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Alice Waters, Chez Panisse, and the Delicious Revolution

Debra Redalia

 

I want to introduce you to Alice Waters because she has had the greatest influence on my culinary viewpoint and still influences me anew today. I will be sharing with you many things I have learned from Alice through her books and eating at Chez Panisse, and from experiencing the food of others in the San Francisco Bay Area who have also been influenced by her. I would say that more than anyone else of our time, the food we eat today and the food available to us today has been shaped by Alice Waters.

In 1971, Alice, age 27, opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. She had no culinary training or restaurant experience. Like me, Alice grew up on industrial food products of the time, like Wonder Bread and Wishbone salad dressing. And then as a young woman, she went to France, and her life (and mine) changed forever.

What Alice wanted to do with Chez Panisse was to bring the culinary experience she had in France back home to California. She wanted to make those simple dishes from the south of France that were based in the foods harvested daily at the markets here in America. And she wanted to have a restaurant that was an extension of what she was doing already and loving—making those French dishes, as best she could, for her friends, gathering them together around the table for conversation.

When she opened Chez Panisse, she did what every restaurant does. She called the restaurant supply delivery service to get ingredients. But these standard ingredients did not meet her expectations. She wanted to start with the fresh ingredients of the place where she lived—as they did in France—so she began by planting lettuce seeds from France in her own backyard.

From there, she began to ask local farmers to plant these unknown varieties she had brought from France. And she foraged other special ingredients from local backyards. People began to appear at the restaurant’s backdoor with their garden harvest. I remember one story of a woman knocking on the back door with a handful of German fingerling potatoes. At that time, nobody had ever seen such potatoes. Today you can buy fingerlings in almost any grocery (at least I can buy them in any grocery and at the farmer’s market here in Sonoma County, California).

I lived nearby, so I heard about Chez Panisse and what Alice was doing there. I very much wanted to eat there, but it was open only for dinner and there was no menu. You just reserved a table and ate whatever Alice and her chefs prepared from the local, seasonal food that was available that day. It was also very expensive.

My First Meal at Chez Panisse

In 1980 two things coincided in my life that made it possible for me to have dinner at Chez Panisse. First, Alice opened a cafe upstairs where you could order a la carte. Still pricey, but the other thing was I suddenly had a trust-fund boyfriend, who loved eating at Chez Panisse and insisted on taking me there. It was his favorite restaurant, so we ate there often.

I don’t remember exactly what was on the plate that night, but eating that food—the flavors of the ingredients, the beauty on the plate, the simplicity of preparation—something awakened in me and recognized this was the food I wanted to eat. I was just intensely drawn to it.

From then on, I ate the Chez Panisse Cafe as often as I could. I bought and read and cooked from Alice’s cookbooks. To cook like Chez Panisse became my goal for food. While that boyfriend is long gone, the experience he gave me of eating at Chez Panisse stays with me to this day.

The Delicious Revolution

Alice speaks of the change she has made in the world as a “delicious revolution.”

After she returned home from France, she found the flavors she was looking for in the small organic farms and ranches of local producers who were planting heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and harvesting them at their peak. “What was revolutionary about this,” she says in The Art of Simple Food, “was being able to buy directly from the source and not being limited to what I could find at the supermarket.”

When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is. Food tastes naturally delicious when it has been grown with care, harvested at the right moment, and brought to us immediately, direct from the producer.

Because of Alice, today I can go to the farmer’s market and buy heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, and even grains and beans. But at the time she was forging the way…

I don’t remember what year it was, but I do remember the day I decided I was going to eat more fruits and vegetables. I went to the supermarket (there was no other place to shop) and brought home the best produce I could find. It tasted terrible! I went back to eating industrial food because the available fresh fruits and vegetables simply were not edible.

Gathering good ingredients…is the essence of cooking.

