Long before the mantra of local, seasonal and organic was fashionable the recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award was fighting the good fight. Restaurant paid her a visit…
There's a chef I've heard about that's got her image tattooed on his forearm, and every time it's her birthday there are a number of special fans she's never met who throw parties in her honour, no doubt complete with a freshly baked organic cake, and write to tell her all about it.
Since opening Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California in 1971, Alice Waters has grown into a cult figure, her culinary canonisation one day, alongside the likes of Elizabeth David and Julia Child, a given. The world is littered with cooks and chefs of both sexes that – metaphorically speaking – would like to have her babies.
While I currently have no plans to bake her a cake every year – and there's no way of writing this without putting myself forward for the order of the brown nose – it's hard not be taken in by her gamine charm, her petite 5ft-nothing frame, the constant sparkle in her eyes and her way with a pretty dress and a pair of Mary Jane shoes.
Sitting in her office at Chez Panisse, she's delicately picking at a plate of baby gem salad with her hands and speaking very softly, her voice reduced to a girlish whisper when she talks about anything that she feels particularly passionate about it. Since we're talking about food and her restaurant, there's a lot of whispering. To begin with I have to ask if all the Saint Alice stuff ever freaks her out?
"In a way it's unimaginable because I don't feel like I'm doing anything unusual or mysterious or utterly creative," she says, with what doesn't come across as false modesty. "But I suppose it means that I'm doing something in an uncompromising way, that I'm interested in the real, the authentic: honesty. I suppose it's a set of values that comes with what I'm doing, a set of values that have disappeared in our fast food nation and so it seems surprising that I'm not in it for the money and maybe that's unusual because we're in a world driven by that. But that never used to be the case, because people used to do things because they loved doing them and they happened to be able to make a living out of it because they were good at it."
Not that Waters emerged as a perfectly formed restaurateur, far from it, "I had no idea what it was like to run a restaurant,"
she admits. The first night of Chez Panisse on August 28, 1971, as described in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, the first serious biography of her and the restaurant that was published in the States last month, paints a chaotic scene that could only have come out of idealistic Berkeley in the early 70s. McNamee's self-consciously clunky subtitle for the book "The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making Of A Food Revolution" sums up the whole enterprise rather well.
Opened with the help of a $10,000 loan from her father Pat, who mortgaged his house to lend her the money, Chez Panisse began by serving its now legendary fixed price menu for a then bargain $3.95 a head. It did so in a 50-seat dining room with a crew of 55 staff and accordingly ended up $40,000 in debt after only a few weeks with approximately $30, 000 worth of wine unaccounted for in the first year. That, so spectacularly mismanaged, it managed to continue, despite not turning a profit for some 13 years until 1984 when it made two per cent, speaks not only of Waters' commitment and determination to succeed but also of the patience and generosity of her and the restaurant's many friends and supporters.
"Pretty bleak" is how she recalls the restaurant scene in Berkeley and nearby San Francisco at the time Chez Panisse opened. "We're talking about very fancy French restaurants, some of them quite good because they were importing all of this beautiful produce and fish from Europe.
One of my favourite restaurants in San Francisco had live lobsters in a tank, which they cooked in this wonderful way, and Grand Marnier soufflés and all of the above. It was a time of pretty sophisticated French food in the United States, very fancy French food and a time of fast food coming to the general public in terms of franchised restaurants and the disappearance of little family run places."
Going further back to her youth she describes herself as growing up on a diet of frozen food.
"People were cooking in this country maybe before the war but after the war they were very into a lot of convenience," she says. "Everyone wanted a power can opener and it was this whole thing where you had a kitchen full of gadgets and we never had very many culinary roots or even horticultural roots to keep us connected in some way around food and so we just allowed the corporations to come in and take over."
It was against this background that she arrived in Berkeley to study in 1964 and – bar the odd sabbatical abroad – never left. "My experience when I arrived in Berkeley was definitely in the spirit of the counter culture and I stayed here because I really loved living here and wanted to continue to live here. I was part of the Free Speech Movement (a celebrated student protest movement that began on the Berkeley campus the year she arrived).
I wasn't in the front lines but I was definitely in the crowd. I believed we could change the world and I still believe that we can," she says, as I notice the small gold peace symbol on a chain around her neck. "I've held onto this crazy notion that we can do this thing and so the restaurant was born out of that spirit and it was patronised by people who cared about the same set of values, who liked the little place who didn't want the big corporate place, they liked the little restaurant even though it wasn't well run and they'd wait for their food."
