Alice Waters owns only one restaurant and a café, unlike star chef Mario Batali, with his seven. She doesn't have a cooking show on TV, like Bobby Flay. She hasn't created an eponymous line of cookware, like the hyperkinetic Emeril Lagasse. Yet Waters is a legend at the top of the food chain.
Her famous base is Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., where she has championed locally grown organic food and incorporated it into menus aimed squarely at the American palate. Her innovations over nearly four decades have affected not only the restaurant business but the meals Americans crave. Witness Wal-Mart's new push into organic food.
Waters is very much a child of the '60s. Born in Chatham, N.J., in 1944, she attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1967. Active in the Free Speech movement, she went through the social upheavals of the era side-by-side with Silicon Valley's personal-computer revolutionaries. (She catered Steve Jobs's 50th birthday party last year.) The movement left her with a sense of empowerment, she says. "You felt like if you opened a restaurant, people would come. You were free to act on your passion."
Waters' food passion was kindled on her first trip to France, at age 19, when she was a junior in college majoring in French cultural studies. She wandered the markets of Paris, marveling at produce brought in fresh from the countryside. Nothing wrapped in plastic. Nothing trucked from far away. "It was an epiphany, people really eating something right out of the ground," she says. "It's not just food, but a way of life."
Chez Panisse opened in 1971 with money Waters borrowed from her father and a favorable lease with an option to buy. It failed to turn a profit for the first eight years, but people loaned her money to pay the bills. She developed a network of local organic farmers and created her hallmark seasonal menus, leading to a series of eight cookbooks. The list of chefs who worked for her and then set up shop elsewhere is long and prestigious, from Judi Rodgers (Zuni Café in San Francisco) to Paul Bertolli (Oakland's Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant).
One of Waters' personal goals is to turn people away from fast food, factory farm products, and bland foods transported thousands of miles. These institutions are cost-competitive, but Waters much prefers farmers markets and sustainable agriculture -- the careful cultivation of fields to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These approaches cost more, but consumers may be willing to pay to support the best stewards of the land, she says. Then they can better appreciate the simple act of sitting at a table, talking about where the food comes from, and discovering the culture that produced it.
Waters spends plenty of time proselytizing. She's a leading voice for the "slow food" movement, a global effort to rescue food culture from the pell-mell pace of Internet-age business and social interactions. Lately, she has taken her "delicious revolution" into schools. Her most notable experiment is the Edible Schoolyard, a 1-acre garden and kitchen classroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, a public school in Berkeley. Its students, nearly 1,000 of them, all take a garden and kitchen class, studying the history and anthropology of food, along with botany and earth sciences.
This is all part of the school's core curriculum, and the movement is now expanding. In league with Berkeley, Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation is rolling out a similar program to 16 of the city's schools, serving a total of 10,000 children. Part of the agenda is to get kids at risk of obesity consciously engaged with wholesome food. "They like the experience of growing it, picking it, and cooking it," she says. Given the opportunity, adults enjoy the same rituals. And as always, the biggest rewards are in the flavors. Bon appétit.
By Christopher Farrell