Alice Waters Tells Her Story of Restaurant Chez Panisse

She walked up to the stage, a red apple and an orange persimmon in hand, and placed them gently atop the wooden microphone stand. Alice Waters, celebrated as the founder of the organic movement, a world-renowned chef, restaurant owner, humanitarian, and activist, carried with her from Northern California…two pieces of fruit. Simple enough.

Truthfully, I hadn’t heard much about Alice Waters or her work. I was expecting to hear a high-powered, goal-oriented woman tell the story of her accomplishments in the I-can-do-it-all mindset so many of our world’s female leaders possess.

But Waters did not present herself this way. She spoke with the voice of someone with whom you were having a conversation over dinner, someone who was sitting right beside you, giggling and poking fun one minute and the next talking in a soft, sweet voice of “getting down to the roots of life.”

None of Waters’ life story seemed planned, steered, or forced. Events and opportunities just seemed to happen—to fall upon her lap—like a trip to France that opened her up to a new world of truly delicious food. Throughout her journey, Waters said, she was never looking for organic food from local farmers, she “was only looking for flavor.” This instinct, this simple appreciation for taste, is what inspired her to begin searching for local, organic, sustainable options and spearhead a food revolution now almost 30 years old.

The decisive experiences of her life—from Berkeley’s free speech movement, to her travels to France, to her early work as a teaching assistant at a Montessori elementary school—may seem unrelated, but all shaped her basic philosophy: in order to be engaged with life, one must be able to touch, smell, feel, and taste, just like a curious child.

Understanding this “aliveness of food” is so important, she said, to the quality of our lives. Numerous times she referred to “eating at the table” and getting back to the basics of a simple meal enjoyed with good company; in her eyes, getting back to the basics of life.

As a result of her experiences opening and running Chez Panisse, which takes pride in cooking with hand-selected ingredients, Waters had much to say about the realities of the sustainable food movement.

If you’re willing to look for it (and willing to pay for it) quality food is there, she said. She explained how she would go to great lengths to use only the finest ingredients; at one point she rode a plane with an open plate of lettuce atop her lap.

Her efforts in activism—the Edible Garden, the national School Lunch Initiative, and the Yale Sustainable Food Project—emphasize the value she places on gathering over a meal and of learning what it means to feed yourself. Alice founded the Edible Garden in 1995 at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School to educate kids about growing and preparing their own food, which now serves as a model for food- and farm-integrated education. In fact, the garden inspired her to start the School Lunch Initiative in 2004 in an effort to replicate the Garden’s efforts nationwide.

Through the Yale Sustainable Food Project, Waters brought this idea of educational and culinary unity to higher education. She instigated change at Yale, which her daughter attended, by establishing a student-run edible garden and inspiring students to cultivate seasonal food to use in their dining halls.

At Scripps, Alice’s talk comes at a ripe time when efforts have already begun to steer Scripps towards a more sustainable food philosophy. Groups such as the Scripps Environmental Club and Scripps Associated Students have headed projects to reform the dining hall food selection and maintain an edible garden.

Scripps already has made efforts to make local produce abundant on the campus. The Scripps Environmental Club, however, aims to get a more regular showing of seasonal food in Malott. The club has been excited and inspired by Waters’ visit, citing her as incredibly influential in its own efforts on campus. Her vision acts as “a really big catalyst to revolutionize the dining hall,” said co-president Marian Miller.

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