Politics Of Food
By Catherine Coburn
Thursday, March 4, 1999
At the thirteenth annual Masters of Food and Wine event last Wednesday, Alice Waters began by telling her audience, "I don''t do this." The creator of Chez Panisse, one of the most successful American restaurants in history, a multi-published cookbook author, and one of the most influential chefs of her time was professing a disinclination, if not distaste, for public speaking.
What soon became evident was that Alice Waters does do an event like the highly esteemed Masters, and does it extremely well. But, hold the histrionics. As it turns out, after repeated attempts Highlands Inn was able to attract her to the event only by pledging a generous donation to one of her current projects. It also became evident to her listeners that it was money well spent. Waters'' sponsorship of a program that has revolutionized the school lunch program at a pilot school in her own Berkeley neighborhood has stirred up enough respect to conceivably transport it throughout the school district. Waters envisions the Edible Schoolyard reaching far beyond her own neighborhood.
Strong spirited, but just short of self-effacing, petite but nowhere near shrinking, Alice Waters'' own humanity, coupled with a keen sense of purpose, packed a pretty powerful punch at this gathering. One could argue that if it wasn''t Alice Waters who inspired the 1970''s culinary Renaissance, it could easily have been someone else. Especially when you hear how navely she began in the restaurant business--"I thought, ''I''ll just open one up!''" she smiled. "I had a little restaurant experience, but mostly I just cooked for friends. So, I thought, ''My friends can just come, and pay!''"
The inherent innocence gives realists pause to wonder. But 27 years later, that same restaurant still flourishes in Berkeley, along with a second, Caf Fannie. Her passion for finding and using only the freshest, most wholesome foods set off a movement that is unabated.
The stir that Chez Panisse caused took its roots in France, when Waters lived there for a year at age 19, and proceeded to fall in love. "The aromas, the beauty of the markets was irresistible. I wanted to live that life, to have a fresh baguette, a fresh watercress salad, caf au lait. In France, I learned not just about food, but about relationships," she recounted.
All of the produce utilized at Waters'' restaurants is grown a maximum of two hours from her door. She has forged long-term relationships with all the growers, fishmongers and farmers who supply each day''s menu, a reality that is solely based on what is freshest, local and in season.
After spearheading the project that has turned an abandoned, inner city school yard into a garden that is tended, harvested and utilized by junior high school students, who then prepare their own meals from the food they have grown, the message is clear, and commands the attention of forward thinking political movers and shakers.
Alice Waters'' Edible Schoolyard project has proven itself. Waters cites the real need that kids have for nutrition-- and the community that is shared and culminates at the table. "It''s at the table that a culture is passed on," she attests. And, with a little luck, her efforts may reach far beyond the tables of Berkeley. cw