That has certainly changed today. While I’m typing this I am eating my way through a little box of heirloom organic cherry tomatoes—red and orange and yellow and purple. So sweet. These are so delicious I don’t put anything on them at all—not even salt. i am completely satisfied with them just the way they are. And this little box of multicolored, sweet, heirloom tomatoes is sitting on my desk because Alice asked farmers to grow heirloom varieties.

By choosing to buy food grown locally and sustainably, in ways that are healthy and humane, I had woven myself into a community that cares about the same things. As a community, we share not only a commitment to protect our natural resources, but an appreciation for the value of food itself, a love for its taste and beauty and the deep pleasure it can bring by connecting us to time and place, the seasons, and the cycle of nature.

And she told us we could just eat this delicious food without doing anything to it. We could just eat it and love it as it is.

Thank you, Alice. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

What I Have Learned From Alice Waters

My journey away from industrial food really began with my first dinner at Chez Panisse. From there Alice’s example taught me a handful of key concepts that are basic to the way I approach food today.
 
* There is a much broader world of food than is sold in supermarkets. I learned that an “egg” is not simply an “egg” and a “lemon” is not simply a “lemon.” No. There are hundreds of varieties of chickens that lay eggs of all colors and sizes (and we are never told anything about the chickens from which the eggs come). I’ll never forget the first time I had a Meyer lemon (which was probably at Chez Panisse). It tasted like a lemon, but it was sweet. At the time, finding one in a store was few and far between and whenever I found one I would buy it and savor it. Now I can buy them at a dozen different places and even grow them in my garden. Because of Alice, I think about food in terms of the variety of nature, rather than the single sameness of industry.
 
* I can learn about the nature of each food and how to prepare it in simple ways rather than rely on recipes. As you will see in this blog, I am ingredient-driven rather than recipe-driven. I’m looking for what I can eat that is immediate, fresh, local, and in season. I delight in the changes of the farmer’s market each week and often try new foods as they become available.
 
* I am continuing to learn how to prepare dishes without industrial foods that we often rely on. Over the years I’ve learned to make my own ketchup and BBQ sauce and salsa, though I still purchase mustard, soy sauce, and coconut aminos. I’d really like to make my own mustard since mustard plants grow wild here. Just recently I noticed that while Alice uses traditional condiments like mustard, for the most part, she uses salt, herbs, and spices, or makes her own condiment sauces from traditional inspiration.
 
* I look to traditional cuisines based in nature for ideas and inspiration, rather than relying on industrial ideas about food. Every major cuisine in the world originated in nature. People ate the edible foods available to them in the wild, which eventually turned into a cuisine based in the nature of their place. Everyone knew how to prepare those foods, and each cook prepared common dishes in their own unique way to suit their taste. Humans have been eating since the beginning of our existence. The first cookbook wasn’t written until Roman times. I think about food as if there is no supermarket. What is growing around me wild or intentionally? What can I do with that food. One of my delights in the past was having raspberry canes in my garden from a neighbor who gave them to everyone in our little village—we had our own local raspberry variety. Another neighbor there gave me tomato plants that had been established locally.
 
* My idea of food preparation now is about the quality of ingredients coupled with my skill to prepare them in ways that bring out their best. It’s not about taking a recipe, finding poor quality and industrially processed ingredients at the supermarket and then making someone else’s idea of a dish. No. Every time I put food into my mouth is an opportunity to collaborate with nature using my own knowledge, creativity, and skill to nourish my body.
 
Learning about food from Alice’s example has been a major part of my own awareness and reconnection with Life. Opening the door to the natural world through food led to me opening the door to the natural world in other parts of my life, and eventually to Lifely.
 
 

How Alice is Influencing Me Today

I moved away from California about twenty years ago, so I hadn’t eaten at Chez Panisse for two decades.

When I moved back home to California in 2017, I wanted to eat at Chez Panisse, but it is more than an hour to drive there.

