Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in a White House ceremony today. It's richly deserved. She's probably done more than any other restaurateur in America to define the way we eat — and the way we think about eating — in the modern day.
Granted, Waters can sometimes rub people the wrong way. Pioneers often do. The combination of fixed purpose and self-confidence that enabled her to persevere against all criticism for the more than 40 years since Chez Panisse opened does not lend itself to easy popularity.
But the revolution she started with her little restaurant in Berkeley is undeniable. Here are five things for which we should be forever grateful to Alice Waters.
1. Green salad. This is not a joke. Every time I visit the Bay Area, I try to get at least one meal at Chez Panisse Café, and for me it's almost unthinkable to eat there without ordering a green salad. That one seemingly simple dish embodies everything that Waters and the restaurant stand for. A throwaway in almost any other restaurant, the basic green salad at Chez Panisse is a reminder that even the simplest dish can be remarkable when prepared with care. The freshest, most flavorful greens, the perfect balance of oil and acidity, dressed just enough to moisten but not sog, this is a green salad that should humble any cook.
2. Jeremiah Tower, David Tanis, Deborah Madison, Lindsey Shere, Judy Rodgers, Suzanne Goin, David Lebovitz, Mark Peel, Paul Bertolli, Mark Miller, Jonathan Waxman, Dan Barber, Michael Tusk, Joyce Goldstein, Russell Moore. Yup, they all cooked at Chez Panisse, along with hundreds more. Is there any other restaurant that has launched so many notable chefs?
3. The best restaurant cookbooks ever. Want to learn to cook? Start with David Tanis' "Chez Panisse Café Cookbook," then work your way through "Chez Panisse Vegetables" and "Chez Panisse Fruit." "Chez Panisse Desserts" by Lindsey Shere is a classic. For your advanced degree, tackle Paul Bertolli's "Chez Panisse Cooking." Now you're a good cook.
4. Plate politics is personal. Tired of being lectured about the underlying ethics of everything you eat? Join the club. But think of where we'd be if no one had ever brought those issues to our attention. The Chez Panisse ripple effect can be found in everything from vegetable gardens at elementary schools, to more sustainable methods for farming, fishing and ranching, to farmers markets and seasonal cooking. That's a legacy that is far more important than simply having served fancy food to a few well-heeled customers.
5. California cuisine. Overstated? Of course. There are countless people who have contributed to the birth and development of whatever it is we mean by that phrase. But remember that while success has many authors, had things not worked out, the lion's share of the blame would have been heaped at Waters' feet. For that alone, she deserves a medal.
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