Waters' Francophilia is well-documented: she majored in French Cultural studies and spent a semester studying at the Sorbonne. Chez Panisse's name famously coming from a character in Marcel Pagnol's 1930s films, Marius, Fanny and César, the wood-panelled dining room is still decorated with black and white stills from the trilogy, the spirit of which informed much of what she wanted to achieve at the restaurant.
That and a beautifully fresh and simply served seasonal meal made from local produce she had at a restaurant in Brittany that she has often eulogised down the years.
"I suppose I had an awakening when I was in France; I just loved the way people lived their lives and they just seemed so reasonable," she explains. "They'd sit down around the table and have a conversation instead of standing up on the street corner or in the kitchen eating at the counter. "I just loved the ritual of the table, the ritual of the shopping and the kind of neighbourhoods that developed around that, with a butcher and a baker and a produce market with fresh things coming into the market everyday." Less well known is the influence that the UK has had on her. After she graduated from Berkeley, she spent a year in London studying as a Montessori teacher. "I was really inspired, actually, by the time I spent in England as I was right there when Elizabeth David first opened her shop," she recalls. "I used to go to Rules and Harrods, which always had the most extraordinary game, birds and rabbits and displays that were breath-taking. I'd walk through that place as if it were a museum and look at the mussels and oysters and beautiful fish from the sea-bed and Dover sole… all of this was unknown in the United States, really unknown."
Closer to home she took her inspiration for the concept of Chez Panisse from California itself.
"I used to go up to this little town by the coast that had a restaurant in it, a little town called Bolinas. And there was a restaurant there in an old house and I loved the feel of it. Going there, it was like you were in somebody's home and they just served one menu, and although I think they had a couple of choices for entrees, I loved the idea that you didn't have to choose. So I kept that in my mind, ‘wouldn't it be nice to have a little French country restaurant' and that's what I was looking for, that was the idea. I thought it wouldn't be any different from inviting people over to my house I will invite them to this restaurant that feels like my dining room."
When Chez Panisse first opened she stayed out of the kitchen, "I wasn't cooking right at the beginning because I was too intimidated," she explains. "I was in the dining room and I very quickly came into the kitchen and I always had lots of opinions on what should be cooked.
But to all of a sudden go from cooking for 10 people to 100 people and to do it really well, because I was really particular, I didn't think I could measure up to that. I was looking for somebody with more experience, and so it took me a little while to get into the kitchen. After the first six to seven years I was in the kitchen for eight years before I got married and had my kid."
The cooking talent that has passed through Chez Panisse since 1971 includes such names as Jeremiah Tower, Judy Rodgers, Deborah Madison, Mark Miller, Paul Bertolli, Jonathan Waxman and the two current Head Chefs David Tannis and Jean-Pierre Moulle, the latter of whom has been running the kitchen on and off for over 27 years.
"We run this restaurant in a different way to most restaurants," she says, "People come and go and come back and that's important because they are special people and I make lots of accommodation for special people.
"David Tannis – he's not able to work all year long, and he ends up going to Paris and living for six months and then he comes back and brings all of these ideas, and he's here for six months.
Then Jean-Pierre comes back and he teaches over the summer and has a cooking class and writes his book and so they are all the time engaged with another point of view, and they cost more, but in the end it keeps the restaurant alive in a beautiful way.
"It enthuses the staff because it's not just one person that they're working with, they have two points of view, and actually when I want to find out something about how to cook something, I ask six people because I want six opinions and then we put those together to get the best way."
Chez Panisse's lauded and much imitated ecologically aware approach of only serving the best sustainable produce used at the height of its seasonality was, she believes, helped from the very beginning by the fixed menu concept.
"We found ingredients more quickly than we might have done if we had had an à la carte menu because every night it changed and it's done so every night for over 35 years," she says. "That transition into seasonal buying happened very quickly because we could only get those great lambs for one moment of the year. Then we started to discover that we could put together that menu for the year from all of these different things."
"Before we came along, most of our suppliers hadn't thought about producing to sell to a restaurant at that scale. There were people that just had a couple of peach trees but we wanted all the peaches and so they became a regular supplier for the two weeks in July. So people got to know the farms and farmers by name.
