My Mother, Who Changed How We Eat

On Singer: On Waters: Her own clothing and accessories.Stella McCartney dress; her own earrings.: Her own clothing and accessories.

Daniel Jack Lyons

It’s a bright summer afternoon at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and my mother, Alice Waters, is tinkering with the peaches. A long table bisecting the courtyard is resplendent with displays of farmers’ market bounty: Gold, crimson, and magenta raspberries are arrayed on a copper plate, dark-green heirloom melons spangled with pale orange spots sit atop pedestals, and platters overflow with glowing chartreuse figs. This courtyard is the expansive outdoor dining room of my mother’s new restaurant, Lulu. In late July of last year, the restaurant was months from its public opening in November, but that night it would cater a party to celebrate the artists gathered in the Hammer’s acclaimed biennial exhibition “Made in L.A.” It didn’t matter if this was only a soft opening: The fruit had to be exactly right.

a citrus arrangement courtesy chez panisse family meal

A citrus arrangement.

Courtesy Chez Panisse

aya brackett downstairs dining room long view chez panisse

The lower dining room at Chez Panisse.


For 38 years, I have watched my mother fuss over displays of fruits and vegetables, over the quality of lighting or aroma of a dining room. I have watched her taste a dish at her restaurant and, if it was not exactly to her liking, dart to the kitchen, plate in hand, to exchange a few words with the chef. She is uncompromising, exacting, and determined when it comes to cooking and serving food. And she is just as obsessed when it comes to the ideas she would like to feed us. Opening a restaurant in Los Angeles was, to her mind, a way to accomplish both.

american chef and author alice waters outside her restaurant chez panisse in  berkeley, california, circa 1985 photo by roger ressmeyercorbisvcg via getty images

Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

alice sitting at table bw by gail skoff, circa 1974

Gail Skoff

1975cuttingtarts by maureen gosling via charles shere

Maureen Gosling

tasting, circa 1974

Courtesy Chez Panisse

Waters at Chez Panisse throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.

In the summer of 2020, the director of the Hammer, Ann Philbin, phoned my mother to ask for advice. She was looking for someone who might move into the vacated restaurant space located in the central courtyard of the museum. My mother demurred and said she’d call her back. Much to Philbin’s delight, when my mother did finally respond, her answer was “What about me?” Philbin, who first met my mother in 2010 when the Hammer honored her at its annual gala, may have been secretly hoping for this outcome, but she was still surprised. By the time Philbin reached out, the dining rooms of my mother’s legendary Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, had been closed for several months, with only limited take-out service. Though the hospitality industry was under seemingly unrelenting threat from the pandemic, there were still some reasons to be sanguine about the prospect of a new restaurant adventure. For one, it gave my mother an excuse to bring one of her favorite former Chez Panisse chefs, David Tanis, back to California from New York. Crucially, it also offered the opportunity to leverage the platform of the Hammer to push forward her other, more ambitious goals. In fact, what had finally convinced my mother of the merits of the project was discovering that the Hammer was not an independent arts organization but in fact a part of UCLA. This meant that it also belonged to the public university system with which my mother has long been affiliated, from her arrival at UC Berkeley in 1964 to the future Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education, slated to break ground at UC Davis this year. The institute will focus on the development of curricula that engage food-based learning and environmental stewardship across disciplines, with edible gardens and open kitchens serving as interactive classrooms in which solutions for healthy, sustainable, and equitable food systems might be forged. Hopefully, it will be a place in which my mother’s legacy will evolve.

alice and fanny in kitchen applemark

Waters and Singer cooking together.

Courtesy Alice Waters

The more we've grown alongside each other, and especially against the backdrop of a climate emergency, the more I have felt the urgency of her work and the necessity of her idealism.

In 1984, my mother launched a small French-inspired café in Berkeley with her brother-in-law called Café Fanny—named for the heroine of the Marcel Pagnol films who inspired my name too. (It closed in 2012.) But she has otherwise resisted the idea of expanding her reach as a “restauratrice” (eternally proud to use the female version of the noun, perhaps because so few women held that title when she was coming up). She continues to frown on franchises, expansions, and endless international restaurant chains. And yet here she was, poised to open a second restaurant. Still, she would be the first to insist that Lulu is emphatically not hers. Rather, she sees it as a collaboration, first and foremost between a dear friend, chef and author David Tanis, and hospitality veteran Jesse McBride, but also with her longtime friend and co-conspirator Christina Kim, the artist and designer behind the sustainable-design label Dosa. And as much as Lulu presented an opportunity to gather a group of creative friends, my mother always saw the project more broadly: as an open-ended set of possibilities, an incubator for ideas about what a restaurant, or even a university-wide food system, might be in the current context of climate crisis and cultural reckoning. It was also a place that would allow my mother to be closer to me. In a recent conversation, Philbin told me that she felt my moving to L.A. and being part of the art world accounted overwhelmingly for my mother’s interest in working with the Hammer. “You were my secret weapon,” Philbin says.

waters at lulus lead image

Alice Waters at Lulu at the Hammer Museum.

