Waters' influence runs deeply

Famed chef has her detractors, but she remains a force in the food world

October 08, 2006|By James Temple | James Temple,Contra Costa Times

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- One summer night in the early 1980s, Alice Waters, the iconic founder of Chez Panisse, asked her head chef to prepare anchovies just trawled from Monterey Bay, Calif.

Filleting and grilling nearly 1,000 tiny fish in a three-hour period struck Paul Bertolli as impossible, but Waters wanted the food served at its freshest. He scrambled to fill more than 100 orders.

Bertolli, who had become head chef about a year earlier, learned quickly that adaptability was a critical skill at Chez Panisse. Excited by the chance to employ ingredients at their peak, Waters would rewrite that night's fixed-price menu as little as 15 minutes before the doors opened.

"The menu is just an abstraction, a projection of what you think you will do," said Bertolli, who later founded the acclaimed Oliveto restaurant in Oakland and Fra' Mani Handcrafted Salumi in Berkeley.

This adherence to nature represented a dramatic reinterpretation of restaurant modes when Chez Panisse opened 35 years ago. Many insist it's changed the way we eat out.

Waters' influence stretches beyond the dining room. Today she dedicates most of her energy to confronting a childhood-obesity rate that has tripled since 1980, devoting money and resources to improve school lunches as well as attitudes about food.

She also advocates globally for the slow-food movement, proclaiming that locally grown and organic food is not just tastier but more healthful, environmentally responsible and economically just.

"I was just looking for flavor and I ended up at the door of organic farmers," Waters said. "Then I realized how important they were. I became a crusader and I haven't stopped."

Waters, 62, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 with a degree in French cultural studies and trained as a teacher at the Montessori School in London before spending a formative year traveling and tasting across France.

She had no formal culinary training but, by her account, in the introduction to the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, she copied and practiced the techniques of traditional French chefs. Once she internalized their lessons, Waters developed a personal style "based on the ingredients available to me here in California."

Many now credit Waters, or at least Chez Panisse, with inventing California cuisine, characterized by a fusion of international influences featuring seasonal and local ingredients.

"She really changed the way that restaurants in America cook, creating an interest in regional, local, organic ingredients," said Christopher Lee, a Chez Panisse chef from 1989 until 2003.

But at least one person has suggested publicly, and many have whispered privately, that the Chez Panisse influence has been all-too pervasive, homogenizing the expectations of the collective San Francisco Bay-area palate.

"So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark," wrote Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of Coi in San Francisco, in The New York Times last December.

Patterson was criticized widely for his essay. Jeremiah Tower, who became chef at Chez Panisse two years after its founding, claims in his 2003 book, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution, that he invented or at least drew attention to California cuisine, with an all-things-grilled lunch at a food writers' junket in the early '80s. He went on to suggest that Waters, initially at least, couldn't distinguish between quality green beans and those "an elephant would pass up." She spent little time in the kitchen, Towers said, focusing instead on grabbing the glory as the restaurant's public face.

Waters said she would leave sorting out her impact to others. But in the cookbook introduction, she wrote that her approach isn't "radical or unconventional." If it seems so, she said, it's only because we have become "so removed from any real involvement with the food we buy, cook and consume."

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