Alice Waters: Sticking to slow food in tough times - Olivia Stren

Alice Waters: Sticking to slow food in tough times

Globe and Mail

Sticking to slow food in tough times

 

The mother of the slow-food movement is in a rush. She only has 30 minutes to talk, her assistant informs me, as he escorts me to her luminous office located next to Chez Panisse, her restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. The building, splashed in honeyed afternoon sunshine, has all the rustic coziness of a farmhouse, and you feel about as likely to bump into a piglet as you do a fax machine. Alice Waters, however, doesn't radiate the same warm, tactile intimacy of the setting; she means business and brushes away all casual hello-how-are-you niceties the way she would chuck McDonald's off her dinner plate. Neither does her manner match the delicacy of her physique (she is petite, has finely drawn features and is dressed in earth-mother shades of pebble grey). For someone who has passionately devoted the past 40-odd years of her life to the pursuit of sensuous enjoyment, Ms. Waters emanates a surprisingly frosty aura.

 

Both a fountainhead of the eat-local movement and a pioneer of California cuisine, Ms. Waters is among the most famous restaurateurs in North America. She opened Chez Panisse in the summer of 1971 in a BC (Before Croissant) America. On the restaurant's inaugural night, she served pâté en croute and canard aux olives at a time when, say, romaine lettuce was considered the height of avant-gardist Euro exotica.

 

Since its inception, Ms. Waters's basic philosophy has been that ingredients should be fresh, grown locally, used only when in the height of their season and prepared lovingly. To her, a dish is only as tasty as its raw ingredients, a now-trendy culinary credo inspiring chefs around the world.

 

Her office, fresh and tidy, is prettied with a bouquet of roses, heaped with piles of her books (she's written eight) and lined with some of her favourite photos: There's one of Eleanor Roosevelt pruning rose bushes, and one of Michelle Obama, wielding a broad smile and a shovel, tilling the soil in her brand-new South Lawn organic garden - one of Ms. Waters's fantasies (and, now, triumphs). Ms. Waters has been lobbying the U.S. government to plant a White House garden since 1992, when she first wrote a letter to then president Bill Clinton.

 

"It takes a national figure, a president, the head of the UN, to say that feeding children and educating them about food is something that we have to do for the future of this planet. It's urgent. And I thought it was urgent in 1992. These are seeds that we've been planting for a long time," she says, pausing as if reliving the effort. "When I saw Michelle Obama in the garden with children from local schools, I just said, 'This is amazing, this is something that's going to go around the world.' "

 

Along with the Chez Panisse Foundation, Ms. Waters is also behind the Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre organic garden and "kitchen classroom" used to teach kids at a Berkeley middle-school about ecology and gastronomy. About the schoolyard, she says: "When the restaurant was about 20 years old, I thought, we just can't be an island unto ourselves. Maybe we got our vegetables from the right person, but we need to influence a lot more people. This is the place to touch every single person."

 

Ms. Waters didn't have the same moral agenda or grandiose vision when she first opened Chez Panisse (when a four-course meal cost $3.95). "I never wanted anything more than a little restaurant," she says, "I just thought I'd be cooking for my friends and their friends and people in the neighbourhood. They all promised to come - and they did! I just set the bar as high as I could and I still do."

 

The inspiration for Chez Panisse (named after a bon-vivant in Marcel Pagnol's film trilogy Marius, Fanny and César) came to her when she spent a year studying abroad in France.

 

"Being in the midst of a culture with very deep gastronomic roots woke me up. I went to the markets and thought they were beautiful, I loved the French baguette when it was hot in the morning, the apricot jam was unlike anything I'd ever tasted and the restaurants were so charming. Food was just woven in everybody's life," she says in her calm and slow way, as if measuring - and then savouring - her words. "When I opened Chez Panisse, I was looking for flavour, looking for living the way the French lived, where culture and food were intertwined."

 

Today, the restaurant - much like it was nearly 40 years ago - remains a festive idyll of pleasure, serving up impossibly fresh-from-the-patch fare, and mastering that winsome Californian balance between the cottage-y and the urbane. Diners, begoggled local academics and pilgrimaging foodies talk excitedly and gasp euphorically over, say, local halibut tartare toasts or ruby grapefruit sorbet with sugared mint.

 

Still, Ms. Waters's locavorism - as retro as it is revolutionary - has attracted as many enemies as it has disciples. In her insistence on buying local (and, therefore, expensive) food, promoting a way of eating that is (let's face it) a financial impossibility to most people, Ms. Waters has been cast as both an elitist and a head-in-the-clouds fantasist.

 

 

Her belief that changing how we eat can change the world ("You buy from the people who share your values, you support the people who are taking care of the land, the people who care about taste and about children, and in that way, you begin to change the community") is - to even the soy-fed bourgeois - often considered righteous and even ridiculous in times of recession. To those critics, she offers irritably: "Good food needs to be a right, not a privilege. Every fast-food company is saying, 'Well, here's somebody who has a fancy, upscale restaurant. People can't afford this.' Well, [fast food] isn't food and it's making us sick."

 

The conversation turns to happier subjects (a varietal of cauliflower she tried in Italy; guinea hens she tasted in France) and Ms. Waters softens, at least briefly. "We have to take care of our farmers. They're a treasure," she says, nibbling on a slice of a locally grown mandarin (good enough to make you want to forever forsake its supermarket kin).

But she can't help returning to the haters: "I would say to them that we need to do something or we're going to destroy the land and our health."

She concludes with a hopeful flourish: "If we eat and live, we can change the world, and this can happen anywhere, any time." Philosophy, like food, sometimes needs a sweet garnish.

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Olivia Stren

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