Alice Waters: 'Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,' Part 2 (Audio and Transcript)
In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer continues his conversation with Alice Waters, renowned chef and food activist, and the founder and owner of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif.
The two discuss the universality of enjoying food, the artistic vision behind Chez Panisse, and Waters’ new book, “Coming to My Senses.”
—Posted by Emily Wells
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and this is Scheer Intelligence. Today we’re continuing our conversation with legendary chef, restaurateur, and author Alice Waters. Her new book is Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. For those of you who don’t know about Chez Panisse, if you ever get to Berkeley you should eat there. I would argue it’s the best restaurant in America, my own sake–
Alice Waters: Goodness. [Laughs]
RS: I’ve eaten in quite a few, and I’ve eaten in quite a few around the world. And what I love about it is its simplicity, frankly. You know, I never thought I would be thrilled to be served a piece of fruit at the end of a meal; but, you know, then you eat this apple or plum or mulberry or something, and you just say, wow. That is actually the best one I’ve ever had. And why? Because somebody bothered to pick it when it was the right time. I remember you once told me, I was–I have a Sicilian, had a–he’s now passed away, Pete Zacchino, a Sicilian guy, my wife’s father. And I was making pasta for him, I was growing my own basil and tomatoes up in Sacramento, and I made the pasta from scratch and cut it with a knife; I actually didn’t have a machine. And made this whole thing, and I remember you gave me a tip, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but you told me, don’t pick the basil just before you serve, pick it in the morning. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s the way I remember it. And you gave me this tip, because it’ll be more flavorful or something. And you know, and your book reeks with that kind of advice; you know, don’t burn the garlic; you know, garlic is really important to your–
AW: Really important. [Laughs]
RS: Really important. And you know, know when the growing season is, and when’s the best time to get that plum or what have you. And what strikes me in your book is that it didn’t have to be food. You were looking for an area where you can control the integrity. You were looking for a center of idealism. And this thing I read before, when you said when my campaign failed you were disappointed ‘cause I came close to winning but didn’t win, but you were looking for some environment that you could control to a considerable degree. It turned out the restaurant was such a place.
AW: Well, I–I felt like food could get to everybody. I mean, good food could. And so that I–it’s a little bit like winning them over. Getting them to taste something they’d never tasted before. And then they would come back to the restaurant and want to eat something again. And it’s a very important idea in the philosophy of Carlo Petrini, who started the slow food movement. And it’s why I am part of that movement. Because he was trying to win people over with taste, so that you would be on the search to have that, to find that again, and you’d end up at the doorsteps of the organic, sustainable farmers. Which is what happened with me, around finding ingredients for Chez Panisse. I was only looking for taste; maybe because I lived in Berkeley I was a little bit looking for organic farmers, but not really. I was such a Francophile, and I was going to find that flavor of something I had eaten when I lived in France. I wanted the oyster to taste that way. And I ended up on the beach [inaudible 4:23], and I was opening the oyster right there on the beach, and it tasted like the ones I had in France.
RS: But even though you are a proud Francophile, and I don’t deny that, you have great respect for other cuisine. And in your book, Coming to My Senses, you praise Indian food and you praise Chinese food, and Italian food and so forth. So you’re not a French snob in any sense. And what I like–I actually prefer your cafe upstairs, I’ll be honest; I eat there every chance I get, I really like it a lot. I don’t eat downstairs that much, not because I got anything against downstairs–although, you know, it’s a little more than my budget is comfortable with three times a week or something–upstairs, I’ll eat anytime I’m in Berkeley. I try to get in, it’s not always easy. And what I love about it is the simplicity. It doesn’t put on airs. You know, it says pizza can be a great food. Or something like nettles, which were discarded, or what is the other thing you found in the river that people weren’t using. You have some great scene where a snobbish mother of one of your friends criticizes you for something that they always threw away. I don’t know, your friend Eleanor.
AW: We do use nettles on the pizza–
RS: Yeah, and people were not using nettles, right?
