Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and the power of farm-to-table cuisine

Story highlights

  • Waters and her Chez Panisse restaurant made local, seasonal and organic food popular
  • Her Edible Schoolyard Project changed the way many schools feed their students
This story complements the Culinary Journeys TV series, airing monthly on CNN International. See more of the show here: cnn.com/journeys. Share photos of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN.

(CNN)All Alice Waters wanted was bread, jam and lettuce that tasted real, with a cup of good coffee or a glass of wine on the side.

The founder of Chez Panisse, the California restaurant famous for launching the modern farm-to-table movement, certainly didn't plan to launch a revolution.
    Returning to the United States in late 1965 after studying in France, Waters missed the delicious food, conversation and community of the little cafes where she spent most of her time.
    "The United States was a land of frozen food in the '50s, '60s and '70s, so eating a fresh baguette and apricot jam was a revelation to me," Waters told CNN. "And spending time in restaurants, even in the afternoon in cafes, having a glass of wine with friends, it was very important to me."
    It was the height of the free-speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley where she was a student, and Waters absorbed the politics of the day while she cooked for her friends over conversation about politics, movies, art and food.
    After college, Waters worked as a teacher, but her cooking and sense of community kept friends coming back for more.
    Waters and Chez Panisse supplier Bob Cannard at his Sonoma farm.
    "I had this idea that maybe I could make some money if I opened a little place and my friends came there and paid instead of eating for free," Waters said.
    That was just one of many moments of serendipity in Waters' career, which -- thanks also to her iron will and hard work -- has transformed the international restaurant scene, shined a bright light on the nation's food supply and removed processed foods from many U.S. schools.
    And that White House organic garden planted by First Lady Michelle Obama? Waters starting campaigning for it in the early 1990s when Bill Clinton was president.
    "She didn't start Chez Panisse to change the world," said Miriam Morgan, the recently retired food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who has covered the Bay Area food scene since 1979.
    "She just wanted to serve this great food like they serve in France. But what she did was absolutely revolutionary and lasting and can't be overestimated."

    A little restaurant inspired by French cooking

    Pastry cook Betty Franks prepares dessert.
    Filled with the notion that they could do anything, Waters and a group of friends raised money, found a house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and opened a little restaurant called Chez Panisse in 1971. They named it after a character in the Marcel Pagnol's film trilogy, "Marius," "Fanny" and "Cesar." Waters was 27.
    The group of friends, mostly without any restaurant experience but lots of art degrees and dreams, planned to offer just one menu at dinner, and a café menu the rest of the day where their friends could hang out.
    Most ingredients Waters could find were from industrial farms and factories, and the taste of that food was a far cry from the victory garden her parents had planted during World War II -- and more importantly, the seasonal food that had transformed her palate in France.
    Thus began a search for nearby suppliers who would grow good ingredients.
    "I was looking for taste, and I couldn't find taste until I found the local organic farmers who were growing vegetables for flavor," Waters told CNN. "It's when I met them and realized that I was dependent on them for the success of the restaurant that I put those things (local, organic, seasonal) together."
    Restaurant cook Phoebe Halsey at work.
    The August 28 opening night meal of pate en croute, canard aux olives, plum tart and café cost $3.95, according to Thomas McNamee's "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse."
    The restaurant had lines out the front door from the very first night.
    It helped that Tom Luddy, Waters' boyfriend at the time, managed the Telegraph Repertory Cinema. Luddy had taken Waters to those Marcel Pagnol films, and he brought great filmmakers to dine first at their home, and later to the restaurant, McNamee wrote. They included Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard (Luddy was his US agent) and young directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.
    But at first, the finances were a disaster.
    If any of the ingredients didn't taste just right, chefs threw them out. (Unused food was eventually composted.)
    Staff had to taste the wine to sell it—and they tasted a lot of it—which meant that thousands of dollars of wine disappeared on a regular basis, McNamee wrote. Many people who offered flowers or ingredients were given meals in trade.
    But the food tasted wonderful and the community around the restaurant was warm, fun and growing. And there was something about Waters and her exquisite sense of taste and absolute dedication to making the best food possible that kept people around and coming back.

