lessons on building relationships with farmers. A curriculum that changes with the season. A farmer’s market next door.
I want to light that candle on the table. I want that in my everyday. I don’t want to wait for it.
— Alice Waters
But most importantly, she wants you to “walk in and say, ‘Oh, how beautiful!‘” No back of the house. No hidden ugly spaces. Rather, an open kitchen and tables made of recycled wood.
Waters cares so much about beauty that, according to my transcript, she says the word beautiful 14 times. In her recent book, she calls aesthetic beauty “the outcome of care”.
“My daughter feels like I’m impossible sometimes,” she says, laughing. “But I want to light that candle on the table. I want that in my everyday life. I don’t want to wait for it. I want to make it happen for myself. And everybody can do that for him or herself.”
She attempts to define it. “I’m trying to find the exact word. It’s aliveness. It’s when you see something there hanging on the tree, and you pick it – that ripe fig. And then you taste it! It’s that joy.”
I ask Waters if she’s doing anything else. She can’t be, surely. “I’ve always wanted a restaurant in a museum or a beautiful place of education,” she says. As such, she has just helped open a new restaurant, Lulu, in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, with chef David Tanis, “one of my favourite chefs from Chez Panisse”. She is also writing a cookbook to be published in the northern spring.
In the US, many have publicly tried and failed in the fight against big food conglomerates such as Sysco and Pepsi, which have a strong hold over what public schools serve. Waters says this cookbook will prove that you actually can buy local, organic food at the same price as the federal reimbursement for school lunches. She knows that, because they test the recipes by buying organic ingredients at retail price.
“That is something that nobody believes because of the indoctrination of the fast-food industrial system,” she says. “So we think we can’t do it, and I’m saying we can.”
A few days before meeting Waters, I was at a kitchen table, talking food with my father. Today, he shops at Whole Foods, but he was born in northern Greece toward the end of World War II and grew up with an ice box instead of a fridge. His mother went to the market for fresh produce every day. He still shops like that, small and often: a few peaches, a few plums. Just enough. I was reading Waters’ slow-food manifesto, We Are What We Eat, a persuasive book published this year. It was already affecting my habits.
I told him the crux and the Alice Waters story. From the depths of his memory, he unearthed his mother’s seasonal bounty: first there were strawberries, then the cherries, then apricots, peaches, watermelons. But there were two breeds of peaches that came twice in the season. The first were more expensive, but the second were sweeter. Winter brought the thick leafy greens, the horta vrasta.
I cannot be open-minded about the purity of food. I insist on it.
— Alice Waters
He loved each new season, he said, because it came with new foods. We sat there, daydreaming in his memory. Then we looked in the fruit bowl. It was in New England, and we had apples, and the stickers on them said New Zealand.
I tell Waters this story. She laughs right through it. “Exactly,” she replies. “Well, you got the book. My life over these years at Chez has been deeply changed by that acceptance of seasonality.” To keep the flavours you love for longer, you just need to prepare, she says. Can apple sauce in the autumn. Sun-dry tomatoes. Make jam. Smoke fish.
In the conclusion to her book, Waters is adamant: “Let’s be clear,” she writes. “This is not about regressing to some sort of idealised past. It is not a call to return to some pre-industrial agrarian utopia that never really existed … there has always been a farm-to-table connection. There has to be, by definition. We all get our food from somewhere, and always have. The only things that have ever changed over time are the answers to the questions of what farm and what table.”
When Waters is criticised, it’s mostly for being unrealistic. Many think her expectations of us – the time, planning and cost of eating slow and organic – is just too much. Even more, it is privileged. Elitist. Can apple sauce? Smoke fish? Start a garden in that sad plot between your apartment’s sidewalk and the street? According to Waters, yes. We just need to learn how, and she wants to teach us.
Chef David Chang, of Momofuku fame, explained Waters once like this: “She’s the face of the movement. At the end of the day, everyone is after the same goal: a world where everyone eats well. Alice is providing the ideal. You need someone to provide the utopian concept.”
In an old TV segment, an interviewer asks Waters if she’s an absolutist. She says she’s not an absolutist, she’s an idealist. I ask what it means to be an idealist.
“It means that something can always get better,” she says. “I’m just constantly trying to push myself to be incredibly open-minded. I cannot be open-minded about the purity of food. I insist on it. But the way that it is cooked, and the biodiversity of the world, and the production of food is so immense that how could anybody just stay firmly in one place?
“I can’t,” she says, “I can’t,” she repeats. Her voice strains, like she’s in pain. “I guess I’m an idealist that is always open to a greater perfection, a greater beauty.”
— Financial Times