She yanks their food chains
Upstairs in the packed cafe of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters is ensconced in a wood-paneled booth, looking at a kumquat souffle. She studies it solemnly, a judge appraising a defendant.
“Is it really as high as it should be?” she asks. “And why is it on such a big plate?” She pauses. “I wonder whether it needs a sauce. Is it brown enough? And why are these leaves under here?” Frowning, she takes one in her hand. “Are they kumquat leaves?” (They aren’t.)
Jean-Pierre Moullé, the head chef, heard about it the next day. “She wasn’t happy,” he said, sighing. “We spent an hour in her office talking about it.”
A restaurant, even one that has played to full houses for nearly four decades, cannot afford to compromise. And when it comes to food, Waters doesn’t compromise.
She is known worldwide for her unbending fidelity to locally grown food and organic agriculture. When she championed local farmers and put their names on the menu, restaurants across the country followed. She replaced iceberg lettuce with field greens, and shoppers flocked to farmers markets for arugula and chicory. She insisted on grass-fed beef, and now it’s on menus everywhere.
“She has fundamentally changed how people in this country understand food,” said Daniel Patterson, owner of Coi, one of San Francisco’s culinary lights.
Why, then, does she inspire such animosity?
“Alice Waters annoys the living . . . . out of me,” Anthony Bourdain, the chef and television host, told the Washington lifestyle blog DCist.com last year. “There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters . . . I’m suspicious of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth.”
Carla Spartos of the New York Post called her a patron saint of the “holier-than-thou food police” and champion of “a chiding and bourgeois brand of junk food prohibitionism.”
A blistering piece by Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic this year criticized Waters’ signature effort to make gardening and cooking part of school curricula and sneered at her “ ‘let them eat tarte tatin’ approach to the world.”
The object of this venom is a polite wisp of a woman, charming and gracious, with a disarmingly soft voice. She stands barely 5 feet tall in her brown boots. A small peace sign pendant hangs from her neck, which is wrapped in a Dosa “eco- and human-friendly” scarf.
Waters is a fierce ideologue, a food Calvinist whose commitment to local ingredients, produced without hormones and pesticides, is uncompromising.
“She’s an absolutist, which is a great strength,” said her friend Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” But changing hearts and minds sometimes requires compromise. “That’s something we argue about from time to time, until I realize it’s a waste of breath,” he added. “She’s staking out a pure position, and every movement needs that.”
She’s “a kind of lightning rod for Berkeley liberal elitism,” said Patterson, the San Francisco chef. “There’s a tone of certainty, of almost religious fervor, that puts a lot of people off. It’s unfortunate, because the core of her message is important.”
Waters also has drawn brickbats from those who believe technique is at least as important as ingredients. “Going out of your way to buy local stuff is wonderful, but it’s a beginning, not an ending,” said Todd Kliman, a Washington, D.C., restaurant critic. “You still have to cook, and I think that’s lost on some of the new chefs today.”
Waters is 65, and for 39 of those years she’s been running Chez Panisse, modeled on eateries she encountered while a student at the Sorbonne (and named after a character invented by the French writer Marcel Pagnol). She lives about a mile from the restaurant, in a Craftsman home where she tends a garden of salad greens, fruits and vegetables. When she cooks at home, she keeps it simple: organic pasta with garlic, olive oil and parsley from her garden is a favorite. She occasionally eats at other restaurants, but her life revolves around Chez Panisse, where a staff of 117 runs a culinary citadel six days a week.
The sine qua non of Chez Panisse is local ingredients, grown in an environmentally sustainable way and prepared simply. Waters believes that is a code all of America should live by.
“It’s a moral issue for me,” she said. “Everyone on this planet deserves to eat food that’s really nourishing and produced in a way that is fair to the people who produce it.”
To some, the righteous devotion is a bit joyless. American chefs trying to create scrumptious meals without the bounty of local produce in California don’t like being scolded for flying in fresh goods. Cooking with fresh, organic ingredients may be great for the home, but it puts a dent in the pocketbook. And sometimes people like to eat something just because it tastes good -- no matter where it was grown.
“We have to get over the idea that food should be cheap,” Waters said. “The people who take care of our farms are treasures. And in terms of the damage to our health, our culture and our planet, that extra cost is nothing.”
