The influence and impact of Alice Waters on the American restaurant and culinary landscape is extraordinary. Today aged 70, back in 1971 Waters was the embodiment of avant-garde as the first and most prominent voice to espouse the need to eat both sustainably and seasonally. Fast forward forty years and you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant not boasting this philosophy.
Whether you call it ‘California cuisine’, (she apparently doesn’t like the phrase) or ‘New American Cooking’, Waters was the mother of the movement, but she has previously claimed that she wasn’t really doing anything new: “It’s really the way people have been eating throughout most of human history. Until about fifty years ago, there was always local, seasonal, organic production of food.”
This latest instalment in my regular interview feature ‘3 minutes, chef’ came when I met Waters at the Salone del Gusto in Turin where she was speaking on a panel alongside Jamie Oliver and Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement. Incidentally, if you’d like more info on the Slow Food group in Hong Kong, you can find it here.
Waters and Oliver share a passionate belief in the importance and power of schools as a way to ‘encourage awareness and appreciation of the transformative values of nourishment, community and stewardship of the land’. 2015 marks two decades since she founded the first ‘Edible Schoolyard’ in a middle school just a couple blocks from her legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. Today there are affiliate programs across the US and you can learn about it through this video from the Salone:
And here’s three minutes with Alice Waters:
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I’m not sure I always wanted to be a chef, but I knew I wanted to own a restaurant. That probably happened a year after I came back from living in France as a student. As part of the counter-culture at the time, we wanted to have a place together, and what better place than a restaurant?
What’s the first dish you cooked for a paying customer?
We had a pâté maison, duck with olives and a caramelized almond tart from pastry chef Lindsey Shere the first night we opened at Chez Panisse.
Who was your most important mentor?
Which cookery writers do you love to read?
Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Diana Kennedy and of course Julia Child who paved the way for French cooking in the United States.
Which one utensil do you use most at work?
A mortar and pestle.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
Potato chips – but they have to be organic.
If you had just one ingredient to cook with, what would it be?
Who would you dine with at your last supper?
And what would be on the menu?
Something from the fireplace, turning on a spit, aromatic. The comfort food of my life. Plus wine!
What’s your favourite vegetable?
Any particular childhood food memories?
Corn on the cob right from the garden, then right from the pot and onto the grill.
Any memorable kitchen disasters?
We tried to bone out trout through the mouth, making truite au bleu. We put them in the sink and forgot we’d also put chlorine in there!
Where did you have your most memorable meal?
It was a little place in Brittany, not a fancy restaurant, I can’t even recall the name. It was when I did a culinary Tour de France back in my student days.
What did you have for dinner last night?
What’s your favorite street food/snack around the world?
I like a great taco, in Mexico City, eating it right there on the street.
What’s your kitchen management style?
We run it as a collaboration, with improvisation. Nothing is written down, we talk about the produce we have in daily and the very best possible way to cook it. Everybody then participates and makes his or her own dish from the beginning to the end.
Ever felt intimidated cooking for someone?
Oh God yes!
Tell me something not a lot of people know about you?
I’m a film nut and was on the jury for the Berlin Film Festival.