On Friday, Alice Waters, who founded the influential Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California in 1971, will receive France’s highest decoration when she is made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. The last American woman to receive a gastronomic Légion d’Honneur was the writer Julia Child, whose towering presence and booming voice were memorably captured by Meryl Streep in the recent film Julie & Julia.
Though delighted with the honour, Waters, 65, says she now goes to France to visit her heroine, the 92-year-old Lulu Peyraud, chef and winemaker at Domaine Tempier in Bandol, Provence. The French seem to have lost interest in the food that makes their country unique, she says.
Over lunch in the café of Chez Panisse, Waters tells me that her culinary heart now lies in Italy. She first fell in love with Tuscan food in the 1990s and for the past eight years has been vice-president of Italy’s Slow Food movement. Waters, who is a passionate campaigner for local, sustainable and seasonal food, says she was drawn to the movement by a desire to ensure that food knowledge is passed on to the next generation: “The food genes of today’s farmers, growers and chefs are vital and we need to preserve them.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about Waters is that she has achieved so much international acclaim from a single restaurant in which, most unusually, she has shown mastery of both kitchen and dining room. Chez Panisse, widely regarded as the birthplace of California cuisine and a regular in Restaurant magazine’s top 60 restaurants for the past four years, was inspired by a trip to France.
“When I first went to Paris in 1965 I fell in love with the small, family-owned restaurants that existed everywhere then, as well as the markets and the French obsession with buying fresh food, often twice a day. When I came back all I wanted to do here was to create a little corner of Paris.”
On the counter of the open kitchen at Chez Panisse, there is a wicker tray of artichokes and radicchio; a tier of lemons, dates and tangerines; loaves of sourdough bread; and slices of just-made chocolate tart. These, and the walls covered in French film posters, bear witness to the fact that this homely but professional approach has not changed in 38 years.
Waters is convinced that women excel both at being chefs and at being hospitable. “I do think women can pull these two roles off more effortlessly than men. Judy Rodgers does it at Zuni Café in San Francisco, Sally Clarke in London and, of course, the late and lovely Rose Gray at the River Café. This is my house and above all I want to make my customers feel welcome here. When male chefs walk into their restaurant, it tends to turn into a parade,” she says.
From its beginning, Chez Panisse has offered a less expensive dinner menu at the beginning of the week. Dinner was originally $4.50 for three courses on a Monday and $6 on a Saturday, while today it is $60 on a Monday, $75 from Tuesday to Thursday and $95 on Friday and Saturday.
“I did this because I always wanted my friends to be able to afford to eat here,” she says. This admirable practice should be more widely copied.
She decides it’s time to eat and, having quizzed Sam White, a young waiter, she orders, for us to share, some Hog Island oysters with sausages, a dish that reminds her of dining out in Paris; warm fillets of sardine on toast with radicchio; and a chicken breast with spinach stuffed under the skin, sage and new season onions.
“Waiters like Sam are one reason I am so optimistic today,” she says. “He’s the son of customers who’ve been coming here for years and who first brought him in as a baby. Now he’s in the restaurant business. There are a lot like him across the country and just as many going into farming. That has to be good.”
But Waters is in no doubt as to the enormous risks the planet faces unless it can put its whole food system back on a more healthy and sustainable foundation.
In 1996 Waters set up the charitable Chez Panisse Foundation, which teaches children about growing and cooking their own food, and encourages them to take pleasure in nutritious, seasonal ingredients. The foundation’s Edible Schoolyard programme now encompasses more than 1,000 schools across the US.
“We’re hardwired to eat this way,” Waters says. “It’s just that over the past 50 years we’ve simply forgotten how to do it.”
As a thin apple tart with prune and Armagnac ice cream, a quintessential French dessert, is served, Waters continues. “We’re finally having an impact across the US and doors are beginning to open, even into the Department of Agriculture. The film Food Inc [the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary about the US food industry] is reaching a wide audience. We’re getting support from those with the political astuteness I may lack but I now know is essential in Washington, DC. And Michelle Obama is giving enormous momentum to these issues, digging a vegetable garden in her front lawn at the White House and initiating a campaign to fight childhood obesity. It’s very exciting.”
Alice Waters’ 10th cookbook ‘In the Green Kitchen’ is published by Clarkson Potter on April 6