The late Julia Child used to tell her to stop obsessing about the provenance of food. “She would say, ‘Who cares where that chicken comes from,’ ” Waters recalled. “But I understood that about her, and we wouldn’t be where we are if she hadn’t paved the path.”
If Julia Child doesn’t measure up to the code, ordinary mortals don’t seem to have much of a chance.
Waters herself occasionally chows down on a grass-fed beef hot dog (organic mustard and bun) at Let’s Be Frank in Los Angeles, which is owned by a friend. But she takes a dim view of In-N-Out, though it touts fresh ingredients and hand-cut French fries. “It’s probably better than any other chain,” she said, “but it’s not real or authentic. I’d rather eat from a street vendor in Sicily.”
At Chez Panisse, Waters lives by her code. After Pollan lectured on the perils of feedlot beef, she took beef off the menu. For eight months, she and her staff tasted grass-fed beef until they found a supplier who met her standards. More recently, when she read about the environmental costs of bottled water, it disappeared from Chez Panisse. Today, the restaurant makes its own sparkling water.
The farmers whose ingredients appear on tables at Chez Panisse are kindred spirits grateful for her support. Waters often challenges them to produce things she’s enjoyed elsewhere. Alexis Koefoed, who supplied free-range eggs, remembers just such a request a few years ago. Waters had tasted a delicious pasture-raised chicken in New York state and wondered whether Koefoed could produce it at her Soul Food Farm.
“At first, I said no,” said Koefoed, who didn’t raise chickens for meat. “But I realized that was a bad answer, so I immediately called back and said ‘absolutely.’ ”
The bird was difficult to find, Koefoed said, “so I had to tell her, ‘I can’t get that one for you, but we’ll experiment a bit.’ ” She found a substitute, and now day-old chicks arrive at the Vacaville post office from Pennsylvania every Friday and spend 10 weeks in the pasture. She delivers 80 chickens a week to Chez Panisse, and more than 500 to other Bay Area restaurants.
If Waters has a soft spot, it is for field greens. Plates leaving the kitchen are piled high with arugula, chicory, cress and endive. Of course, not every chef in America has year-round access to fresh produce. That was clear in February, when Waters staged a fund-raising dinner in Washington, D.C., for charities that feed the poor there.
“I almost killed myself trying to serve something good at that dinner,” said Moullé, the 59-year-old Frenchman who has been chef at Chez Panisse for two decades.
Prohibited from flying in any ingredients, save for the pixie Kishu tangerines from Ojai that Waters adores, Moullé fretted.
“With the produce I could find there at that time of year, it wasn’t looking good,” he said. But a salad of pickled root vegetables won Waters’ approval.
“I know I push hard, but I feel that at this moment in time I can’t push hard enough,” Waters said. “I’m a demanding teacher. I expect the best, and sometimes I don’t take the time to help people up the stairs. I just don’t have the patience.”
Last week, Waters was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur. She dedicated it to Moullé, whom she fired in 1982 and rehired in 1989. He shares the head chef job with David Tanis; each works half a year for a full year’s pay, an arrangement that Waters believes keeps them fresh.
These days Waters is focused on her legacy and especially her Edible Schoolyard initiative. It began 15 years ago at a Berkeley middle school and has expanded to schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and Greensboro, N.C., with a sixth to launch in Brooklyn this summer.
Students grow and prepare food as part of the curriculum, and Waters believes it teaches lifelong lessons in nutrition. The Edible Schoolyard has won accolades, but Flanagan argued in her Atlantic piece that it has no place in an academic environment and robs the nation’s most vulnerable children of a proper education.
Flanagan “was just out of her depth and being provocative,” Waters said. “But it provoked a conversation, and so many beautiful people came to the defense of edible education.
“I can’t fight the impulse people have to be critical,” Waters added. “But I can’t do anything other than what I’m doing. I’m definitive, and when you say we need to have it done this way, people feel left out.”
Back in the cafe, the kumquat souffle was cleared away and replaced by an apple tart. But not just any apple tart -- a “Smit Ranch Pink Lady” apple tart.
“This is what I always like,” Waters said with satisfaction. “An apple tart made with a lot of fruit and very little pastry. It’s just heaven, don’t you think?”