AW: No, ah–they’re a weed. They’re everywhere. And our farmer just sent a whole bag of them down to us, and he said these are so nutritious, and if you cook them with garlic they’ll be great. And then we tried them on a pizza with a little pecorino cheese, and it’s like the most successful pizza we have at Chez Panisse.
RS: Yeah. And let me just say, by the way, this is not some forlorn cause we’re pushing here. Because you’ve had great victories. I mean, again, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you certainly have been as effective as anyone in raising our consciousness about food. And in a way that doesn’t have to be pricey, doesn’t have to be rare ingredients of the, you know, some truffle or something. Garlic, for instance, the celebration of garlic is the celebration of a food that was, you know, in the common cuisine of most Italians and of many French and so forth.
AW: And Chinese. It’s a kind of universal herb.
RS: Yeah, Chinese, of course, yeah. And clearly has some health value, considerable health value and so forth. And so I think that the point here is that some revolutions succeed. I mean, you know, we’ve seen that, and in the more overtly political, we’ve seen the Women’s Movement; you discuss that quite a bit, female consciousness and so forth. You have a business run by a strong woman, and you brought in women chefs and so forth; that has succeeded. The gay movement has succeeded in changing a lot of our thinking. We go down, there’s been victories in Civil Rights and so forth. But food is an area where we’re not just talking any longer about improving it; we actually have a mass movement now–I think you deserve a great deal of the credit–for widespread recognition that you are what you eat, that it can be very tasty. I want to get to that, by the way. You are not in favor of suffering for suffering’s sake. And you’re not in favor of dumbing down things. And you have a very interesting discussion in your book about why you didn’t associate with Flower Power or hippieism. You actually preferred–and this is a distinction I have not seen mentioned often–you preferred the Beats, who came earlier, you know. And the people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, you know. You–and maybe we should talk about that a little bit, your feeling that there ought to be intellectual content, there ought to be excellence, there ought to be complexity, and it ought not to be just throwing something into a pot, getting stoned, and consuming it for calories, right?
AW: Well, I always felt that the hippie movement was really kinda dropping out. Just not, ah, wanting to confront what was going on, wanting just a different kind of life. And I do appreciate the gardeners who went out and wanted to grow their own, without any question. But to just cook without sort of reading a cookbook, just putting things together, and–I just felt like somebody wasn’t paying attention. And I’m sure that some people were, but I was kind of offended by the gatherings that I went to. And again, my sense of making the table look beautiful, and having a little ritual associated with gathering at the table, they were very important to me. And setting the table–I guess I learned that when I was a child, because we always had to eat together as a family. Come together at 7 o’clock when my dad got home, and we would have dinner. It’s really about a kind of aesthetic, for me.
RS: You know, the whole Chez Panisse enterprise is informed by a cast of really interesting people who take ideas seriously, and the choices we have in life seriously. Somebody like Tom Luddy plays a very important role in Coming to My Senses. And for people who don’t know Tom Luddy, he’s been a marvelous figure in educating us about film. He put on the Telluride Film Festival, he had the Berkeley Film Archive, he worked with Francis Coppola as a producer on many interesting projects. And he was instrumental–you know, true confessions, he’s a former boyfriend of yours, and so forth, but the fact of the matter is–and you treat your former boyfriends very kindly in this book. I’m not saying they don’t deserve it. But in the case of Luddy, he established Chez Panisse as kind of a watering hole for the most interesting filmmakers in the world. If they came through this part of California, Northern California, they went to Chez Panisse. And you know, a great documentary filmmaker, like Les Blank is somebody you describe in your book. And you know, made very important films, particularly about food. You describe Coppola, Francis Coppola and his wife, you know, major figures that came by. You know, it was a place, and is still a place, for conversation as well as eating.
RS: Yeah, so describe that a little bit. I mean–and the very name of the restaurant, of course, comes from a famous film. So tell us about it.
