Celebrated chef Alice Waters talks about our food choices, making changes, what it takes to be a good cook.
Photo by Aya Brackett
Alice Waters says her cooking style is as easy as slicing a fresh tomato, drizzling it with olive oil, and sprinkling it with salt and herbs. Yet that simplicity has made her one of America’s most influential chefs. It was Waters who sparked the culinary revolution called California Cuisine, defined by fresh, local ingredients prepared with skillful technique and imagination, and the restaurant she started nearly forty years ago, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, has been called the best in the country by many critics. More than just a chef, she is a philosopher of food. Her passion and her cause are the values people express in the ways they grow, cook, and eat their daily meals.
Do you think the idea of food as medicine has detracted from the pleasure of eating?
Alice Waters: What do you think? (Laughs) Good health is the outcome of living well and finding a balance in your life. I wasn’t searching for good health. I was searching for something satisfying and pleasurable.
It was living in France in the sixties that inspired your cooking style. Why was that experience so significant?
I was in France at a wonderful time. People were taking fresh baguettes from the ovens and mussels out of the water, steaming them up, and putting them on a dish. People were buying things for lunch from the marketplace and then going back in the afternoon to buy things for dinner. I loved that immediacy. Also, in France I experienced small restaurants, those neighborhood places where there wasn’t any pretension. Good food wasn’t something expensive that only certain people could afford. Everyone sat down and had conversations at the dinner table. Food was woven into the fabric of life.
Would you say you invented California Cuisine, which led to what is now known as New American Cuisine?
I don’t know what they mean by California Cuisine; cuisine takes the test of time. I’m cooking in California, yes, but I’m talking about a philosophy of food and it’s nothing new—it’s really the way people have been eating throughout most of human history. Until about fifty years ago, there was always local, seasonal, organic production of food.
What makes someone a good cook?
Paying attention, of course, and drawing on all of the senses to use ingredients in a way that brings out their flavor. But good cooking is mostly about using truly tasty, ripe fruits and vegetables. The way things are grown affects their flavor, so good cooking begins at the beginning—choosing the right seeds, planting them in the right place, taking care of the plants in the right way, picking the fruits and vegetables at the right moment, and eating them quickly thereafter.
Tell me about your relationship with farmers.
I appreciate that they grow food for my health and pleasure. The varieties of fruits and vegetables they produce are inspiring, and I feel creative when I have these ingredients to work with. I think of myself not as a consumer but as a co-producer. Farmers give me something nourishing, and I give them the money they need to continue their work. It’s hard to insist that people build community without some kind of basis. This exchange around food is so natural and so right that it can be that basis.
Why do you say that how we eat can change the world?
Certain choices about what we eat support farmers. Other choices not only destroy our natural resources and our health, but they also destroy our culture. When you eat food, you eat the values that come with it. So if you’re eating fast food, you’re eating fast, cheap, and easy, and if you’re eating slow food, you’re eating a whole other set of values.
Why is obesity so common in North America?
Obesity has to do with the availability, almost the force-feeding, of food that isn’t good for people. We will never solve the problem of obesity when we only talk about food in that fast food way. Food is not just about fueling up.
You’re working to make some changes in the American school system.
The idea is to institute a curriculum that begins in kindergarten and goes through to high school. This would be an interactive program with two labs: a garden and a kitchen. The children would learn how to prepare wholesome, affordable, delicious food, and they’d learn how to communicate at the table. There’s a whole set of values that goes naturally with growing, cooking, and serving food. These include everything from appreciating diversity and interconnectedness to learning about sharing and compassion.
This program will bring children into positive new relationships with food. If you just tell kids what not to eat, some will listen but others will just bring junk in their backpacks. Really changing the way kids eat is easy to do when you lure them with the beauty of nature and the art of the table.
The organization you started, Chez Panisse Foundation, has already established this kind of program in Berkeley.
Yes, for the last twelve years at Martin Luther King Junior Middle School we’ve been working on the Edible Schoolyard. We have both a garden and a kitchen classroom, and they have been integrated into the school curriculum.
How is it going?
Wonderfully. When children are working in the garden and helping to make their own school lunches, they become invested in a profound way. What they grow and cook, they want to eat, even the squash dishes. When children are eating something delicious, it opens up their senses to the world around them. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. Giving kids this opportunity shows them that we care.
And you also want to establish a school meal program.
I want all children to be fed breakfast and lunch at school. There would be tables with children sitting at them and other children serving and cooking. We’ve been desensitized by the fast food world, which says that kitchen work is drudgery. I want to teach kids that work is pleasure. The pleasure of work is the value I care about.
This sounds great, but is it practical?
The chef Jamie Oliver has exposed the unsatisfactory food in the British school system, and he has received national attention and money to change it. I’m interested in making that same transformation happen here in the U.S., but I think it’s important that the change be connected to an edible education curriculum. Nobody knows how to cook anymore. Nobody knows how to eat at the table. As many as 85 percent of kids don’t eat one meal a day with their family. So I’m envisioning that we put food education into the curriculum in the same way that we put physical education into the curriculum forty years ago. We built gyms and tracks and hired teachers and spent a lot of money. That’s what we need to do again, but this time centering on food.
How does your idea for school meals relate to your passion for the environment?
The children would eat locally produced and sustainably farmed food. This would make the schools an economic engine for sustainable agriculture and slow food values.
Is there a spiritual philosophy behind all of your work with food?
Yes: food is precious. It’s what we all have in common and it’s a daily practice.