Daniel Jack Lyons

I have often wondered where it is that I sit in relation to the constellation of my mother’s work. For years, it seemed like the only way to figure that out was to get as far from Berkeley, and from my mother, as possible. After college on the East Coast, I moved overseas to Cambridge for graduate school, where I plunged myself into a PhD in art history. Over the course of the 11 years I lived in England, I was, mercifully, never once introduced as “Alice Waters’s daughter, Fanny.” Coming back to California five years ago, I began for the first time to see how my work in the art and design worlds—as a critic and historian but also as the cofounder of a design brand called Permanent Collection—was not as divergent from my mother’s work as I had once told myself. My mother’s favorite word to weave into all conversation, after all, is beauty. She has often proclaimed that she ought to be installed as Tsar of Aesthetics. Under her rule, public schools would be beautiful; so too would offices, manufacturing facilities, and everywhere in between. She believes in the power of beauty to telegraph a sense of care.

The clarity of her ethics, her insistence on beauty—these things had been transmitted to me as if by osmosis.

Before my mother had ever visited the Hammer, it was a place I went to frequently. As cultural institutions go, it was a beacon, a museum I perceived to be genuinely intent on pushing the conversation around art’s responsibility to society. When my mother told me she was considering opening a restaurant there, I knew that she needed me to be, but also that I wanted to be, involved. This was an opportunity to do something no museum restaurant or café had, to my knowledge, ever tried to do: create a meeting place that did not ignore its surroundings but rather addressed them directly. At a moment in which more artists are crossing into the world of food and farming as a means of tackling questions of social justice and climate crisis, folding these discourses into Lulu seems obvious, even necessary. Los Angeles is already dense with socially engaged, food-focused artists and arts organizations; take, for instance, Lauren Halsey, whose Summaeverythang Community Center distributes organic-produce boxes in the Watts and South Central neighborhoods, or Active Cultures, a nonprofit cultural organization devoted to the convergence of food and art, or Ron Finley’s urban garden project, a model for how to transform food deserts into regenerative sustenance sanctuaries.

fannyalice, photo by eric wolfinger, circa 2015, alice's home

A recent photo of mother and daughter cooking together.

Eric Wolfinger

In March of 2020, having lived away from home for nearly 20 years, I decided to move back in with my mother. At the time, I had a small fourth-story apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District and was growing progressively more stir-crazy and anxious with the onset of lockdown. Our understanding of the virus was especially undeveloped that spring, and I obsessively imagined my mother contracting Covid at the grocery store. I needed to return, if only to assume responsibility for these potentially life-threatening tasks. Retreating to the comforts of my childhood home, and to my mother’s company, had another benefit: Always Home, my culinary memoir focused on my relationship with my mother, was published on March 31 of that year, and my book tour had been canceled. The upshot was that my mom could appear as a special guest and conversational foil for what quickly transformed into an entirely virtual promotional campaign. Though food functions as the narrative engine in my book, in reading it, my mother began to see all the ways in which her approach to living and working had left a profound impression. The clarity of her ethics, her insistence on beauty—these things had been transmitted to me as if by osmosis.

exterior view of chez panisse, a restaurant owned by american chef and restaurateur alice waters, berkeley, california, 1982  photo by susan woodgetty images

The exterior of Chez Panisse.

Susan Wood/Getty Images

Beginning with the opening of Chez Panisse in 1971, my mother began to develop a simple idea that has since become her driving doctrine: Food should be procured directly from farmers and ranchers who are taking care of one another and the land, and they should be compensated directly and fairly for it. Her conviction in the benefits of organic, regenerative agriculture (a means of producing food that has net positive environmental impacts) led her to establish the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1995. Launched at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, the Edible Schoolyard is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the transformation of public education. An organic school garden, kitchen, and cafeteria are classrooms in which children learn both academic subjects and the skills they need to nourish themselves through cooking and gathering. According to my friend’s five-year-old son, the wild, tangled garden at the school is his “favorite place in the whole world,” and I can’t argue with him. Full of dozens of heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits, jewel-feathered chickens that graze freely in the beds, and signs hand-painted by the children, the place has a magical Edenic feel. The Edible Schoolyard, which began as a single school project but now counts nearly 6,000 affiliated programs around the world, became a template for many of my mother’s future endeavors.

edible school yard project, early years aerial shot of school yard 2002


edible school yard project, early years painted signs 2001


american academy in rome, vegetable garden s crowner et al gardening w helena 313

The Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome.


yale farm, yale university, photo by jeremy oldfield


yale farm


Waters’s various regenerative and educational farming and food projects, including the the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley (top) and the Yale Sustainable Food Program (bottom).

