Organic Pioneer: Alice Waters

Alice Waters is considered the mother of the farm-to-table movement in the United States. She opened Chez Panisse in 1971 sourcing product from local farmers. More than forty years later Chez Panisse continues to create fresh, seasonal, local and wickedly delicious food in collaboration with organic and sustainable producers. Waters is being honored at our Organic Pioneer Awards on September 13th, 2013, but we caught up with her in advance to learn more about how she discovered organics and what kind of future she envisions.

What led you to highlight organic food to a wider eating audience when it was widely considered crunchy granola or hippy?

Taste. I was looking for taste. You undoubtedly know the story of my trip to France when I was in college, and eating all kinds of things I hadn’t had before. I not only fell in love with fraise des bois, but with the whole culture of the table and everything else that went with it. I was looking for taste and flavor, and ended up at the doorstep of the local organic farmers.

What do you think about critics who claim taste and nutrition are not superior when it comes to organic food and, therefore, that organics are a bunch of hooey?

In establishing our country we wanted a melting pot and left our food traditions behind. We have been stuck in a fast food nation for 50 years. We are living in a fast food culture. It is very hard to think about food differently. The “values” of the culture of fast, cheap and easy are applied to everything. We’re talking total cultural saturation. Shopping, architecture, entertainment—those fast food values infiltrate all aspects of how we live our lives.

But think about the fact that one of the first farmers I sourced from when I was establishing Chez Panisse in the 70s was Warren Weber at Star Route Farms. He is still out here in Salinas, and we still buy from him. Monterey Fish, too. They were there from the beginning and we still source from them. Bob Cannard came along a little further into the second decade, and he is also still one of our most trusted producers.

It is a testament to the power of taste that these small organic farms have been successful for so long. It is why I treasure the farmers.

How has the dining community changed over the last 20 years?

Chez Panisse was started as a place for pleasure. I was resisting the hippy food from the 60s. I wanted something that felt sophisticated and civilized and delicious and portioned; something that had restraint and beauty. I think that is still what people crave, but it’s not about extravagance; we’re talking about affordability. Fruit instead of dessert, whole grains. We’re talking about the big picture of what it is to nourish ourselves and eat with intention and be at the table and have a beautiful meal every night.

I’m encouraged that the generation of young people right now are not only interested in and principled about sustainable farming and ranching, they are very interested in gastronomy—they are looking for taste. But they’re not just interested in the obvious red wine and salumi and cheeses. We’re seeing whole grains and sustainable fish being elevated. They are learning how to cook and living that culture of the table. They are opening shops and restaurants. They are going back to the land and farming differently. And they’re bringing the urban population out to the farm. It is a beautiful thing.

It is clear you consider the next generation as key to creating a change in how we interact with food. What are the top principles you feel our country’s youth need to learn/understand/live?

Take care of the land and treasure the farmer. All the rest follows. It is why we need to have a curriculum in the public schools that teaches every child from preschool through college to take care of the land and nourish themselves. We need to learn to live together on the planet and everyone needs to learn it from childhood. It’s about communicating and valuing each other.

When it comes to changing the way we eat and live, taste is the bottom line. It is very hard to stick to your principles if it doesn’t taste good. I was brought up on brown bread and “healthful” food, but my mother wasn’t a cook. It didn’t taste good. But as I learned more about the obesity epidemic threatening our children, I realized I needed to learn more about whole grains. I started buying farro pasta from Italy and I fell in love with it. I had no idea that it might taste better. I never thought that I could fall in love with brown rice. I’m such a basmati and risotto person. Then I tasted the rice from Massa Organics. It took my breath away. It is one thing to have whole grain that tastes terrible and very much another thing to have a whole grain that taste incredible.

In the last five years the health and wellness community has become more interested in artisanal production. That is the missing piece. Pleasure will bring us to the big changes. It won’t happen because we’ve been told we must do it. And it is happening. There are artisan producers planting the right wheat and making delicious “health” food like Tartine Bakery’s whole grain flours. But we need to make it happen more quickly.

What is your personal vision? What drives you to get out of bed every day and do what you do?

It is having an edible schoolyard curriculum in the public school system from preschool through high school. A curriculum that centralizes eating, where the cafeteria becomes part of academia instead of a catering operation on the side. In this vision, every kid eats for free at school, because school is the place of justice and democracy. They eat together and every food comes from farms that take care of the land. Food comes to the schools without a middle man. Instead, a nonprofit brings it there--someone who isn’t making money at the expense of the kids. And we pay the farmers the real cost of the food. There need to be ironclad criteria for buying food for schools that supports farmers and ranchers who take care of the land.

Then we can teach in a deep way. And we don’t teach farming and cooking, we teach math in the garden and English in the kitchen. We use those food spaces as labs. Every course is connected to the garden, the kitchen or the table in some way. That way it is an interactive pedagogy, so that kids can learn by doing. This is what John Dewey wanted and Maria Montessori preached and what I believe. When kids grow it and cook it, they all want to eat it.

We want to bring kids back to their senses. Our senses are the pathways to our mind. When we don’t feel and touch and taste and smell and see, we are living in a prison. That prison is now run by fast food. Those fast food values encourage us to be eating in the car, not out there falling in love with nature or art. So it has to be a process that begins with early childhood education, when children can learn a wholesome set of values to fight against that fast food culture.

This idea isn’t new. This is what we have been doing since the beginning of time: Eating local and what is in season, selling in the community marketplace, cooking and eating at the table with family and friends, and putting the waste, the compost, back in the ground. We are hardwired for it. We’ve only been away from it for 50 years. It is inside us, so rediscovering the land is like falling in love. It doesn’t take much. It just takes preparing the school. It is not about having a garden within a school, but creating a school within a garden.

Are there any organic pioneers that have inspired you over the years?

Oh, there are so many. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson are two very important people for me. Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have been collaborators. Artists Ann Hamilton and Peter Sellars. Carlo Petrini—he is my hero; he puts it all together. Catherine Sneed, who started San Francisco County Jail gardens, inspired the Edible Schoolyard program. Bob Cannard, who is an amazing farmer. I thought he was crazy 20 years ago, but quickly discovered he was completely brilliant. When he talks about his vegetables being more nutritious, he is not joking! Robert Rodale who put the whole picture of biodiversity together. It has been a beautiful voyage filled with inspiring collaborators and so many people I really admire.

What tool can’t you live without?

Mortar and pestle. It is basic, it is primal. People have been using these implements from the beginning of time. They are in anthropological museums, in the dust of Pompeii. They make me feel connected to the continuum.

Photo of Alice Waters by Amanda Marsalis.

4 Responses to “Organic Pioneer: Alice Waters”

  1. Claude Martin-Mondiere

    I started Medical school when Alice Walters started chez Panisse .
    I looked then and more today, at the nutrition as the old doctors. ” let’s your food be your first medicine” Now we may treat infectious diseases, we have to choice the right food to be happy, to enjoy to eat well for our best personal benefits. the Healthy food must be likable, and it is at chez Panisse.
    To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art. La Rochefoucauld, Yes we eat intelligently chez Panisse.

  2. Stefan Sobkowiak

    Thank you Alice for being a pillar for local and tasty food. Years ago you helped inspire our primary farm goal : to bring the WOW back to our foods. Thank you.


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