Considered by many to be the most influential chef in the country, Alice Waters has been delighting America’s palate since 1971, the year she founded Chez Panisse. As the founder of the Edible Schoolyard, she developed “edible education,” a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching and learning that integrates growing and cooking food with math, science, and language arts. Her latest book, The Art of Simple Food II, is out this month.
Karen: Chez Panisse is one of the most iconic restaurants in America, but it began very humbly, didn’t it?
Alice: I just wanted a little restaurant for my friends. They were all coming over to my house every night for dinner. I loved to cook for them, but I couldn’t make a living. In fact, I was losing my shirt. So I thought, “I’ll just open a little restaurant and then my friends can pay a little something and I can get others to help me.” I wanted it to be like a simple French restaurant — simple, really simple — not even a one star. And it wasn’t really even all about the food. What I really wanted was good conversation at the table, a place for plotting and planning.
Karen: You have only one menu every night. When you began that was really quite unheard of, wasn’t it?
Alice: It was. I was a home cook and I just didn’t figure I could cook an á la carte menu. I thought if I only cooked one thing a night that would make it work financially, and we wouldn’t have to throw things away or ever use leftovers. We would just cook what we bought that day and eat everything that night. Little did I know that having a single menu would separate the restaurant in a big way, and make it a focus of attention.
Karen: Unlike many chefs who have become well known, you never opened a chain of restaurants or sold frozen pizzas in the supermarket. And yet you are more influential than chefs who have. Why did you choose to keep your business small?
Alice: I can just barely handle the business I have! It’s a challenge for me all the time. I can’t imagine going in my car to another place, or flying across the country. I don’t have the management skills to take care of another Chez Panisse. In fact, I can only imagine it getting smaller.
Karen: Is that because of the attention to detail?
Alice: And the relationships. Every person who comes to the restaurant needs to have a wonderful time — it’s still a word of mouth business. So it’s essential to be engaged closely with the people who work here. The credibility of Chez Panisse comes from those people, and I stand on the platform they provide. And I am connected to all the farmers, too, I know them all. I just couldn’t connect the same way if I had a bigger business. Maybe some people can, but not me.
Karen: The restaurant recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Are there any moments that stand out for you over the years?
Alice: It has all been a glorious experience, really, but I think one of the biggest honors of my career was sharing a meal at Chez Panisse with the Dalai Lama.
Karen: On Etsy there is a great deal of interest in food and also in the table in general. For example, in addition to cooking, some people might make their own the table, or dishes, or napkins, too. Do you see this becoming a trend?
Alice: Oh, yes, I think it’s all of a piece. I think we all still have this deep connection inside us to make the table special and beautiful. We haven’t had it completely beaten out of us by fast food culture. An extension of the love of food is to make a table that reflects the same set of values: not standing up, not using paper napkins, using a real glass, a pitcher with flowers.
Karen: I think it’s interesting that you, Natalie Chanin, and Cathy Bailey from Heath Ceramics know each other and collaborate occasionally. (Heath co-designed lines of dishes for Chez Panisse and Alabama Chanin; Natalie Chanin has held sewing workshops at Heath and The Edible Schoolyard.) How did you all meet?
Alice: Christina Kim is a close friend on mine and I met Cathy Bailey through Christina. This connected me to the work of Natalie, who is a friend of Cathy’s.
Karen: So here are the three of you who are national figures in food, apparel, a whole world of things for the home. I can only imagine the conversations you have had.
Alice: Yes, we’ve had those conversations. We really have this thing in common. Art is very important, and community, and valuing the skills that produce the art. And appreciating nature, like Natalie with organic fabric, teaching people how valuable the work can be and how like food it grows from the soil upwards.
Karen: In addition to recipes, your new book, The Art of Simple Food II, also contains several chapters on home gardening.
Alice: Yes, the book is about recipes from the garden. Gardening helps us understand what we’re asking other people to do for us, to empathize with the farmer and to learn to treasure him or her. The only real way to do that is to have your own little plot. That’s how you realize how special the work of growing food is.
Karen: Could you talk about the role of teaching children, including how this is done at the Edible Schoolyard?
Alice: There should be a saturation of values in the school day: to feed every child at school for free and to feed from sustainable farms. We can teach children every subject through food: math through the recipes; science through everything that happens in the garden and the kitchen; improvisation cooking as a way to teach drama; recipes as way to learn about writing and giving clear instructions. And social skills — you can use the pleasure of food to teach children the values that they need to live together.
Karen: I’ve heard you say that having famous chefs is one thing, but we will really be getting somewhere when we start having famous farmers.
Alice: I really believe that. And famous ranchers, beekeepers, fishers, all the people who provide everything we eat. The ones who are doing it the right way — we need to take care of them, and elevate the professions of farming and growing food.