Finally, when I was scheduled for cancer surgery, I decided that I wanted to have lunch at the Chez Panisse Cafe as my last meal before surgery. So I booked a table and Larry and I made the drive.

Larry and I ordered a la carte and shared everything as we always do:

* a golden lentil soup pureed with exotic spices, with a spoonful of dill yogurt on top and a sprinkle of…I don’t know what this was…crispy bits of spiced onions?
* a tagine with couscous, chickpeas, onions, greens, and delicata squash in a fragrant broth
* a salad of fennel and blood oranges over watercress finished with a citronette and a sprinkle of finishing salt
* a simple cake for dessert with fresh citrus fruits and candied kumquats.

Plus unlimited Chez Panisse bread and butter.

All simple, all dishes I could easily make at home, but there is something about the preparation that makes these simple—but exceptional quality—ingredients exquisite. It’s something about how they are cooked perfectly with just the right amount of salt, herbs, and spice that enhance each ingredient while still allowing the flavor of the ingredient to shine through. How the flavors blend and contrast. I make golden lentil soup, but it doesn’t taste like this one.

I think it’s a combination of really wonderful ingredients and tremendous cooking skills. This is my ideal.

All that said, the reason I don’t just tell you to buy her cookbooks and live by them is that while she has made a tremendously positive change in the world regarding food, other issues have come to the fore since which are not addressed by her work.

Many of the recipes in her books, for example, are for foods I personally do not eat, and her balance of ingredients—delicious as they are—don’t work for my body. Way too much fat for me. And she still uses white flour and white sugar in her restaurant and cookbooks, as if all the other sweeteners and flours don’t exist. But that’s not her purpose. Her purpose is to bring the food ethic of the south of France to America. She did that and did that well. And I’m so happy she did. Because I can take that which is useful to me that I learned from her and incorporate it into my own observations and realizations about food.

I still have much to learn from her, as I pick and choose what is valuable to me, and leave the rest behind.

Alice Waters has given us a quantum leap forward with regards to food. And I, for one, will keep that leap going in this blog.

 

 

When Covid-19 closed all restaurants, Alice Waters switched gears and established a Community Suppported Agriculture (CSA) program, so her farmers and workers could continue to work and she could continue to feed her community. Read more here…

Books by Alice Waters


 
Chez Panisse Vegetables
 
This entire book is devoted to love of vegetables, complete with Alice’s descriptions, explanation of how they are prepared at Chez Panisse, and recipes. Gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations of each vegetable.


 
Chez Panisse Fruit
 
A book devoted to fruit, in the same style as Chez Panisse Vegetables


 
The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: A Cookbook
 
In this book, Alice educates the reader on how to cook as she cooks, starting at the very beginning. 400+ pages.


 
My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients That Make Simple Meals Your Own: A Cookbook
 
In this book Alice talks about the foods she has on hand at all times, so she can quickly turn seasonal foods into satisfying meals. She also gives recipes for making pantry items yourself, such as sauces, pickles, cheeses and more.


 
Coming to My Senses
 
An autobiography of Alice from birth to the opening night of Chez Panisse. You’ll learn about her life and influences and ups and downs.


 
40 Years of Chez Panisse
 
A biography of the restaurant with lots of photos and stories. Along with Coming to My Senses, you’ll get the entire story.


 
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking
 
This book is not by Alice, but it was written by a woman, Samin Nosrat, who started at Chez Panisse bussing tables and then learned to cook in the Chez Panisse kitchen. Her ideas are clearly influenced by Alice and the Chez Panisse chefs, but she also brings her own viewpoint to explain how to use the basic techniques in comprehensive ways. I’ve learned things in from this book I never understood before, which are enhancing my abilities as a home cook and bringing even greater enjoyment to the food I now prepare.

Masterclass With Alice

As I write this post, I’m currently doing an online masterclass with Alice Waters through Masterclass.com.

Here is the trailer for the class. It’s wonderful for me to be with her right in her kitchen and I’m learning a lot.