Chef, restaurant owner, and author
Born April 28, 1944, in Chatham, NJ; daughter of Charles (a business psychologist and management consultant) and Margaret (a homemaker) Waters; married to Stephen Singer (a wine consultant); children: Fanny. Education: Attended University of California—Santa Barbara; received degree from the University of California—Berkeley, 1967; did postgraduate work at the Montessori School, London, England.
Addresses: Office—Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA, 94709-1598.
Worked as a Montessori teacher, c. 1967-71; opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, 1971; expanded to Chez Panisse Café, 1980, and Cafe Fanny; published first book, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, in 1982, followed by Chez Panisse Vegetables and Fanny at Chez Panisse, among other titles; founded the "Edible Schoolyard" project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, and the Chez Panisse Foundation, 1996.
Awards: Named one of 10 Best Chefs in the World, Cuisine et Vins du France, 1986; Best Chef in America, James Beard Foundation, 1992.
Alice Waters is the chef and owner of Chez Panisse, the extraordinarily successful Berkeley, California, restaurant often credited with revolutionizing American eating habits in the 1980s. Out of her kitchen came an array of unusual dishes and produce items largely unknown to American diners, and these foods trends then spread to other menus across the country and, finally, onto supermarket shelves. Waters is regularly dubbed the founder of modern American cooking, and by the early 21st century had moved on to her next mission: to improve the eating habits of American youngsters through an innovative schoolyard-garden and cooking program. "Kids really don't know anymore where food comes from," Waters told Vogue writer Katrina Heron, "and they are taught to think that it doesn't matter."
Waters grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, where she was born in 1944 as the second of four daughters in her family. Her father was a business psychologist and management consultant, and her mother the typical stay-at-home mom of the era. Waters recalled that her parents had a "victory garden," a holdover from the World War II era when Americans were encouraged to cultivate backyard crops to relieve food-rationing worries. From its bounty she once made a garden-goddess Halloween costume that seemed to foreshadow her future career, adorning herself with garlands of produce and even a crown made from asparagus stalks.
When it came time for college, Waters headed to California. She spent two years at the University of California's Santa Barbara school, and then transferred to the Berkeley campus further north. This branch of the university was becoming known by the time Waters arrived as a haven for politically active students. In the early 1960s, there was a ban on all political activity on campus, but a group of students challenged the rule, arguing that this violated their constitutional rights. The Berkeley Free Speech movement laid the groundwork for a wave of campus-based protests against the Vietnam War across America over the next few years. Because of this, Berkeley became known as a tolerant, counterculture-friendly community.
Waters majored in French studies, and spent her junior year abroad at the University of Paris. It was there, and on her travels across France, that she first became enthralled by French food and how Europeans seemed to savor a meal. She began reading extensively on the subject, and found English-language guides in the cooking tomes of American expatriate Richard Olney and British kitchen doyenne Elizabeth David, both of whom had been extolling the pleasures of simple French food for a number of years by then. After graduating in 1967, Waters headed back to Europe, ostensibly for postgraduate study at the Montessori School in London, but also as way to tour France and sample its cuisine once again. She recalled a restaurant in the western, Atlantic-seaboard region of Brittany, where the chef came out and announced to the diners what that night's menu would be. Waters and her fellow diners ate trout fished that day from a nearby stream, fresh raspberries, and other items of entirely local origin. She recalled the meal as simple yet overwhelmingly enjoyable, and that diners actually applauded the chef at the end. "I tasted things I couldn't believe," she told William Plummer in a People interview. "I just absorbed everything."
Waters returned to Berkeley, and taught at a Mont-essori school there. She also began writing a cooking column for a radical newspaper run by some friends, and sometimes fed its staff. Food and culinary choices were emerging as a form of personal expression among the younger generation around this time. "Travel was cheap and everyone had been everywhere," Waters explained to New York Times writer Lacey Fosburgh, "and when they came back home, they wanted the same kind of good foods and freshness they'd had in France or Mexico or wherever. They didn't want to patronize worn-out established restaurants. They wanted sophisticated, really interesting foods."
Waters founded her business with the idea of meeting that demand. She borrowed $10,000, and opened the doors of Chez Panisse in 1971 in an old house on Shattuck Avenue. The name "Panisse" came from a character in a trilogy of works by French film-maker Marcel Pagnol, whose films Waters loved. As the head chef, she had to offer a prix-fixe or "fixed price" menu, which gave the diner the barest minimum of options at a set price, simply because she did not know how to juggle a wider range of dishes during a dinner rush. She also relied on local growers to bring her produce, a rather unusual idea at the time, and spent lavishly on fresh flowers for the restaurant. "It took us a long time to become profitable, because we didn't know anything about running a restaurant," she admitted to Roman Czajkowsky in Nation's Restaurant News some years later. "It was very rocky for the first four years."
