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California cuisine queen Alice Waters to be awarded National Humanities Medal

California cuisine queen Alice Waters to be awarded National Humanities Medal
Alice Waters, the Berkeley restaurateur known to some as the godmother of California cuisine, will be awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama. (Kim Kulish / For The Times)

Alice Waters, the Berkeley restaurateur known to some as the godmother of California cuisine, will be awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama, the administration announced Thursday.

This year's other recipients include author Jhumpa Lahiri, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and architect Everett L. Fly. They are to be honored at a White House ceremony Sept. 10.

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The National Endowment for the Humanities said Waters earned the award for "celebrating the bond between the ethical and the edible." The chef and author is known for championing a holistic approach to eating and health that focuses on integrating gardening, cooking and education.

"I am deeply honored to receive the National Humanities Medal from President Obama!" Waters said on Facebook. "For me, this recognition from the NEH is about so much more than my own life's work, it is an acknowledgement that food is now considered part of the cultural conversation in this country."

Her celebrated restaurant, Chez Panisse, became known for its use of local, organic ingredients and helped make Waters a de facto spokeswoman for the "slow food" movement.

Waters, a former Montessori schoolteacher, was 27 when she decided to open the restaurant in 1971, meant initially as a humble space for her friends to gather and eat good, fresh food.

It soon became a beacon for the sustainable food movement.

Waters, 71, lobbied for decades for the White House to plant a vegetable garden, which it did in 2009. She also developed the Edible Schoolyard Project, a school gardening program that helps grow food for student lunches. The program, initially launched at a Berkeley middle school, has expanded to hundreds of schools nationwide.

"We as a nation talk about poverty and inequality. Well, this is the place of social justice. It's the most important thing to me," she said, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In 1992, Waters was named best chef by the much-vaunted James Beard Foundation.

But Waters, who has been known to thrill houseguests with fire-cooked farm eggs, has also inspired some animosity in the food community. Anthony Bourdain, the chef and at times bawdy television host, once told Dcist, "Alice Waters annoys the living ... out of me."

Another chef, Daniel Patterson, referred to her in 2010 as "a kind of lightning rod for Berkeley liberal elitism."

But her influence on the way Americans think of food has been undeniable, many experts have said.

Her restaurant's mark "extends far beyond its walls, beyond California, and across the United States," the National Endowment for the Humanities said in a statement. "Waters' search for good food ... led her to develop a network of local, organic farmers to supply the restaurant, and to become one of the country's most ardent advocates for organic food."

Launched in 1997, the National Humanities Medal honors those whose work has "deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects."

Prior recipients include novelist Joan Didion, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

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