Interview with Alice Waters

I spoke with Alice Waters from her home in north Berkeley, as she was in the middle of preparing an anniversary event, the subject of her forthcoming book from Clarkson Potter Forty Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering. She speaks passionately, yet in a measured melifluous voice.

Did you ever dream that Chez Panisse would become one of the foremost in the country?

Oh, no. It was meant to be a neighborhood restaurant—a place where I could eat with my friends. It was a place where I could eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner if I wanted.

Is there a single recipe that has been on the menu from the beginning?

We certainly have duck on the menu but we don’t do it how we used to do it.

We always have a green salad, a kind of fixe priced menu. We incorporate salads into every menu. We revise the almond tart from time to time. And there has always been a big emphasis on fruit, so we’ve had a plum tart, and, upstairs, we’ve always offered an option of fruit with every meal.

Are you happy with how far the Slow Food movement, or local eating, has come since you first opened? What do you see for the future?

I’m an optimist. I’m hopeful. I know once people get connected to real food, they never change back. It’s completely natural—it’s in our genes. I’m just wanting that initial contact to be made when children are young, because that’s when impressions are made.

What changes in organic/ local growing have you seen since you opened?

Something fantastic has happened—especially in my corner of the world. There’s hardly a big city where you can’t find an organic farmer’s market. I can go to a market within 20 minutes of my house every day of the week. It’s pretty much the same in New York and Chicago. It’s also possible now to get a great cup of organic fair trade coffee.

How can those on a tight budget eat organically?

First of all, it helps if you can be a part of a community garden, or if you have a shared place or yard with a neighbor. We need to learn how to eat grains. We all need to know how to cook. I can buy a chicken and have many meals come from it. Is it affordable? Yes. Cheap? No. I want to pay the farmers the right price for food. They deserve it. They are the most important people in the country besides our teachers.

What is your own comfort food?

I guess I’ve always enjoyed a pasta salad at home. But I’m not making them with white noodles, but with faro noodles. I would never have thought I would have embraced this idea of whole grains—I didn’t want anything to do with hippie food. I was a gastronome. And now, in this country, we have ways to make wonderful bread. And these breads are whole grain. Most importantly, as I’ve been thinking about food for children, I realize our biggest health issue is eating empty calories.

Has your New Jersey upbringing influenced any part of your food ideals?

I have a love affair with tomatoes and corn. I remember them from my childhood. I only had them in the summer. They were extraordinary. My parents had a victory garden where I grew up in Chatham. I have been back to New Jersey, and it wasn’t the same Garden State. I have hopes for New Jersey, because they still have some protected farmland. There is strong group in New Jersey that helps bring to young people the concept of sustainability. The greatest way to support local farming is to have a big buyer—like the school system.