AW: Well, I loved that idea of bringing people together and really creating something that none of us could imagine, that’s really greater than the sum of the parts. And I think that having people who are filmmakers, having a conversation with people who are dancers, who are artists–it is really important to me that we have lots of different people who want to eat at the restaurant. So that it has young people, it has older people, it has people that are in lots of different professions. And I always want to be friends with people who have restaurants. I talk about that a lot, how the influence of Cecilia Chiang has influenced me, and she’s somebody who’s 98 years old now and she still is coming to the restaurant for dinner. There’s a life that, feeling that is very important for me. And I know that other people who come, like that–that they don’t feel like they have to behave in a certain way, that they can be themselves. And I don’t want the restaurant to feel like we’re pushing them into our way of thinking and feeling.
RS: [omission for station break] It’s interesting, you know–when I was a kid, I grew up on the other side of the Hudson in New York–your mother reminded me a little bit of my mother. And your mother’s somewhat better educated, she was a woman who pushed to get to college and so forth. But I used to listen to someone on the radio because my mother had him on the radio, a guy named Carlton Fredericks. I have not heard that name, encountered that name until I read your book. And I thought, my goodness, my mother was listening to the same guy that your mother was, and he was talking about nutrition.
RS: You know, Carlton Fredericks. And you are the living embodiment of a number of his ideas about healthy food, right? You know, someone totally forgotten. Another person that comes up in your book, Eleanor Roosevelt, and FDR, and my early childhood feelings about Eleanor Roosevelt in particular. And there you were in New Jersey, quite a bit younger than me, but still. You know, and you’re an embodiment, in a way. Your mother admired Eleanor Roosevelt; your mother in her way was a strong woman. And you know, Alice Waters does not get pushed around by anybody. [Laughter] I mean, I know; I’ve known you for a long time, and you ran my congressional campaign, so I know. You know, in the book, you make it sound like you drove me around; that’s garbage. You told me when to stop speaking, when to start speaking, you told me–you know, I have a memory of that, by the way. You had me saying in the book, by the way–one little correction, let me get my turn here–a little correction. You say that I had you answer the phone. I, I–ah, OK–
RS: But the fact of the matter is, I remember you, and my goodness, this was 1966; how old were you then?
RS: And you were telling me, no, you didn’t make that point clear, and you have to add this, and so forth, and why aren’t we talking to those people, but don’t stay too long, ‘cause you got four other things to go. And that’s why, you know, I relied on you so heavily. And it’s interesting that in so many ways–and that’s why I started this interview by talking about, we all come from someplace. You are actually the realization of your mother and a number of your aunts and so forth that you mentioned in your book. It’s what I loved about the book. It’s–you came from somewhere. You came from generations of women who had aspirations to break out of the roles that they were assigned. You know, and so you became very early on a no-nonsense, no one’s going to tell Alice Waters what she can do, and how to run a restaurant or anything. Including some very headstrong, egotistical male chefs. After all, if there’s a group of men that must be very difficult to deal with, it’s chefs, male chefs, right? I mean, and if there’s an industry that’s been dominated by machismo, it’s the food industry, chefs. And you came along, and you said, no; I have my standards, I have my ideas, and that’s going to be there. And so you know, but this book is particularly important because it culminates with a victory. It says that someone can be in college, not knowing what they quite want to do, rejecting the advice of everybody who tells you what you should do. And you reinvented the world to suit your standards. And you had standards; you had strong feelings about a whole range of things long before you ever came to Berkeley. And then you tried different things, and they didn’t quite work out well. And as you say, and I think it’s a really powerful sentiment, you wanted an environment that you could control. But not so that you could make it easy; it’s really an environment that would leave you without any excuses. If that restaurant fails on any night, it’s on your watch.
AW: Oh, I believe that. I believe that.
RS: Yeah. So you created an environment in which you are tested every single night. I mean, that’s why I hate cooking, because I have a sense I’ll fail with every dinner when I try a dish. And I’ve thought about that a lot when I eat at Chez Panisse. You know, I think, wait a minute, what if the olives are not good? You know, what if the bread is a bit stale? And you know–
AW: I hope you’ll tell me.
RS: Yeah. Well, let me just ask you about some of these other people that are in your book who are so–we’ve talked about some of the film people, and they are incredible. Werner Hertzog, I mean, there’s a whole who’s-who of really interesting filmmakers from throughout the world who’ve passed through Chez Panisse and continue to do so. But you have other people. You know, talk about David Goines and his artistic contribution to Chez Panisse. I mean, the whole graphic movement.
AW: You know, I really wanted to create a place that I wanted to live in. I mean, I wanted it to be beautiful in this aesthetic way. And so I asked David Goines whether he would design a menu and posters every year for the restaurant. I wanted his art in the restaurant. And it was like that with many of my friends. I mean, I wanted Tom’s filmmakers there; I wanted to be inspired by the people who came and who ate there. And I wanted to hear what they had to say, not only about the food, but about their world. And so, and when you’re in a restaurant, you’re really in it; you’re always cooking when other people are relaxing. And you’re on duty. And so I wanted that world to come to me. And the way that it could come, or would come, is if I made this food, that was irresistible, an environment that they felt relaxed.
RS: You know, it’s interesting. You have resisted franchising. And Peet’s, I remember I once saw an interview with the fellow who started Peet’s. And he said he wouldn’t franchise because he wouldn’t be able to control the quality, and so forth. And then of course, Peet’s has franchised; I guess other folks bought it and moved on. Schultz, who started Starbucks, and then he came back to manage it ‘cause he said the smell was gone; you couldn’t get the smell, I don’t know, he had some theory about that. But you have, you did have Franny’s named after your daughter, you had a restaurant. You were going to open a place up in San Francisco, as I recall, or you were considering it. But in the main, you’ve kept to that one restaurant in that one house that you first rented and then bought, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Was that also part of a search for integrity, that if you get too big, you lose it?
AW: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I would lose, also, my life, in a way. Because I don’t want to be on a plane flying to New York to my restaurant and flying back every week. I don’t want to even drive across the bridge and come back. I like to know the people who I’m working with. They’re my good friends. This is not–I’m never hiring someone just because they have the skills; if I have to be in the restaurant for a long period of time, I want to have a rapport that’s even beyond food. And I want to be connected in that way. I mean, it really feels like, I call it the family of Panisse. Because it is like that for me. I want to know the customers when I go in. I can’t imagine having a whole lot of restaurants and moving around and–it’s not the reason that I wanted to have the restaurant in the first place.
RS: So let me conclude this by asking, do you think you’re winning, we’re winning, on the food question? I mean, we certainly see “organic” everywhere, whatever the word means. We don’t see “fair trade” very often, so we don’t know whether the people picking the beans are being paid. “No GMOs” and so forth, I mean, there’s a lot of language out there. You can hardly go into, I went to Safeway this morning to get something I needed, and I saw, every sign was organic this or this, or they buy locally; I don’t know whether any of that’s true or not.
AW: You have to ask. [Laughs]
RS: And now Amazon has bought Whole Foods. That’s the richest guy in the world, you know, in this enormous company, and now they’re going to ship it everywhere.
AW: It’s shocking. It is. And it’s the reason that we have to go back to school. We have to go into the public schools, and we have to teach our children. We have to feed our children differently. And it’s why I’ve been involved with the Edible Schoolyard project, because we’re not going to be able to change this fast-food culture. We have to teach our children differently, and we have to feed them differently. And so 23 years of working in a particular school in Berkeley, the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, with middle-school children, a thousand of them, who speak 22 different languages in their homes, is a great test group. And we learned very quickly that we could win them over. If they grew the food and they cooked it, they all ate it. And it wasn’t a cooking class, and it’s not a gardening class, per se. It’s a math class and a science class in the garden. Or it’s a history class and a language class in the kitchen. But I know these children, after they’re engaged in this interactive way, that they fall in love, not only with food, but with these values of civilization. They like to sit at the table. They even like to clear the table. They speak to each other differently. It’s so beautiful to watch. And so I know that this can happen in the public schools. But we need to make an intervention. And I think if we come through the cafeteria door and bring those organic, sustainable farmers with us, that we will change public education in America.