"People now look forward to the pixie tangerines that we start to get in January – and that's a beautiful thing. We now have a very large family of around 75 different people that we buy from and Chez Panisse couldn't live without those farmers and they couldn't live without us and that's what community is about."
Beyond her tireless promotion of organic produce, Waters has worked on reinforcing a sense of community outside of the restaurant through her Edible Schoolyards programme in schools. Begun in 1995 it predates Jamie Oliver's efforts in the same area by almost a decade.
Waters' ambitious approach, harking back to her Montessori days, is about looking at the "interactive pedagogy of the curriculum", by which she means "Getting children to change their eating habits, wean them off salt and sugar and the [overlarge] quantity of food [they're used to] by learning about food and where it comes from. It's not just about ‘don't do this – do this', it's about developing a relationship with food that's connected to nature and connected to culture." She passionately believes – to the point of inhaling deeply and on occasions sounding close to tears – in introducing what she calls courses in ‘eco-gastronomy' to schools, "Where the kitchen is involved in the growing and cooking of food for their own school but it shouldn't just be about catering but an also an academic subject as part of the core curriculum, and it's a course that you take from kindergarten to high school."
So far the project is being showcased at a junior middle school in Berkeley, with a similar project at a school in New Orleans and various partnerships in other schools across the country.
She's currently working on ways of raising the $3.5 million that she hopes could help get ecogastronomy on the national curriculum.
"It's not a programme that can easily be done unless you pay for the teachers," she says.
"Children are being fed poorly and they are being educated poorly. Fast food has entered into the consciousness of our culture and so nobody knows how to cook anymore, and that's what we have to learn in school."
I ask whether there's a part of her that's wary of receiving a Lifetime Achievement award when she is only 63, and it seems that she still has a lot to do. "I've never seen my work as a career, I probably won't stop cooking until I keel over at the stove but I think that it's a moment to assess where you're at a time and place and maybe get to thinking about closing another chapter."
Finally, before those eyes finally make me want to bake her a cake, I ask what's the closest she's ever come to selling out.
"That's a good question," she answers, "Some would say it was working for American Airlines.
But in I never compromised what I set out do for them and in fact talked them into buying organic produce. I benefited from being able to fly the places I wanted to go to, attend the conferences I wanted to go to and being able to come back and talk about what I'd learnt," she pauses. "But I was still crusading." It's a good thing that she doesn't know how to do anything else.
Chez Panisse 1517 Shattuck Ave Berkeley, California 94709, USA +1 510 548 5525 chezpanisse.com edibleschoolyard.org
THE WATERS STORY SO FAR
28 April 1944 Born in Chatham, New Jersey.
1964 Transfers from the University of California Santa Barbara to Berkeley campus.
1965 Spends a semester in France studying at the Sorbonne.
1967 Graduates from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA in French Cultural Studies.
28 August, 1971 Chez Panisse opens.
1972 Restaurant reports losses of $40,000. Kept open by loans from friends.
1980 The café upstairs at Chez Panisse opens, serving from lunch through to dinner and offering diners a more affordable à la carte menu.
1982 Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook published.
1984 Chez Panisse has its first profitable year, making a two per cent profit on sales of $2.7 million. Waters also opens Café Fanny in Berkeley, a stand-up breakfast and lunch café named after her daughter who was born the year before.
1986 Cuisine et Vins de France lists her as one of the 10 best chefs in the world.
1988 Chez Panisse Cooking published.
1992 Named the Best Chef in the World by the James Beard Foundation. Fanny at Chez Panisse and Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone published.
Waters launches the Edible Schoolyard programme at Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley.
1993 Chez Panisse Desserts published.
1996 On the 25th anniversary of the restaurant, the Chez Panisse foundation is launched with the aim of helping underwrite programs such as the Edible Schoolyard.
Chez Panisse Vegetables published.
1997 Awarded the James Beard Humanitarian Award.
1998 Waters is approached about working on plans for a new 330-seat restaurant in the Louvre in Paris, although negotiations eventually stall.
1999 Chez Panisse Café Cookbook published 2000 Chez Panisse turns over sales of $7million. Fanny at Chez Panisse, a musical based on Waters' children's story book, opens at Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theater.
2001 Chez Panisse is named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine.
2002 Chez Panisse Fruit published 2007 Alice Waters receives the third annual Lifetime Achievement Award at The S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants.