When you find heirloom tomatoes at your supermarket, when the menu at your favorite bistro informs you where the pork loin spent its childhood, when in mid-July you bite into a peach that tastes of summer and its juice trickles down your chin, you can thank Alice Waters, 63, who opened the seminal restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., more than 35 years ago and began pointing Americans in the direction of locally grown seasonal food.
Waters is more than a chef, though. Indeed, over grass-fed hanger steak salad at Cookshop, a restaurant in Manhattan's Chelsea gallery district that features locally grown and organic food, she says she doesn't like to be called a chef at all—she prefers the term “artisan.”
Waters applies another word to herself as well: “unrelenting.” That's how she describes her work as a promoter of seasonal cooking and eating through her cookbooks and through the Chez Panisse Foundation, which promotes gastronomic education for children.
In keeping with that focus on the young, Waters is quick to point out that her newest title, The Art of Simple Food (Clarkson Potter), would make a useful primer for a recent college graduate. Recipes run along the lines of Cheese Omelet and Fusilli with Tomato Sauce, Eggplant, and Ricotta.
The Art of Simple Food is the sixth cookbook from Waters and the first that doesn't bear the words “Chez Panisse” in the title. (She's also written the children's book Fanny at Chez Panisse, about her now 23-year-old daughter, and served as producer on Paul Bertolli's Chez Panisse Cooking and Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts).
While none of the previous books featured labor-intensive recipes, The Art of Simple Food is the Waters book that most directly addresses the home cook. (It's also Waters's first to be published by Clarkson Potter and her first with agent David McCormick of McCormick & Williams.)
Waters claims “everybody should know how to make a vinaigrette,” and so The Art of Simple Food gives instructions for the most basic acts in the kitchen: how to make a mayonnaise; how to roast a chicken.
“The first half of the book is about basic preparation, and in the second half the techniques are applied,” Waters explains, “but the most important part is the introduction, which provides the principles of finding ingredients. That makes all the difference.”
The book's underlying approach goes to the very origins of food. “Nobody knows how to cook anymore,” Waters sighs, “so I tried to talk about how to begin thinking about food.”
When I ask Waters what are the biggest misconceptions people have about food, she says, “That certain things should be available all the time. That food should be cheap. People don't know what it takes to produce good food and who's sacrificing himself. They don't understand the subsidies, or that what you eat might be making you sick.”
Organic food is more expensive but Waters counters, “You either pay up front or you pay out back in terms of your health and the health of the environment.”
Joking that her 2008 presidential dream team would consist of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin, 2006), and Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), it becomes obvious that Waters sees food as more than a mere matter of nutrition and more, even, than just a source of pleasure. To Waters, food is political.
In addition to serving as v-p of Slow Food International, Waters is reaching out to those who are not yet voting age through the Edible Schoolyard, a program of the Chez Panisse Foundation that created an organic garden and a kitchen classroom at a Berkeley public school. “When kids grow it and cook it, they eat it. They're hungry for food, but they're really hungry for people to care about them,” she says. She's working on a book for Chronicle on the project.
Waters herself is the subject of a recent biography, Thomas McNamee's Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (Penguin Press, Mar.). She describes the experience of reading about herself as “so strange,” but mostly she seems amused by the attention.
“I don't come up with anything new,” Waters says, “Eat with family and friends. Find a diversity of products. These ideas have been around since the beginning of time.”