Alice Waters: 'Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook' (Audio and Transcript)
In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer meets with Alice Waters, a renowned chef and food activist, and the founder and owner of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. The two discuss her lifelong connection with food, influences, and her new book, “Coming to My Senses.”
They go on to discuss how living in France encouraged Waters to embrace the slow food movement and to seek the best ingredients, and how making money was never her goal with Chez Panisse.
“It was to create this place that people liked to come and have a conversation around the table and see their friends, and I always wanted to make it affordable,” she says. “Those were the values of that time. And I’m still holding them very close to my heart.”
Listen to the full interview in the player above and read the full transcript below, and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
—Posted by Emily Wells
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Alice Waters, who has changed our perception of food in the United States through her restaurant Chez Panisse, through her work on The Edible Schoolyard, educating lots of people including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And she has a new book tracing her journey from a small town in New Jersey to the opening of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. The book is “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.” Alice Waters, welcome.
Alice Waters: Thank you, Bob.
RS: And we are old friends. And I do want to say, we’re here to discuss a book that I have now read twice: “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,” Alice Waters. And I read it a second time, we did a program in San Francisco and that’s been a couple of months now. And I was sitting in a coffee shop and I said, I better refresh my memory. And I couldn’t stop reading it. I actually, and it didn’t take that long; I think I started at 9:30 and I ended at 3 or something. It’s a 300-page book. I loved it. Because what I learned from it, or was reminded about it, is that first of all, all of us have a history. We’re all informed by a history, and we tend to disregard that. And when I read it I realized, you know, Alice Waters that I met in Berkeley, and as I’ll mention later, but you were my campaign chair when I ran for Congress on a platform against the Vietnam War in ’66. And you know, I kind of thought, well, you were just a regular Berkeley undergraduate, and you’d heard about the war, and somehow you showed up at my office and volunteered to be my campaign worker. But reading this book I realize, you had a very rich history, and that you know, we don’t have a simple culture here in America; we have a crazy-quilt culture of people coming from different backgrounds and mingling. In your case, a grandmother who was a rather fundamentalist Baptist, and quite stern; a father who started out as a republican and was very good working for the Prudential life insurance company, and then got fired late in life and had some real-world experiences and evolved, ended up helping you organize your restaurant. A mother who had a great sense of idealism and even was something of a leftist or flirted with communist ideas in her youth, and adored Adlai Stevenson, was very liberal and a real strong, you know, sense of feminist sensibility in a way, way ahead of her time. And so I just thought, you know, before we get to the food and the greatness of your restaurant, and your impact on our eating, I’d like to talk about something that’s somewhat different: the making of American originals, the source of idealism. And you grew up in a place that I, you know, I guess I was on a train and passed through it in New Jersey; I grew up in New York City. But, and I’m going to get the pronunciation wrong, Chatham, New Jersey, right?
AW: That’s it.
RS: The book begins with that world. And, well, let me begin with a very specific thing about food. Because I thought, my goodness, I’m a bit older than you are; quite a bit older, actually. But I remember victory gardens, something many people have forgotten about. And you worked, your first connection with growing food was in a victory garden. And for people who’ve never heard of that, during World War II we were all encouraged to grow our own food, whether we had a back lot as we did in the projects that I grew up around in the Bronx, or where you were living in a more suburban setting in New Jersey. And your father, who couldn’t go into the military ‘cause he had eye problems, however, was an air-raid warden, and he cared a lot about the victory garden. And I remember we used to save rope, and we used to save lots of items, silver or anything, but the main thing as a kid I remember is actually growing food to help the war effort and to feed us. So why don’t we just begin there, your first connection with food.
AW: Well, my parents really relied on the victory garden to feed their family. And I don’t even remember going out to restaurants when I was young. It was a very special occasion if we went to a restaurant. And my mother canned the vegetables from the garden so that we would have them all during the winter; we had applesauce and rhubarb. And unfortunately, she canned asparagus [Laughs], and she wasn’t a very good cook, and it was a problem. But we really relied on that garden, particularly in the summer. And that’s when I fell in love with strawberries sort of warm in the sun, and my father would just boil the corn, pick it, boil it, and we’d eat it outside with some butter and salt. And that was an incredible moment for me. And probably tomatoes, those Jersey tomatoes.
RS: Yeah, and just to refresh people’s memory, this is actually just before frozen food came in, if I’ve got it correct. So if you didn’t grow it yourself and you lived in a colder environment, like New Jersey or New York, you didn’t get the fresh, unless you know, you got it, somebody sent it to you from Florida or California. And canning was really important. But when you, there’s an incident that happened in your childhood—I’m talking to Alice Waters, who’s now legendary for introducing us to organic food, fresh food, variety in food, healthy food. And it’s interesting, I had an obsession as a child with one food-delivery system, which I’ve always felt guilty about. It was the Horn & Hardart Automat. You know? I loved that place as a kid! We didn’t have much money, your family didn’t have much money, but I remember my father would give me a bunch of quarters, or even nickels, and you could go to this place and there were all these little windows. And as you describe in your book, because you went; your family didn’t go out often, but when they went to Manhattan to go to the Museum of Natural History or something of that sort, the treat was you got to go—which was an affordable, working-class place, the Horn & Hardart Automat. And the whole idea was for sanitary reason and service, the food was displayed to you in these little windows. And if you wanted one, you put the quarters in. You describe it as the first time in your life—as opposed to being at home where you’re going to eat what’s on your plate whether you want it or not, you know—you, suddenly, Alice Waters [Laughs], maybe this is the first liberating act of your connection with food, had a choice. You were a little kid and you could wander around, look in these windows, and say I’ll have one of those and one of those, and then bring it back to the table with your family, right, and they had done the same. I was just thrilled to read that scene.
AW: But what I remember was peeking in the window, and you could open it and take your own pie. But you could see somebody in there who was cutting another slice of the pie to put in the window. And I just was sort of fascinated with that, watching that person, and filling all of these little windows. I thought, there’s something very real about it. I mean, it wasn’t the, you know, the way that we grab fast-food now, where it’s just kind of anonymously sitting there. It was, there was somebody in the kitchen.
RS: And you had a choice.
AW: Yes, and a choice. But I was sort of, had a little fascination with that idea of making something. And maybe that was, in my memory, when I started to cook.
RS: You know, the book is Coming to My Senses, Alice Waters. And it’s about the first—well, it’s about her childhood, and it takes you right up to the formation of Chez Panisse, this legendary restaurant in Berkeley, which has also spawned many other restaurants and food movements and what have you. But when I say we all come from someplace, in your case there was adversity, there were economic problems, there was, first of all, World War II and what had come after it, was to come after it. And in that, you developed a political conscience long before you ever came to Berkeley. This was something that I discovered about you reading the book; I had no idea, I just thought you sort of plopped into Berkeley and events were swirling around you, which is the view many people have. And you got caught up, or people like you got caught up in it, and you were against the war in Vietnam, and you cared about civil rights. The book, by the way, I should mention, I love the fact that the book is dedicated to Mario Savio, who I think is one of the great figures that we had in the 1960s in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. But you describe him in really loving terms as coming from an Italian family, and loved to have meals with wine with his family, and so forth. And I have very positive memories of Mario Savio as a really great figure. But Alice Waters, you were a woman with a lot of ideas, strong ideas, before you ever became an undergraduate at Berkeley, which I think was 1964. Among other things, your family had experienced economic difficulties of various kinds. Your mother and father had their own political differences, but they cared about what was going on in the world. And interestingly enough, after you left New Jersey you went to Chicago, your father got transferred. And one of the things caught my attention, you were in a school that was 20 percent white and 80 percent black students, but you didn’t see many of the black students in your classes, because there was tracking. And you describe, out of your various experiences, developing a pretty strong sense about racial tensions and class tensions in America long before the sixties, long before Berkeley, that have kind of informed your life.
AW: It’s true. And even religious sort of conflicts. Because I had a lot of friends who were Catholic, and ones that were Jewish, and ones that were Presbyterian. And I didn’t think about it, because I wasn’t strongly religious, and I was fascinated by their religious beliefs. But they never went to the other places; they never, the Jews never went to the Catholic churches, didn’t know what that was about. And I felt like I was experiencing this divided community of Michigan City, Indiana. And particularly around race. The town was segregated, really segregated. And the schools were, and even though there was this big high school that everybody went to, we were segregated in the classes. And I can’t really believe that when I look back, except that they banned “The Grapes of Wrath” at that school. [Laughs]
RS: You know, when I arrived in Berkeley—and you describe Berkeley as in some ways a contradictory place; we’d had a loyalty oath, the faculty had been harassed on the McCarthyism. You even describe growing up in the Chicago area, Indiana, but also before in New Jersey, the impact of McCarthyism, of fear in the air; you talk about nuclear weapons and having to get under a desk and hide. I mean, there is a lot of that reality in this book about the formation of Alice Waters. One of the things that I’ve always liked about you is you’ve had a sense of integrity that I connect with what I thought was the key concept of the sixties. There was a lot of different concepts in the sixties, and I do want to talk to you about how you never really embraced hippie culture, you felt more comfortable with the beatniks of the fifties and so forth; we could, that’s all in the book. But I think if there was one phrase in the sixties, and when you were an undergraduate at Berkeley and so forth, was not to sell out.
AW: I just felt like we had to tell the truth, and we had to stand behind it. That whatever we decided that we would do, we had to do it with integrity, just like you said. And I, even when I was starting Chez Panisse, I didn’t know whether I would put my money in a bank. Because I didn’t believe that that was an honorable institution. [Laughs] And I mean, I had to put the money in the bank, at least all my partners said I had to put it in the bank. But I knew that if I had a set of principles about how to run that restaurant, that I wasn’t going to ever do it for the money. Never. It just wasn’t part of my thinking. If we made money, and I thought we would if it was good, but that was never my intention. It was to create this place that people liked to come and have a conversation around the table and see their friends, and I always wanted to make it affordable. Those were the values of that time. And I’m still holding them very close to my heart. And I’ve never wanted to get bigger than one restaurant. For lots of reasons, but one of them was that I didn’t want to make more money, and that’s why you do get bigger.
RS: [omission for station break] You had a search, and you were not alone; you describe a number of your classmates, some of you, you started in Santa Barbara and then you found that a little too disconnected from reality, you went to Berkeley with your roommates and so forth. And there were other stops before food and the restaurant, searching for different meaning. And in your book, I happen to be one of those stops. We could talk, let’s get that over with—
AW: Yes, let’s get that over with. [Laughs]
RS: It’s not a big stop. But I mean, after my campaign, you did the Montessori teaching, you were looking for something. And the restaurant became the something, where you could live a life of integrity and change things. And you know, like, I’m a footnote in this story, you know, that we had this great contribution of Alice Waters to our food knowledge and safety and nutrition and everything else because I failed in my run for Congress.
RS: And you actually, it’s in the book, very clearly, the acknowledgment—was it the acknowledgment or the afterword? You begin—I didn’t even, hadn’t read it carefully before, and just before coming here I finally got to—and I shouldn’t say “finally,” I got to the end—for the second time, and I had missed it. And you say, “I always joke with Bob Scheer that when he lost his bid for Congress I was so disappointed that I opened Chez Panisse.” [Laughter] And I thought, oh, great! That’s my contribution to the well-being of the country; I flopped as a candidate for Congress in ’66 and five years later you opened the restaurant. But it was, you were working in my campaign and you went to England and spent a year studying the Montessori education system; I didn’t realize that until I read the book. My own son was a student in the Montessori school when you were teacher, my son Christopher, but I had no idea that you had spent an actual year studying early childhood education. You have always been a perfectionist. You always want to know what you’re doing, what you’re talking about, what’s really involved. You had that, maybe you got that from your father, who was quite precise in his thinking, right? He was a, you know, worked for an insurance company, dealt with actuarial tables as well as life expectancy and so forth. But you’ve always had that kind of perfectionist orientation; you want the perfect plum, and you want it picked when it’s the best time to pick a plum, right? Or a mulberry, or whatever it’s going to be. But you didn’t start with food. You, as I say, in terms of career you were at Berkeley and you got involved in the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement. And then in this campaign, and the Vietnam Day Committee, and then my own campaign, which was basically against the war and also working on poverty, to eradicate poverty in Oakland, which we failed on. Again, this is a series about American originals. Out of the crazy-quilt of American culture we actually produce really interesting people who try to make a difference. Ad I put you really high up on that list.
AW: Thank you.
RS: And so I want to know, you know, as somebody who teaches in a college and so forth, I always want to know, how do we get integrity? How do we get idealism? How do we get role models? And I’m doing this because I think—and I’ve known you, I eat at your restaurant quite often, I know you pay your employees well, I know when you had a fire you kept them on the payroll. You know, I know people who have worked for you. And I know that your name is synonymous, really, with integrity. And what you’ve done with The Edible Schoolyard, your concern about eating healthy foods, and how they’re farmed responsibly and everything else. And so I’m trying to get at that, what was it about the early education of Alice Waters that led you to Chez Panisse? How would you describe it in your own words?
AW: I know that my trip to France when I was 19 made an incredible impression on me. I felt like I had never really eaten before that time. And I went to France, it was the first time I’d been out of the country. And I went with a girlfriend, and we arrived just without any plan, really, except to attend this course at the Sorbonne that was a very open class to learn about French culture and to learn how to speak French. But I never really went to class. I was so fascinated with the marketplace, and the moment that I had one of those hot baguettes and some apricot jam, I was engaged. And it was when France was really a slow-food culture. And I mean that they didn’t have any of the values of fast food, sort of “fast, cheap and easy,” and uniformity, and more is better, and all of those values that are part of our culture here, didn’t exist. And so I just absorbed a whole other set of values, and the French were very, very picky about what they were eating and what they were buying to cook. And I mean, I was an impatient person, and wanted to go into the restaurant, but we had to read the whole menu before we went in; and we had to go by and look at other menus, too, just to make sure that we had the oysters that just came out of the water. And I really wanted to live like the French when I got back home.
RS: You know, it’s interesting, because one could romanticize France and so forth, but there really—I worked in France a bit on films then, and in fact in your book you mention a street, Rue Mouffetard. And I think that’s where Alain Resnais and a lot of the famous filmmakers had their studios. And I remember when you worked on films there, there would be a break for lunch, and it was taken very seriously. I mean, you might work late into the evening, or you know, people worked very hard, and certainly in the film industry; but there was lunch. Whether you were shooting on some set or what have you. And the quality of the lunch and the quality of the conversation that accompanied it, and so forth. And your book, “Coming to My Senses,” really captures that, that whole culture. And you’ve been associated with the slow-food movement, and for people who don’t understand it, it really has a lot to do with contemplation, with conversation, with thought, with taking people seriously, with listening to ‘em, and so forth. It’s really an interesting confrontation with what modern life has become. And the book, you know, is really a tribute to that. And I must say, by the way, for people who associate it with snobbishness, one of the good things you did—you’ve done many good things—I thought, was you had probably the most sought-after seat in a restaurant in America at the downstairs cafe. For people who haven’t been there, the downstairs at Chez Panisse is, you know, incredible, and you get a prix fixe dinner and it’s, you know, it’s great. However, I remember one day you said to me you were grateful that I was there and you were happy, and you said your friends can’t afford it anymore or something. And I said, what are you going to do about it? And you said, I’m opening the cafe upstairs. And the cafe is a place of affordable price, certainly for the quality, and people can go there; they can get the best pizza in the world, they can, you know, there are just a lot of—and an olive upstairs is not an ordinary olive. I don’t know where you get your anchovies, I happen to be an anchovy nut and those anchovies are—
AW: They’re from Spain.
RS: Oh, they are from Spain. But they’re just incredible. And yet it’s a cafe, you know? A college student can save up and actually eat there, you know, get their $20 pizza or whatever it is, share it with a friend. So it’s not prohibitive. And I remember you consciously opened that, and I say, without going into all your specific business practices, I haven’t met anyone who worked at Chez Panisse who didn’t feel that was a good place to work. And you’ve also been able to spawn all sorts of other businesses, not that you—well, let’s just put the setting of Berkeley. Berkeley is a rather special place, and your book captures that. And before Chez Panisse, there was actually The Cheese Board, which was a cooperative, right? And that kind of inspired Chez Panisse. And then around the corner from where Chez Panisse is, six years before, you had Peet’s opened up, and was one of the, really the first where they took coffee seriously, and where do the beans come from. Now it’s been franchised. But if one goes to Berkeley, a few other places, you can get the best ice cream at Ici, one of your protégées. And you can get, you know, great pizza at Pizzaiolo. I mean, you can go—I don’t know, somebody gave me a figure that there are like thousands of enterprises that have kind of spun off, inspired by Chez Panisse.
AW: I think there are many, many people who understand this philosophy of food. Now, it’s nothing that I dreamed up; I mean, truly it’s not. It’s the way that we have been eating since the beginning of civilization. We eat what’s locally available, we eat with our family and friends, we celebrate the harvest, we take care of the land because that’s where our food comes from, we take care of the farmers. It’s something that I think is deeply inside all of us, that makes us human; to be cooking, to be gathering, to be by the fire. And that’s what the restaurant was really based on. And so it was in sharp contrast to kind of the fast-food culture around us. And so we had to search to find those farmers and those ingredients. But now, it is spreading everywhere in this country. And it’s kind of—I think of it as kind of an underground movement, because it’s waking us up to the beauty of nature, to the connection we can have with each other. How we can cooperate, how we can make something that’s greater than the sum of the parts. How we can live differently in this world. And food is that common language we have. And we all get to eat it two or three times a day, if we’re lucky. And if we eat it with determination [Laughs], it’s amazing how we can change the world around us.
RS: That’s it for Part 1 of my conversation with legendary chef Alice Waters. Her newest book is “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.” Tune in next week for Part 2 of our discussion. The producers for Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Thanks to Northgate Studios at Berkeley. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.