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Alice Waters: “I was Educated in French Restaurants”

Alice Waters has always wanted to live like the French. Inspired by a year in Paris, the American chef brought seasonal French cuisine to Berkeley, California, where she opened the country’s first farm-to-table restaurant in 1971.

Almost fifty years later, Chez Panisse remains at the forefront of “the delicious revolution” and the sprightly 73-year old is touring the United States with her latest book, a memoir relating the story of her awakening to good food and politics, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Clarkson Potter). Alice Waters likes to say that food is the most political thing in our lives. We met with her on a recent Monday evening as she was preparing for a talk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

France-Amérique: You have been an advocate of “slow food” for many years. How would you define this concept?

Alice Waters: Slow food is about bringing people to the idea of biodiversity and sustainability through taste. We have been led by the fast food industry to think that agriculture is drudgery and that food should be cheap, fast and easy. But if you buy from the people who care for the land and think about the future, you are supporting a set of values. You are doing the right thing for yourself and for the planet. The food that we eat and the choices that we make can change the world. That’s what I learned in France.

How did the year you spent studying in France in 1965-1966 shape your career as a chef?

Everything I accomplished in my life goes back to that time in France. In 1965, the United States was deep into fast food but France was still a slow food country. People went to the market twice a day and school children came home for two hours to have lunch with their families. I discovered fresh baguettes, apricot jam, oysters right out of their shell, wild rocket salad from Nice, crêpes from Brittany and felt like I had never eaten before. I went to little restaurants and my French friends introduced me to the French way of eating. We would have hors d’oeuvres first, a main dish, and a salad before dessert. Then, to finish the meal, we’d have something light and sweet like a piece of fruit or a slice of lemon tart. I loved eating that way. When I came back to the United States, I became very critical about food. I searched for market places and decided to open a French restaurant!

France eventually embraced globalization, supermarkets and fast food. How do France and the U.S. compare today regarding slow food?

Certain places in the United States have become more advanced than France when it comes to promoting seasonal, locally-sourced food. But something very positive is happening in France: I see more and more young people opening farm-to-table restaurants and looking for their own farmers like we did at the beginning of Chez Panisse. Slow food is growing quicker in France, which is a culture that has deep roots in agriculture and gastronomy, than in America, where fifty years of fast, industrial food pulled us up by the roots.

The program of education through gardening and cooking that you founded in 1995, The Edible Schoolyard, is present in nearly 70 countries, but not in France. Why?

We are getting there. The French national school system could very easily incorporate edible education. France could even have school-supported agriculture where local, organic farmers supply school lunches. I am very hopeful. Françoise Nyssen, the French Minister of Culture, founded a private school in the Camargue region where students learn by cultivating the land and caring for animals. It is also a good sign that the French president regularly quotes Marcel Pagnol, who was the inspiration for Chez Panisse!

The notion of terroir is becoming more potent in the United States. How does it apply differently than in France?

We are just beginning to understand terroir, here in the United States. Terroir is about discernment, about learning what varietal should be planted where and when, how it should be taken care of and used in the kitchen. I see this idea of terroir growing in California now, especially for peaches. Farmers are learning where to grow the best O’Henry peaches, the best Suncrest, the best Last Chance. It turns out that the trees fare better on the foothills, where it’s a little bit cooler, than in the valley floor. We’re still feeling our way. France has had hundreds of years to adjust and fine-tune the process, while the U.S. has had less than fifty years. It takes a very long time to familiarize oneself with the land.