Alice Waters: Food revolutionary

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In 1971, Alice Waters opened the US’ first farm-to-table restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkely, California. More than 50 years later, the legendary chef, author and slow food advocate continues to be at the vanguard of change, and her influence has spread across the world.

I met with Waters to talk to her about how she came to define – and continues to expand – her role as an advocate for sustainable farming, as well as her passion for food education.

It all began with a simple vision. Inspired by her time visiting France in her 20s, Waters wanted to offer people good food along with the experience of a small restaurant – something different from the burgeoning industrialised and fast-food offerings in the US at the time.

“I had gone to France in 1965, and when I got back from the trip, I wanted to eat like the French. I wanted to eat and live like the French. I wanted to go to farmer’s markets. I wanted that food,” she said. “And so, when I got back home, I started looking and tasting everything. And I thought, well, I can’t find it. But maybe if I opened a little restaurant with my friends, that we would have access in some way.”

Back in the ’60s, Waters was also an activist and a passionate supporter of the Free Speech Movement, and by the time she opened Chez Panisse, she was ready to take on the prevailing culture of fast food and mass production.

“We were encouraged by the spirit of the time. It was sort of after the Free Speech Movement, Civil Rights. And, you know, we had a lot of power about stopping the war in Vietnam. No one was interested in making money,” she said.

Regardless of any initial lack of profitability, Chez Panisse seemed destined to become a huge success, and has endured to this day, featuring a daily menu using only fresh, local, seasonal and organic produce. Waters believes that the restaurant’s legacy is testament to the quality of these ingredients and to the creativity that comes with interpreting them in different ways.

“I know for a fact that it’s the biodiversity and the seasonality of food that has made Chez Panisse what it is over 50 years, that we’re never getting tired of what we’re cooking,” she said.

Apple galette at Chez Panisse (Credit: Ilya Shnitser/BBC World’s Table)

Other chefs in California soon began to adopt Waters’ farm-to-table ethos, followed by those throughout the US and beyond. Largely responsible for defining what is known as “California Cuisine”, she was also the first chef to include the names of local farms on menus because she “wanted people to know where the food came from” and to celebrate the farmers who grew it, inspiring other chefs to do the same.

In late 2021, Alice Waters made waves by opening a second restaurant. Lulu is named after her dear friend Lulu Peyraud, who hailed from Provence, France, and lived to be 102 years old. The farm-to-table venue is nestled in the courtyard of Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum and is run by former Chez Panisse alum, Chef David Tanis.

But Waters is more than an inspirational celebrity chef. She’s a food revolutionary. And her biggest mission is to change the way we all relate to food – and the planet.

In addition to managing Chez Panisse, the former Montessori teacher has always believed that education is the best path to a sustainable future. And so, she has spent much of the last few decades building initiatives to spread her farm-to-table philosophy beyond the kitchen and into the classroom. In 1995, she established the Edible School Yard Project for children, which aims to transform traditional education, using organic gardening to teach both academic subjects and the values of nourishment, stewardship and community. The initiative, started at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Berkeley, California, has now expanded to thousands of schools around the world.

When referring to Waters, former Edible School Yard executive director, Angela McKee-Brown, said, “She’s a woman who believes passionately in education and the power of education to change the world. What she’s done is combine food, community and education together into this incredible concept, which is that of a schoolyard project which has served as this powerful beacon of what education can be and what it can mean for our kids.”

Chez Panisse features a daily menu using only fresh, local, seasonal and organic produce (Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst/Getty Images)

Over the past couple of years, Waters has taken things a step further by embarking on a new endeavour: the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education run out of the University of California, Davis. This institute will serve as a training centre for educators as well as a research hub for leaders in the fields of regenerative agriculture, climate change and public health.

Waters believes that we’re at a tipping point when it comes to food security and climate change, and that we need drastic change. To her, the way forward goes beyond eating more sustainably (which basically keeps things the way they are without doing more damage to the environment). Instead, she asserts that we need to turn to food that’s grown “regeneratively”, though practices that make the soil better than it was before, increase biodiversity and improve local ecosystems. In many ways, it’s a holistic approach to farming that’s been used for millennia by indigenous people but that has become lost over the centuries.

“We have to understand, we’re never going back to that fast-food culture and world. We must make a change, a big change,” she said. “We need to put nature first – absolutely first – or we’re going to be in many pandemics. And I fear for the planet.”

But just how realistic is Waters’ slow food vision in today’s fast-paced world? The answer remains to be seen. However, Waters firmly believes that we can all make a difference by purchasing and eating local ingredients, and that this food can and should be available to everyone, starting with children in the school system.

Chez Panisse was the first farm-to-table restaurant in the US (Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst/Getty Images)

“The thing is, food for Alice is not just about having a restaurant and, you know, feeding people. Basically, the farm-to-table issues were hers from the beginning. She coined that phrase. She changed the way millions of people eat already,” said Annie Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum. “I think her ambitions are really about now changing the way we produce food, changing the way we purchase it.”

Fifty years might have passed, but Waters’ drive to unleash the power that food has to enhance our lives shows no signs of dimming.

“I guess that the real joy comes when you win somebody over, [and] allow yourself to be won over. Expect a miracle. Expect that. Just know that it’s possible to change your mind and your habits. We can do this. And if we do it in the public school system, everyone will benefit,” Waters said.

“I’m really focused on this delicious revolution.”

Film credits: Anne Banas, reporter Anna Bressanin, producer Ilya Shnitser, director of photography Elisabetta Abrami, editor Soo Min Kim, production assistant Audio Network, music

BBC.com’s World’s Table “smashes the kitchen ceiling” by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future.

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