What Lulu most resembles, though, in terms of the history of her undertakings, is the Rome Sustainable Food Project (RSFP) at the American Academy in Rome. Started 16 years ago, the project began as an overhaul of the cafeteria at the academy, from the soil to the kitchen to the table. Not unlike the conversation between my mother and Philbin, a spirited dinner party ignited the RSFP; Adele Chatfield-Taylor, then the president of the institution, was complaining about the poor quality of the food. (The fellows routinely descended into the neighborhoods of Rome in search of a decent meal.) My mother signed on then and there, but with conditions (always with conditions!), starting with hiring a Chez Panisse alum, Mona Talbott, to helm the kitchen. She also insisted that every last leaf of lettuce be sourced from organic, regenerative local farms. (One biodynamic farmer, Giovanni Bernabei, was so radical, he interviewed Talbott to see if she would prepare his produce with respect.) Her other requirements included composting and serving food communally at long tables at which fellows would engage in convivial and interdisciplinary conversation daily. It transformed the institution.

scenes from a dinner party at lulu right

Daniel Jack Lyons

scenes from a dinner party at lulu left

Daniel Jack Lyons

Scenes from a dinner party at Lulu.

Because Lulu is located in the Hammer, an institution nestled within a university of 46,000 students, itself part of a university system that spreads across 10 campuses, serves more than 280,000 students, and has an annual operating budget of $41.6 billion, my mother sees the restaurant as a site for genuine change. She believes that Lulu can be a kind of pilot program, one that can model the type of food procurement that Chez Panisse has practiced for upwards of 50 years, and in doing so eventually transform the way food is bought and prepared for students and staff across all 10 campuses.

Currently, the university system remains, for the most part, contractually tethered to massive commercial food conglomerates, but it has also set forth bold carbon- neutrality goals to achieve sustainability at every campus, with the ambition of reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025. My mother would like it to consider food in this equation. And how, really, could it not? Agriculture is a $54 billion industry in California alone and one whose corporate farms contribute hugely to environmental degradation and air pollution. “Imagine if the university system pivoted to buying only organic produce from small, regenerative farms. It would be a huge economic stimulus for the state of California and a solution to climate change,” my mother says. “School- supported agriculture” is what she calls it, a philosophy that fuses her learnings from a half century of Chez Panisse and decades of the Edible Schoolyard. I have often seen myself as the realist in the family, the overpragmatic ballast to my mother’s eccentric idealism. At times I have yearned for her to attach facts and data to her more abstract propositions. But the more we’ve grown alongside each other, and especially against the backdrop of a climate emergency, the more I have felt the urgency of her work and the necessity of her idealism.

alice and fanny as a baby applemark

Singer as a baby.


How our actions will take shape, beyond the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, remains to be worked out and will, of course, require the time necessary to build authentic connections to local stakeholders. From the beginning, my mother and Tanis insisted that Lulu create a community based on the principles of edible education and regenerative agriculture. All aspects of the food and design would be regenerative, from the produce sourced at local farms like the Weiser or Coleman family farms, to the zero-waste decor designed by Kim and set designer Sean Daly, to the restaurant’s compost that Dorothy Pirtle, a public-policy consultant, brings to local community farms like the Good Earth Community Garden in the neighborhood of West Adams, home to the Women Empowered as Agrarian Growers organization. Bringing the creative community into the design was a critical consideration: Local ceramicist and UCLA teacher Shoshi Watanabe made dishes and bowls using recycled clay; wood for tables was sourced from Angel City Lumber, which salvages fallen trees in the metro area; and the patchworked “zero-waste scrims” that surround the bar were hand-stitched from cloth scraps by Kim herself. I believe this effort to honor Lulu’s foundational values, both in the kitchen and on the floor, lays the groundwork for radical activation. I’m hoping to initiate a series of dinners that unite artists and farmers, activists and cooks, UCLA students and professors. Plans for a teaching garden on the university campus and artist interventions at the restaurant—from small gestures like artist- designed broadsheets dropped at each table to larger-scale installations staged in Lulu’s courtyard—are also beginning to coalesce.

american chef and restaurateur alice waters center, fore poses with her kitchen staff outside her restaurant, chez panisse, berkeley, california, 1982  photo by susan woodgetty images

Waters with the staff of Chez Panisse in 1982.

Susan Wood/Getty Images

An ethos of collaboration and dialogue and an emphasis on the power of gathering have been central to Chez Panisse since its beginnings amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the free-speech movement. Activists, writers, artists, and farmers have always animated the dining rooms of Chez Panisse and have given the restaurant a raison d’être. Lulu, I hope, will do the same.

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands March 1.