High Priestess of Slow

The celebrated chef and founder of Slow Food temple Chez Panisse remains convinced that Americans can learn to love the slow life.

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Alice Waters opened Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant over thirty years ago with a simple idea: food tastes best when it is grown organically, harvested locally, and eaten in season. Tomatoes in January? No.

The restaurant’s success suggests that she was right over three decades ago. Its undiminished reputation — and the proliferation of similar establishments across the country — suggests she’s no less right today. Still holding true to those early principles, Chez Panisse’s menu changes daily according to the finest and freshest ingredients available. It is a formula that works. Chez Panisse has been voted the best restaurant in America more than once, and Alice Waters, the best chef.

A commitment to fresh local foods has made Waters a champion of farmers markets and the Slow Food movement. But for Waters, a commitment to sustainable agriculture means more than conserving natural resources: It also means cultivating societal resources. Eating is a political act, she declares, and we make choices that affect our social and ecological environments every time we sit (or don’t sit) at the table. In addition to becoming one of America’s leading culinary lights, Waters has been the driving force behind the Edible Schoolyard project. The initiative has used food — its cultivation and preparation — as a unifying theme to give students at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Junior Middle School a better understanding of their intimate connections to the environment that sustaims us.

Currently serving on Slow Food’s National Board of Directors and as leader of one of Berkeley’s Slow Food convivia, she is helping Americans wake up to a “delicious revolution.” Alice Waters talks to Mother Jones about food, movies, and who she’s voting for in the next election.

MotherJones.com: In the current issue of Mother Jones, Michael Pollan writes about his own experience with Slow Food, of coming to the conclusion that the movement might “have a serious contribution to make to the debate over environmentalism and globalism.” What do you think?

Alice Waters: He’s just one of my favorite writers right now. I think we ought to vote for him for president. And Eric Schlosser for vice president. If only they’d run! They might have to be drafted at a certain point.

MJ: Your restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been around about twice as long as the Slow Food movement. The partnership between you, the restaurant, and Slow Food is for many reasons quite natural. How did you actually come to know the movement and become involved?

AW: It happened when I heard Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, speaking. I knew about Slow Food and he came to San Francisco to make a presentation.

He spoke my language. It was everything that we’d been trying to do at Chez Panisse — what we believe in. He had a powerful way of presenting that. I felt that I already belonged to the movement.

MJ: What would you say is the heart of the Slow Food movement?

AW: For me it is sustainability and biodiversity. And beyond that, the very positive cultural involvement with food that gives force to the movement.

MJ: A lot of Slow Food skeptics will say that Slow Food is just a foodie fad. Why should we take it seriously as a social movement?

AW: Well, Slow Food takes very seriously the relationship between food and agriculture, and food and culture, and the choices that we make everyday about what we eat. Our choices either support the cultural richness of our lives and conserve natural resources for the future or they have the reverse effect: preserving the values of a fast food nation, depleting the cultural richness of our lives. What you choose to eat is a political decision. All of our actions have consequences.

MJ: You’ve said, “To me, food is the one central thing about human experience which can open up both our senses and our consciences to our place in the world.”

AW: And I truly believe that.

MJ: How has that belief guided your work in the Edible Schoolyard, the project you set up at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley?

AW: I see that happen in the Edible Schoolyard, the opening of young people’s senses and consciences. I see them engaged both in the garden and the kitchen in a serious way. But at the same time, it gives them pleasure. It brings the values of work and pleasure together. And I think they begin to understand just what it is to feed themselves, and to grow food, and how complicated it is, how much hard work it is, and what you’re asking other people to do. It really opens their eyes.

MJ: Do you feel these students are walking away with Slow Food values?

AW: We don’t have a completely saturated program yet. Until we have the school cafeteria serving food grown in a sustainable manner every single day this program is only going to accommodate the kids about once a week. Ultimately, I think we’re going to see some very big changes. Even so, there are kids who come back from high school and want to work in the garden over the summers. They want to see what’s going on in the Edible Schoolyard. It’s very difficult to tell whether they’ve changed their eating habits but they certainly were exposed to another way of eating and they liked it. So who knows what seeds we have planted.

