August 19, 2018
Talking Food with Alice Waters
Expert Q&A

Talking Food with Alice Waters

by Brian Rinker  

Alice Waters is a chef, restaurateur, author, and food activist. Her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, is an award-winning, world-renowned restaurant serving French-inspired California cuisine. The restaurant served organic foods locally sourced from nearby farms years before the farm-to-table trend became popular.

Waters has written 16 books, the most recent of which is her memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. The book details her love affair with organic, sustainable, and delicious food, beginning in her childhood, and how her time in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement as well as abroad in France shaped her into a food activist and restaurant owner.

In 1995, Waters began the Edible Schoolyard Project, bringing organic foods, gardening, and kitchen experience to children in public school.

Waters recently spoke about the intersection of food systems and public health with nutrition and food expert Marion Nestle at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, as part of its 75th Anniversary Speaker Series. (You can view a video of the event at this Facebook link.) We talked with Waters in advance of the event about her ideal food system and the Edible Schoolyard program, as well as what her favorite vegetables and dishes are right now.

What can the Berkeley audience expect from your conversation about food systems and health with Marion Nestle?

The first word that comes to mind is radical. We need to radically change the food system. Marion Nestle focuses primarily on health. And I have focused primarily on where our food comes from and on the big picture of the planet and the care of the land. And taste. So, my understanding of nutrition really begins in the ground. It is about biodiversity and balance.

I never have liked to talk about health. I think health is the outcome of living well and eating well. I don’t talk to the children about health at the Edible Schoolyard Project. I know all the facts and figures. But I am more interested in bringing children into a new relationship with food and their environment, so they can be empowered to make really good decisions about their own health. I don’t want to frighten them into doing this, I want them to fall in love with it.

The empowerment comes from knowing how to grow your own food and how to cook it. When they get really connected with nature, that is what is really exciting to me. The realization from the Edible Schoolyard Project for 23 years is: If they groweth and cooketh, they all want to eateth.

What inspired you to create the Edible Schoolyard Project?

My inspiration for the project happened when I visited a garden project at San Francisco County Jail. I saw that it was a transformational experience for the inmates. So much so that when it was time to let them out of jail, they didn’t want to go. They had to start a garden outside of the county jail where they could continue to grow the food and sell it at the farmer’s market. I thought to myself, if you could do it in a jail, you can do it in a school.

Do you have your own ideal food system?

I do. I do. How did you guess? I think we need to start talking with children about the food they eat and where it comes from, starting in kindergarten, maybe even preschool. I think when they eat with determination and they understand the consequences of the decisions that they make every day, that is when we will have a different food system.

When we buy directly and build relationships with the farmers, we learn important values of stewardship and nourishment. I think that can happen in our public-school system. I think we should buy directly from the people who take care of the land and feed our children wholesome, delicious seasonal foods for school lunch—and do it affordably.

Affordably, that is a big one.

Yep, it’s a big one. We have been taught by the fast food culture that food should be fast, cheap, and easy. So it has been hard to break into the idea that you can eat wholesome, local food affordably. If you buy directly from the farms and forget about the middle man, or the middle man is a nonprofit, and you know how to cook using the whole ingredients—the leaves, the stems, and all of the parts of the vegetable—you can, believe it or not, do this within the very minuscule budget schools get from the USDA for their school lunch programs. It has been proven by projects like the Conscious Kitchen in Marin County, where they buy directly from the farmers. They have chefs who prepare the food and the kids eat it all.

It is something we really haven’t explored as a culture. We have been indoctrinated by the fast food industry. There are affordable nourishing foods from around the world that children love, like tabbouleh salad and hummus and whole wheat pita bread. You can just go on and on. Tortilla soup. Every culture has these basic healthy foods that sustain them.

The solution to the fast food culture is teaching Americans about food, the land, and stewardship of that land. I was worried about how my own daughter could learn these values in the public school system. How do we bring the human values back to the food systems? I think the best way to do it is through the cafeteria door.

But what about us older folks, what can we do?

You can cook with your friends and eat together with them, and you can buy the foods, mostly whole grains and vegetables, from the people at the farmer’s market and learn to cook them simply.

What are some of your favorite dishes right now?

I have been eating asparagus a lot. I have been picking some baby lettuces from my garden because the spring lettuce is coming forth. I have learned to love the grains, like couscous. I’m very interested in these organic little tortillas. I have been cooking tortillas on the stove in the morning and then filling them with avocado salads, just put it right in there, cut up some avocadoes. It takes one minute.

What are you doing with the asparagus?

I’m putting it everywhere. We are making a beautiful asparagus stew at the restaurant (Chez Panisse). I think I use garlic in everything that I cook. But the spring garlic is just about to arrive and I can’t wait. I think cooking greens is incredibly gratifying. Beautiful spinach, just wilted steamed spinach. All the colored carrots. They’re beautiful. I just shave them and put them in a salad.

What do you think about the trend of people getting their greens from smoothies?

I’m not opposed to that. My daughter does that all the time. She makes smoothies all the time, even with dandelion greens. But I like the ritual of sitting down rather than grabbing the drink and putting it in the car and heading to work. I really like to stop and eat, you know.

I don’t like tomatoes, but I really want to. I was wondering if you have a food you just can’t stand?

Oh, tomatoes are my favorite. My absolutely favorite. There isn’t very much I don’t like or can’t think of a good way to cook it. You know, roasting vegetables opened up a whole new world for me. Putting winter squash in the oven with a little olive oil and salt and roasting it is one of the favorites of all the kids in the Edible Schoolyard. They will eat any vegetable that is roasted in the oven, it could even be cauliflower. A lot of us have never really learned how to cook vegetables that are really, really delicious. And that’s what we are learning now. It is very exciting to know there’s a better way than just boiling them.

So what you’re saying is that you have never met a vegetable you couldn’t cook in a tasty way?

Pretty much, pretty much. I mean there are vegetables that I like more than others. But I don’t think there is anything I really don’t like. Maybe some of the really bitter greens. But again, it depends on the type of dressing you put on a dandelion green and whether you wilt it with kale and other winter greens that help balance it out. It comes down to just empowering yourself to cook and to experience. Garlic and olive oil help.

In some ways being a restaurant owner and a food activist are a good fit, but I imagine there may be times when they are in conflict with each other. Can you talk about having to compromise one way or the other?

I would like to think that I don’t compromise. I don’t compromise with the food. I really don’t. Unless it is something that I don’t know yet. I’m learning all the time about what it means to be really sustainable. And to live like that. The compromises that I make have to do with using too much plastic in a restaurant kitchen. I am really trying to learn as much as I can. A group of restaurateurs and I are working on designing containers out of metal that can be used over and over again and have a tight seal on them so you don’t have to use any plastic.

Also see Can Our Food System Be Fixed?