RS: Finally, we’re up against the same issue we were up against in the sixties with Berkeley. How do you prevent cooption? How do you prevent selling out? And when you have a situation where now Whole Foods stands for, you know, oh, the big–well, I mean, they’re the much-advertised, you know–
AW: But they don’t.
RS: –and then they get bought by the richest guy and his Amazon, who’s also the guy who does every other bloody thing to destroy bookstores and everything else–what is really going to happen to those organic farmers? You know, I just–
AW: Well, that’s why I want schools to support them. I want to buy the food for the schools directly, without any middleman, from the farmers who take care of the land. It’s just what we’ve been doing at Chez Panisse. We have one farmer that we support entirely. He makes a really good living farming, and he loves it. We give all our compost back to his farm, and he brings us the vegetables. Now, this could happen with schools. It could. And it should. And it’s like we would feed the children the most nutritious food, and the farmers would bring the values of the land to the schools. And I think with one in two children having diabetes in the future, and childhood hunger just rampant, that we have a moral obligation to feed children food that is deeply nourishing. And in a way that makes them feel like we care about them. Now, that’s what the family table was in this country, but 85 percent of the kids in this country don’t eat one meal with their families. So we have to bring them back to that table at school. And if we make the lunch and connect it to the academic subjects, we’ll have the time and attention to care for the children and have them digest these values, these human values.
RS: OK. Well, basically what I’m getting out of this, and we can conclude on this, is read the labels carefully.
AW: Go to the farmer’s markets, and–
RS: Yeah, go to the farmer’s market. But more than that, you know–
AW: Don’t buy from the big stores.
RS: And also, you know, it’s not just a question of growing your own, but really, how did garlic get to be so complicated? Right?
AW: Right, right.
RS: You know, I mean, and we all have a historic memory, a family memory, of sitting at a table. We all know–look, c’mon, we all know we enjoy it–I’ll just give one little confessional story. Chez Panisse saved my marriage. I’ve now been married 41 years, and because my wife was, Narda Zacchino had become the deputy editor of the Chronicle, I was still down at the LA Times, and I was teaching at USC for eight years. And I noticed, every time I came up here and she picked me up at the airport or something, we’d start having a fight. And I did something really brilliant. I booked–and it cost me a lot, but you know, I could have done it upstairs, I actually did it downstairs at Chez Panisse–I said I’m coming every Thursday night. I said I’ll get the nine o’clock sitting, don’t pick me up at the airport, I’ll take BART, I’ll get there. At Chez Panisse they don’t let you use cell phones; they will have this menu that is really quite serious, you have to contemplate. And there’s a ritual to it, whether you eat upstairs or downstairs, you know. There’s a ritual to it, that what it requires is that you get reacquainted with the person or the people that you’re eating with. You think about the food a bit. You contemplate, you savor it, right.
AW: I hope.
RS: And well, I got that. And to me, what is really great about this story is, you grew up at the time coming out of the Great War, the great World War II, where the mass culture had come into dominance, total dominance. TV dinners, frozen food, mechanization of everything. And you retained a memory–I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me you retained a memory of family values and connection, and then you saw it being lost, and you wanted to restore it. If I take this book seriously. I mean that’s, to my mind, the big idea of this book. Right?
AW: I think you’re right. [Laughs]
RS: You know, that whether it’s in China, rural China, whether it’s in India, whether it’s Ireland, or it’s Guatemala, the whole idea of people breaking bread at a table with friends, family, having conversation, savoring the food, worrying about its preparation, admiring. As you said, before you had Chez Panisse you used to have dinners for all of these hyperactive people, and then there was one time when they just sat at, during the day, where they sat and thought. And thought about the food, thought about each other. So I guess that’s the takeaway in Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. Alice Waters, thanks for doing this, you know, for old times’ sake.
AW: Oh, thanks, Bob.
RS: So it’s a good thing I failed in my campaign for Congress. You found another career. [Laughter] I want to thank our producers, Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer, for doing this here at the Northgate Studios at UC Berkeley, which is very fitting, the Graduate School of Journalism, quite close to Chez Panisse. We have Harriet Rowan, who has been a patient engineer getting us all together. And in KCRW in Santa Monica it’s Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.