MJ: Why do you think Slow Food has not taken off with the same gusto in the United States as it did in Italy?

AW: First of all, we don’t have any real traditions of food being part of our culture. Maybe on Thanksgiving and some other isolated holidays here and there. But we don’t connect that as something essential to our lives. We don’t gather at the table anymore. We eat on the run and we think of fancy food as something that only people with money can afford. The Italians don’t think that way and I hope they can hold on to it. The French are the same. Food, and the ritual that goes with it, is an important part of people’s lives. Its cultural relevance is something that dominates the way people live.

MJ: Can you foresee a time in which food will become central to our lives?

AW: Well, that’s why I’m working with Slow Food and on the Edible Schoolyard. I’m trying to create Slow Schools — to really make food a school subject and the lunchroom an extension of the classroom. I see it as a place for another kind of education, an essential education: Learning how to take care of the land, how to feed yourself, and how to communicate at the table. That’s what everybody on this planet needs to learn. If we could get into the public-school systems and begin this in preschool then we could take it all the way through college.

MJ: Schools are the best vehicles to transmit Slow Food Values?

AW: No question. Carlo Petrini is also starting educational projects where he’s getting people from around the world to teach, soliciting students from all over, giving scholarships, and he believes they will be missionaries going out and teaching other people Slow Food values. It has to be embedded in education. It reaches so many people and we need to reach everyone.

MJ: How would you recommend to individuals that they become involved in Slow Food?

AW: A couple of things are very important. The first step is to begin shopping at the farmers’ markets. Getting involved in Community Supported Agriculture is another good way. They’re both incredibly valuable. Getting an organic box of things delivered is a bit of shock treatment. Be sure and start in the summer (laughs). That’s how we started in the Edible Schoolyard. We signed up all the sixth-grade classes in a CSA. So they got a box every other week sent to the classroom and they opened it there and then. It was kind of like show and tell. Sometimes they sent things home with kids, sometimes they made things there. It was very interesting and a very radical beginning.

MJ: Some of those students must have been looking at vegetables they had just seen for the first time.

AW: Absolutely. It was a whole different kind of winter for them.

The farmers’ markets are a beautiful and easy way to have all the Slow Food values absorbed at once — just by interacting at the market. It’s lively, there is a great sense of community. When you see the people who are the organic farmers and you become friends with them, it’s a great way to be a part of Slow Food. Or plant a garden in your own yard! It’s a great way to get connected. And there are great movies about food. Films are very seductive.

MJ: What films are your favorites?

AW: Of course the Pagnol films are how I got into the restaurant business. Chez Panisse is named after one of the characters in Pagnol’s film trilogy, Marius, Fanny and Cesar. Tampopo is another favorite. But those are all secondary ways of getting at Slow Food. You could come at it by reading about the devastation of the environment. But I’d rather bring people into food through pleasure. I’m interested in helping people find positive engagement with food.

MJ: It is curious that slow food teaches preservation through consumption. That idea is something of an anathema because we usually understand preservation to mean disengagement. Will thinking of preservation that way be a stumbling block to Americans not used to it?

AW: Once you start eating the way we [Slow Food advocates] like to eat, then you want it again, you want to make sure that that farmer is always out there with that peach tree. You begin to see the farming proposition in a different way, you see nature in a different way. You think, why aren’t they planting everywhere? You want to take care because you understand that that is where your food comes from.

One thing that I have especially liked about Slow Food is that it is trying to engage people with food in unusual ways. It tries to find venues for food that are unlikely — whether it is at a movie theater, out in a field. The movement is trying to point out the interconnectedness of culture — it all fits of a piece. When I’ve gone to Italy to the Slow Food awards ceremonies, Carlo Petrini pulls poets up on the stage to speak. We went into ancient castles and had tastings in rooms that no one had been in before. Slow Food is trying to demonstrate the relationship of food to cultural heritage. It’s so provocative to see food in this way.

MJ: Any chance Berkeley will become our first Slow City?

AW: Somebody talked to me about that! I said “great idea.” But boy, do we have a long way to go. People have been working on Telluride, Colorado which has a much smaller population and there they have always insisted on a kind of Slow City ethic. Berkeley is a much bigger city. But more power to her!


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