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Alice Waters Talks Food and Hope in Hard Times

April 30, 2020
by Laura Smith
Chez Panisse Kitchen

Restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters is holed up in her Berkeley home amidst shelter-in-place orders, but she is hopeful about the future. Waters discovered her passion for the culinary arts in the late 60s when she left UC Berkeley to study abroad in France. She brought the French philosophy of food as a way of life back to the Bay Area, inaugurating a grand tradition of Californian cuisine, founding the famed restaurant and Berkeley institution, Chez Panisse, and spearheading a slow food movement through her Edible Schoolyard program and food advocacy.

Portrait of Alice Waters eating lunch
Growing up, Alice Waters ate seasonally from her family’s Victory Garden. (Amanda Marsalis)

California magazine caught up with Waters to discuss the culinary and societal implications of sheltering in place, the history of food during hard times, and her comfort food suggestions. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more kitchen-spiration, check out our curated list of “Quarantine Recipes” from Waters and other local chefs.

What do you think will be some of the lasting impacts of this pandemic?

Alice Waters: We have to understand how we’re going to feed ourselves in this crisis. My parents started their Victory Garden during World War II, and they never let go of that their whole lives. But it was particularly important in my childhood because we were a family of six, but didn’t have much money. And so the Victory Garden really was important in our lives. My parents grew all kinds of vegetables and canned their apples. They had glorious tomatoes that they canned for the winter and made rhubarb compote. We ate completely seasonally, and dare I say locally. And so that is what could happen.

The Victory Garden movement was started by the government, you know. And they printed all these pamphlets teaching people how to farm. They did farms in front of the post offices. They did them in the parks. They did them everywhere they could to allow people to be fed. Now, can you imagine if we did this, if we use a lot of that money that is supposedly available? If we made Victory Gardens, if we really cared about feeding people in that deep way? It could be amazing. Really amazing. 

People talk about how this is the time where everyone’s going remote and having virtual experiences but my experience has been more rooted in home now and I’m living a much more physical experience because I’m spending a lot more time with my toddler. Do you see this time as a return to home in some ways? 

AW: Our lives have had to slow down. It’s hard to teach your child at home. You have to pay attention. You have to be there. There’s no sort of farming it out. Because we can’t be with other people. And of course teaching cooking to a child is the greatest, they love to do that. They love to use the whisks. They love to make a pancake, they love to be by the fire and doing something slightly dangerous. And I’ve always thought that cooking has that magic in it. And when kids grow it and cook it, they eat it. So this is a time to grow some. It’s spring and we can plant things, and we can plant things anywhere. We can plant a seed in a pot by the windowsill, or on the steps down to the backyard. Or if we don’t have a backyard, we can do it as Ron Finley, the guerrilla gardener in LA does. He plants in that place between the street and the sidewalk.

Do you think that this could potentially help people reimagine how they eat?

AW: Yes, yes, I really do. Cooking is the best way to eat affordably. Because when you’re eating that chicken, you’re thinking “ah, I’m going to make a chicken stock for tomorrow’s soup.” And so you’re not wasting anything. 

You’re really thinking in that big picture way of “what can I make from this.” And any scraps there are, you’re putting them to your compost. 

Do you have any favorite things that you’ve been cooking or growing or any favorite recipes that you’ve been relying on during this time? 

AW: Well, I’m always relying on cooked greens, whether it’s kale or chard. Whatever kind of green, because it’s so affordable and all you need is garlic–and of course olive oil. But that’s something amazingly affordable. I’ve also been counting on beans, every color and shape of bean. And that’s something so easy to cook with herbs and garlic of course and some of those carrots and celery and onions, the basics of making an aromatic soup. 

Chez Panisse
Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse after being inspired by French cooking while studying abroad. (Amanda Marsalis)

It’s really great to have a pot of beans and a pot of greens. And then you can just serve that with some cornbread or you could put it in on a little taco in a minute. And the same with our carrots. We have every color of carrot. And we can slice them differently. We can have a carrot salad every day. One day it’s purple. The next day it’s red, and the next day it’s yellow.

My daughter and I made some Indian flatbreads out of whole wheat flour and porridge the other night. And it was so exciting to see how they puff up in the oil.

You’re making me hungry. And you talk about food the way painters talk about colors almost. Like it’s art. Where did you get your passion for food? 

AW: It was that beauty of it, and that taste of it that just grabbed me when I was 19. I left the University of California to go for a year in Paris and when I came back, I wanted to live like the French. And so I started cooking and started looking for the ingredients. And then people started coming over to my house all the time to eat and I thought, wow, maybe I should start a restaurant so that my friends would have to pay for it. Instead of getting it for free, I can make a living. It was that naive [laughs]. That’s where I’ve been going for 50 years. Actually 55 years, and I have never lost the confidence, the hope of that. 

It seems important to maintain that kind of joy in moments like these, no?

AW: I had experience with a woman who was a therapist. She got a lung disease and decided that she needed to do something outside. So she learned to organic garden. And she asked the sheriff if she could help some prisoners down at San Bruno grow vegetables. These inmates found it incredibly therapeutic. So much so, that they didn’t want to leave the garden when it was time to get out of jail. And so she started a halfway house garden outside of jail. And she called me and asked me as a restaurateur, would I buy the vegetables and support her garden? And I said, absolutely, absolutely I’ll do this. So this is, you know, these are the ideas that are incredibly hopeful and empowering.

And they’re ideas that are generated out of hard situations. 

AW: They are really hard. A jail. She planted seven acres. But these guys, they were mostly 19 year old kids and they put a sunflower seed in the ground and look what’s happened. It grew above their heads. So beautiful. Nature is really our best teacher. 

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