I just don’t know how I’m going to eat all of this,” says Alice Waters, looking through the kitchen cupboards at her house in Berkeley, California. The shelves are full of curious ingredients, from jars of green wheat and smoked applewood salt to bottles of pickled cherries. “This is what I’ve completely fallen in love with,” she says, placing a bag on the kitchen table. It turns out that Waters, one of the most influential figures in American cooking over the past 50 years, is all fired up about organic brown rice.
“You boil or steam it and then – just when it’s at that al dente place – you sautee it with garlic or coriander, or put a fried egg of top with roasted peppers. It’s delicious! To have a basic ingredient that can be prepared a million different ways is a beautiful thing,” she says.
It’s not everyday that whole grains inspire this kind of passion but Waters’ enthusiasm for simple food is central to her philosophy: buy local, high-quality ingredients and prepare them in a straightforward way. It’s now the mantra of green chefs around the globe, but the approach was radical back in 1971, when Waters opened her Berkeley bistro, Chez Panisse, creating dishes such as lamb tagine using only organic and seasonal ingredients from a network of local farms.
People around the world sat up and took notice, from London-based chefs Sally Clarke of Clarke’s and Ruth Rogers of the River Café (a version of Waters’s lemon tart has been on the menu there since opening day in 1987) to Italian food activist Carlo Petrini. Waters became known as the mother of California cuisine – and Chez Panisse, to this day, is one of the most respected restaurants in the US.
Waters is 68 years old and shows little interest in slowing down. She keeps a busy schedule; shortly after I arrive at her house, one of her assistants reminds me that the boss doesn’t have all day. And friend Samantha Greenwood, a special events chef at Chez Panisse who, as it turns out, won gold at the 2010 World Kettlebell championships, has also dropped by to make sure Waters gets out of the door on time. She has a lunch meeting with the mayor of Sacramento.
For the past 30 years Waters has lived in a one-and-a-half storey bungalow that she bought with the advance from her first cookbook. She has since written nine more cookbooks, including one on vegetables, which is what comes to mind when standing outside her house: every inch of the property, from the colour of its façade to the mass of plants in the front yard, is dark green. “I guess it must be my favourite colour,” says Waters, who is dressed in a courgette-coloured blouse.
Built in 1908, the two-bedroom house sits on a hilly street less than 5 miles from UC Berkeley, where Waters studied French in the mid-1960s before turning her hand to cooking. “Of course it was very, very inexpensive back then,” recalls Waters. “I should have just bought every house in Berkeley.” The second bedroom belongs to her daughter, Fanny, 29, who lives in London but regularly returns home.
And after nearly 50 years of living in the area, Waters says it’s the community’s spirit that she values most. On display a short walk from her house: a giant fabric poodle and plastic robot standing watch in a neighbour’s garden. “I really appreciate the many neighbourhoods of Berkeley. There is still the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. And it has the University of California, which is the greatest gift, to my mind, to be close to it. It keeps the place alive.”
She leads me to the back of the house and into the kitchen, which has honey-coloured floors and dark green cabinets. The walls are hung with paintings of aubergine and garlic; cauliflower and lettuce heads – picked from the Chez Panisse garden down the road – are grouped into a centrepiece on the farmhouse kitchen table. There are copper kettles and empty bottles of wine, including a 1971 Hermitage La Chapelle Rhône, a gift from her 90-year-old family doctor.
“This is the place where I sit,” says Waters, taking a seat by the burning fire. “I’m always the one who wants to be in the hot spot.” These days Waters uses the fireplace to make her usual breakfast: a piece of whole-wheat bread, thin as a tortilla, which she grills before smearing with hummus. She washes it down with a cup of Pu-erh tea, a fermented black tea from China. “My cholesterol went down 100 points since I started drinking this. It was extreme. You have to try some,” she says, pouring me an earthy-tasting cup that appears to have been steeping all morning.
Since giving up some of her daily work at Chez Panisse, Waters has focused on her role in the sustainable food movement. For decades she has touted the importance of spending more on local, organically grown food in the belief that the advantages are threefold; not only does the community and environment benefit, but the food tastes better, too.
Waters grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, and although her parents kept a vegetable garden, she says her insistence on using only the freshest ingredients developed during a year she spent as an exchange student in Paris. There, she discovered farmers’ markets and the European custom of savouring a meal.
Some in the culinary community have called Waters “holier-than-thou” and “elitist” for these uncompromising ideals. (When asked if she has a vice, Waters initially answers, “I try not to do anything that’s immoral,” before conceding, “a pile of pommes frites followed by a salad ... and they’re always organic”). However, as the US grapples with an obesity crisis and recurring outbreaks of food-borne illness, few can deny the importance of her message, or the shortcomings of industrial agriculture.
“The problem with living in a fast-food nation is that we expect food to be cheap,” says Waters. “I always react in a big old strong way [when people call the sustainable food movement elitist] because we’re going to pay some time. Either we pay upfront or we pay out back, with our health and the beauty of our culture. Communities are falling apart because we don’t sit at the table, we don’t gather with friends.”
In 1996, Waters set up the Edible Schoolyard Project, a small organic garden and classroom kitchen at Martin Luther King Jr middle school, in Berkeley, where students learn the values of healthy eating by growing their own lunch. Similar programmes have been set up in New Orleans and Greensboro, North Carolina, where obesity levels are among the highest in the country.
“I’m trying to get to a place where we educate children at a very early age and give them a meal in school that is free,” says Waters. “But it doesn’t happen without a curriculum that goes with it. They’ve tried to give kids healthier lunches and kids just throw them in the garbage. Kids have to be engaged with hands-on experience of growing and preparing the food. And so I have an idea for setting up an edible schoolyard at a high school. In fact that’s why I’m going to meet with the mayor of Sacramento.”
Before leaving for her appointment, Waters shows me the back garden, which looks sparse on this winter morning, but come spring will sprout roses and vegetables. There are beds of collard greens and kale, and a variety of trees, including a persimmon and an apple tree, as well as a giant redwood that’s more than 100 years old. And it’s the vegetable garden that Waters writes about in her next cookbook, due to be published in October, which centres around a very familiar theme: the art of simple cooking.
“Certainly my mortar and pestle,” says Waters when asked to select a favourite object. “I consider it a therapy to pound garlic and mix herbs. There’s something about using machines and blenders that interferes with the food. All you need is basic equipment. What do you need to know in the kitchen? Knowing how to chop with a knife; knowing how to make a stock; knowing how to roast a chicken in the oven; and knowing how to make basic sauces of vinaigrette and mayonnaise. I would like to be even more minimalist than I am.”
Chez Panisse was damaged in a fire on March 8 and is scheduled to re-open in June
More pictures of Alice Waters’s home at www.ft.com/alicewaters