By the end of the decade Waters was ready to expand, and the Chez Panisse Café opened in the upstairs part of the house in 1980. It offered a broader menu than the downstairs dining room, with a focus on foods from around the Mediterranean basin, and soon became a favorite of the Bay Area's young, urban professional set as well. Responding to the increasing demand, some of those who had worked with Waters left to open their own restaurants in San Francisco-Oakland nexus, and by the early 1980s she was being hailed as the pioneer who began what was being called the new California Cuisine. The New York Times ' enormously influential food writer of the era, Craig Claiborne, was an early fan of Chez Panisse, and in a 1981 article he commended Waters and her visionary ideas; he also had to define for readers the terms clementine and calzone, so foreign were they even to his paper's audience. "Where American gastronomy is concerned, there is one commodity that is rarer than locally grown black truffles or homemade foie gras. That is a chef of international repute who was born in the United States," Claiborne wrote of Waters. "Even rarer is such a celebrated chef who is a woman."
Gourmands and restaurant critics from France visited Chez Panisse, too, and accorded it high marks. Waters' growing fame led to her first how-to guide, the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook which was published in 1982. Several other titles followed over the next two decades, but Waters avoided trading in on her reputation to join the ranks of celebrity chefs. She has never had her own television show, nor signature cookware or even line of supermarket foods, though she was courted by companies making generous offers. She also declined to replicate Chez Panisse elsewhere, feeling a restaurant worked best when its chef was on site and at least supervising the kitchen and dining room, if not actively involved in the dinner rush any longer. Her last expansion effort was for a Berkeley take-out food counter she named Cafe Fanny after both her daughter and another Pagnol character.
Waters did use her prominence to promote some of her core beliefs, however. She championed local farmers' markets, for example, as well as organic foods grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones. By the early 1990s, both trends were making their way cross-country, and at the start of the twenty-first century organic-produce sections were commonplace in supermarket produce aisles. Other food trends were credited to Waters and her restaurant over the years, including the oddly named greens that eventually supplanted traditional iceberg lettuce in salads, and gourmet pizza, said to have been invented one day when a chef at Chez Panisse tossed some leftover seafood onto a round of pizza dough and added a few fresh vegetables.
Waters has won a number of awards, including her profession's most prestigious honor, the Chef of the Year title from the James Beard Foundation. That same year, Chez Panisse was also honored as Restaurant of the Year for 1992 by the Foundation. By then, Waters was thinking about her next mission, which had its origins in a comment she made once to a local reporter about the middle school she went past daily on her way to her restaurant. In response, the school's principal invited her to visit, and naturally Waters asked students what they ate for lunch. She was shocked by the answers—some didn't eat anything, while others bought a meal from a fast-food concession in the lunchroom. The principal let her plant a garden on school property, and from there she began teaching the students about food, nutrition, and the usefulness of a few kitchen skills. As she explained in an interview with Paul Rauber for Sierra, "I didn't want just a garden. Lots of schools have gardens. I wanted it to be a garden that relates to what the children are eating at lunch. For me, the most neglected schoolroom is the lunch-room."
Waters launched her Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996, with the goal of funding similar "Edible Schoolyards" in other schools. She calls her project the School Lunch Initiative, and the program has evolved into an entire curriculum. Students grow the produce, learn kitchen skills while preparing it, and then benefit from eating healthy meals in the school cafeteria. The Edible Schoolyard was designed to lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating habits, but it also had a lesson for every hour of the school day: history classes tried out ancient grains that once helped Native American populations survive, and science classes could observe the firsthand effects of thermal energy.
Waters believed her mission could counter the negative effects of a worsening American diet. The number of obese children skyrocketed in the 1990s, thanks in part to an over-reliance on convenience foods and fast-food meals. For her, it was once again a food issue but one that had links to personal moral values or political beliefs. "If you buy fast food, you're supporting a whole other vision of the world," she told Dorothy Kalins in Town & Country. "These companies are out there destroying natural resources and limiting biodiversity. They're teaching kids to be wasteful."
Waters and her Foundation attracted some influential supporters, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver. Waters' future goal is to have an Edible Schoolyard and School Lunch Initiative program in all California public schools some day. She even replicated her idea at Yale University, where her daughter Fanny was enrolled. The Yale Sustainable Food Project was designed to provide food for one residential dining hall, but the fare quickly became known as the best food on campus, and students began to forge passes to eat there nightly. In 2004, the program expanded to other dining halls at Yale.
Waters is also an ardent supporter of the Slow Food movement, which calls itself the antithesis to "fast" food. Its members, drawn from several countries, promote locally grown or raised food, urge the adoption of biodiversity-protective agricultural policies, and work to educate consumers about food choices. Despite her long list of achievements, Waters remains modest about her influence on American cuisine. Interviewing her for Restaurant Business, writer Kevin Farrell asked her what she thought her most significant impact on dining habits might be. "I think the fact that you can get a halfway decent salad in many restaurants today," she replied, "is an indication that some of the things I believe have taken hold."
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Random House, 1982.
Chez Panisse Vegetables, Morrow Cookbooks, 1996.
Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child's Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes, Morrow Cookbooks, 1997.
Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, Morrow Cookbooks, 1999.
Chez Panisse Cooking, Peter Smith Pub Inc, 2001.
Chez Panisse Fruit, Morrow Cookbooks, 2002.
Nation's Restaurant News, February 13, 1984, p. 1.
Newsweek, August 27, 2001, p. 44.
New York Times, June 3, 1981; June 19, 1983.
People, November 23, 1992, p. 184.
Restaurant Business, May 1, 1987, p. 174.
Sierra, November-December 1997, p. 24.
Town & Country, January 2005, p. 136.
Vogue, April 2005, pp. 374-77.