When famed chef and cookbook author Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the Bay Area in 1971, she started a revolution in food–a revolution some think was as momentous as any Berkeley has witnessed. Since then, she has continued her missionary zeal to convert American taste buds. She’s an ardent warrior in the fight to keep food natural and safe from pesticides and bioengineering. She’s even overcome her terror of public speaking to proselytize to as many people as possible–including President Clinton. Waters’ activism extends especially to children; she’s asked for public and private funding for a hands-on program at a local junior high school to show kids, through planting, gardening, and harvesting, “the relationship of food to their lives. . .to teach them respect for the planet and for each other.”
Q: Are Americans overfed?
A: Very overfed. We have a strange concept of what makes up a meal–witness the large number of people in this country with all kinds of health problems who feel that unless they’ve eaten a pound of steak and buttered baked potatoes they haven’t really had a meal.
Q: How soon will America’s eating habits change, especially given the fast-food fetish? You can’t compete with Pizza Hut.
A: I do get enormously depressed whenever I go out and see miles and miles of malls and fast-food strips. I just hope Americans come to understand that food isn’t something to be manipulated by our teeth and shoved down our gullet, that it’s our spiritual and physical nourishment and important to our well-being as a nation.
Q: You’ve said, “The most neglected schoolroom is the lunchroom.” Talk about that.
A: I visited the neighborhood school, and found the lunchroom shut down. The children are offered fast food from a concession stand at the end of the playground. Most of the children I interviewed didn’t eat any lunch at all. They said that the lines at the concessions are too long, so they just go down to the corner store and buy candy and snacks.
Q: So how would you change it?
A: I’m trying to put together a pilot program at the school right now. First, kids should be involved in the production of their own food. They have to get their hands in the dirt, they have to grow things. They also have to become sensually stimulated, and the way to begin is with a bakery. Have professionals come into the school, set up a bakery in the great old schoolroom, which was built in the 1920s or ’30s and has high ceilings and wonderful wooden cabinets.
Then the school should allow time in the curriculum for the really important matter of teaching [kids] how to take care of themselves–how to feed themselves, how to clothe themselves, how to build their own houses, how to live in a community responsibly. That, to me, is the center of an education, and I think we’re being completely neglectful of our children to allow them to go through the whole system and come out without the most simple and essential education.
Q: Harkening back to the ’60s slogan “You are what you eat”?
A: Yes! Food informs your whole life, which is why I maintain that eating is a political act.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: The decisions you make are a choice of values that reflect your life in every way. Buying Big Macs from the people McDonald’s buys its meat from, who are raising these cattle or kangaroos or whatever goes into what they call beef, is the complete opposite of the way it should be done. When I buy food from a farmer, I know who he is, I know he cares about my well-being, and I know he’s taken care of the land he’s farming. I have a responsibility to him, and he to me. I couldn’t put the food I cook on the table without him, so I really treasure this relationship.
Q: President Clinton, a big McDonald’s fan, also proved a fan of your restaurant when he dined there two summers back. How’d that go?
A: I babbled away during dessert. I said, “You know, there’s an army of people here who would love to help you and America nutritionally. It’s very important to set a good example at the White House table.” And I want a garden on the White House lawn!
A: It’s a very different thing to showcase a garden with a connection to the kitchen and the compost, something that demonstrates to people the importance of nurturing that relationship and knowing where their food comes from. It harks back to Jefferson, [who] grew his own food. Roosevelt had a victory garden at the White House. It’s time for another one.
I’ve also been trying to mobilize chefs around the country to make a statement that amplifies the one we made when Clinton took office–
Q: Which was?
A: Basically, the person in the White House should be principled, should have a philosophy about food that relates directly to organic agriculture. I will continue to push for that. I won’t say any more about this, but there’s now fresh fruit on the table at breakfast Cabinet meetings instead of Ritz crackers, salt-water toffee, donuts, and pork rinds. I have little ways and people here and there. . ..
Q: Do you see it as one of your social responsibilities to use your celebrity to be a “food agitator”?
A: It is. I speak up whenever I can.
Q: How do you deal with the homeless hungry who panhandle on the sidewalk outside your doors? What’s the message in that classic contradiction?
A: It emphasizes all the more how urgent the need is to help people understand the relationship of food to their lives. To understand, very early, how to take care of themselves.
Q: But the reality of your restaurant is that dinner on the weekend costs $65. Isn’t “understanding the relationship of food to your life” a costly proposition? How much, after all, does it attract poorer people?
A: I know it’s too expensive for some. But I myself would rather split a calzone and a large green salad and have a glass of wine for $10 a person in the lower-priced Cafe Panisse [above Chez Panisse] than fill my face for $7.50 at some cheap joint.
Organically grown food costs us 50 percent more than other food. Our suppliers are struggling hard to do what they do, and they’re worth what they charge. It’s unfortunate that it costs us so much to stay in business. I wish I could open a new restaurant that’s really inexpensive–someday I will.
Q: What trends do you foresee?
A: I think it’s going in two directions, actually. The biotech movement and the farmer’s market movement.
Q: I assume you think the biotech movement is bad? Are you afraid of it?
A: I stay as far away from their milk and produce as possible. Tampering with the very nature of food is playing with fire.
I’d like to think people are coming to another way of being sensually involved with food, and experiencing something not engineered by technocrats.
Q: So how do you fight back?
A: It sounds so idealistic and naive when I tell people, “Hey, just demand fresh things organically grown in your store and it’ll happen,” but I really see signs that it’s true. Safeway has an organic produce section in many of its stores now. Two years ago, there were none.
Q: Do your fellow restaurateurs support your activism?
A: They think I’m extreme [laughs]. I think there are lots of cooks around the country who are getting the message. That’s why I feel compelled to speak up, to keep the momentum going.
Interview conducted by Ken Kelley, a freelance writer for national magazines.