Chef Alice Waters preaches freshness of food, environment


November 08, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Alice Waters doesn't look like an evangelist. She's petite, with small, graceful hands and a soft voice. Her hair is close-cropped, her clothes subdued. She does not even look like the powerhouse behind what is arguably one of the most famous restaurants in the country, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif.

But for more than 20 years, Ms. Waters has been preaching the gospel of freshness, purity and simplicity in food.

For more than 20 years, she has been teaching consumers, budding chefs and restaurateurs, and even purveyors that the most direct route to diners' hearts is through "food that is simple and appealing -- fresh and good and exciting to eat."

And she has been, in her quiet and determined way, enormously successful in attracting converts. After all, Chez Panisse was the birthplace of what's called "California cuisine" -- fresh regional ingredients, prepared without heavy sauces or other trappings of classical French cooking -- and, whether they realize it or not, she's changed the way a lot of people eat.

Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco's popular Zuni Cafe, recalls her days in the late '70s as Chez Panisse's lunch chef as "a very creative and resourceful time." Ms. Waters was still cooking dinners at the restaurant (these days she's too busy), and "Her interest in simple food and her ability to galvanize people's spirits were really unique," Ms. Rodgers says.

Last May in New York, when she was named best chef in America and Chez Panisse was named best restaurant in America by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, Ms. Waters said in a statement (read by her partner and pastry chef Lindsey Shere), "I believe that no restaurant in the world can be better than the ingredients it has to work with. And I believe that the future of our restaurant -- and all other restaurants -- depends on the health of the land, the sea, our society, and the planet as a whole. I still believe from the bottom of my heart that good food is a right, not a privilege. What you eat can change your life; it nourishes our spirits as well as our bodies.

"Good food -- pure and wholesome food, honestly grown and simply cooked -- may be our last hope to transform our society and our consciousness. It matters profoundly."

The two awards -- coincidentally announced as the Beard Foundation was saluting women chefs in America -- "are the food and beverage versions of the Oscars," said Melanie Young, program director for the awards. "She won because she was voted for by her peers." There are more than 300 judges, Ms. Young said; the winning chef or restaurant must be "a standard-bearer for the industry, or an individual who inspires industry standards."

"She's more about great food than great restaurants," says Ms. Rodgers, who was at Chez Panisse from 1978 to 1980. "It's not a tragedy if the country is without great restaurants, but it's far more serious if the country, and the world, are without great food." Ms. Waters was politically active in her college days, at the University of California at Berkeley; it's very much in character for her now, as she has gained national stature, to work for the causes she cares about, Ms. Rodgers says. "Being who she is, and knowing what she knows, she can't pass up the potential impact she can have."

That influence can be considerable. "She has a dual impact," says Nancy Longo, chef-owner at Baltimore's Pierpoint restaurant and organizer of a September benefit dinner for the Chesapeake Bay Trust that brought in celebrity chefs from around the country. Ms. Longo shared her kitchen with Ms. Waters. "She's definitely a role model for younger women who want to be in this business. And young chefs coming up see this person who is very talented and who loves food -- but also who, as a chef, is very environmentally concerned. She's saying, 'Look, the earth is where the food comes from, we have to take care of it.' "

For Ms. Waters, it is never too soon to learn that message. Recently she has turned her missionary zeal to a new audience: children.

Her latest book is "Fanny at Chez Panisse" (HarperCollins, $23), a book of restaurant anecdotes loosely based on experiences of Ms. Waters' daughter Fanny, now 9, and other children of friends and acquaintances. There are also recipes for some of the simple, straightforward and delicious dishes that are the

trademark of Ms. Waters and of Chez Panisse.

"I've thought about feeding children for a long, long time, maybe 10 years. And certainly it goes way back to when I was teaching Montessori school, and I taught kids that age, and [saw] how impressionable they are. . . . So that kind of made me think that our hope for the future is our children, and how they think and feel."

She speaks fervently, passionately about connections -- the way people relate to food, to places, and to each other. She is, in fact, afraid that we are losing them.

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