    A visit from James Beard

    Waters observes as cook Henderson Peternell (left) and cafe chef Nathan Alderson (right) collaborate.
    It didn't take long for Chez Panisse to catch the attention of foodies. Cookbook author Marion Cunningham, who had worked as a personal assistant to chef and television personality James Beard, brought Beard into the restaurant in 1974. Beard's visit placed the restaurant on the map.
    By October 1975, Gourmet magazine was raving about then-Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Tower for "joyously exploring la vraie cuisine française in all its vigor, freshness, and variety and ignoring those French dishes that turn up elsewhere with such monotonous regularity," according to Vanity Fair.
    That wasn't the first or only stellar review. Throughout its existence, Chez Panisse has earned many restaurant critics' highest praises and has sometimes been called the best restaurant in America, while a minority have called it underwhelming -- all with different chefs cooking, all under Waters' watchful eye.
    Tower eventually left, as many chefs do, to make their own name away from the restaurant that will always have only two main focal points -- Waters and the food. In doing so, they have often spread the message of Waters' ethos to cook what is local, seasonal and organic.
    Whoever is chef, the collaboration in the kitchen is like nothing anywhere else.
    "I really like to think that everybody has a good time cooking and they like each other," Waters said. "Sometimes I sit in the kitchen, and it's like watching a ballet because people are helping one another, passing dishes to them, helping them chop for the next course."

    A famous group of alumni

    This first course consisted of cucumber, purslane, padron peppers, melon charentais and yellowtail jack tartare.
    Waters has often cooked in the kitchen, usually after one chef leaves and before another starts, but she prefers that others do it. Alumni include David Tanis, Suzanne Goin, Paul Bertolli, Dan Barber, Deborah Madison and April Bloomfield.
    Bloomfield, who has since opened the one Michelin-starred Spotted Pig and the Breslin Bar & Dining Room in New York, had been cooking for 13 years and collecting Chez Panisse cookbooks by the time she landed a three-month sabbatical cooking there in 2003.
    "Once I was there, it really reconfirmed that I loved simple, well-sourced produce," Bloomfield told CNN.
    "If you buy super local and find a good product from a farmer that is passionate about what he or she is growing, you really don't have to mess around with it. It really is just wonderful to have a perfect fig or pluot plum on a plate, or a simple grilled quail over a fire."
    That sounds like something Waters would say.

    Sourcing a farm to table menu

    Ora Cipolla is one of three women (a fourth has passed away) who have helped peel garlic for the all-garlic Bastille Day feast for over 40 years.
    Forty-five years after its opening, a Chez Panisse meal ranges from $75 to $125 per person, depending on the day. The current café, which opened in 1980, offers a more affordable and varied menu.
    Paying a fair price for ingredients and a fair wage is at the core of Chez Panisse's philosophy.
    "Food can be affordable but it can never be cheap," Waters said. "I can't believe a bouquet of radishes could be 75 cents or a dollar. I know how long it takes to grow them, pick them, tie them together, bring them to market. Someone is missing out and that person is the farmer."
    Much of Chez Panisse's produce still comes from Sonoma farmer Bob Cannard, as it has for decades. A larger group of about 90 suppliers includes farmer Hugh Byrne and his mulberries in July and Churchill Orchards' winter kishu tangerines.
    "What I loved to do was visit Bob at the farm and see what was ready this week and almost ready for next week," said Tanis, a noted cookbook author who served as chef at Chez Panisse for years at a time since the 1980s.
    "I used that as a jumping-off point, rather than say what I think I'll make," said Tanis, who writes the "City Kitchen" column for The New York Times.
    After all, Tanis never knew when a friend of the restaurant might show up with a basket of strawberries for dessert.

    Bringing sustainable food to the schools

    Waters celebrates Cannard's fresh produce.
    While Waters and her chefs have published 13 cookbooks to promote their cause, what took her vision beyond restaurants into the larger world was a 1996 invitation from a Berkeley middle school principal to transform a piece of unused land on his campus.
    "What we did in Berkeley at the Edible Schoolyard project was create a garden space that could be used for all of the academic subjects," said Waters. The children can study the Silk Road in Asia, eat the food of India, "and they will cook it and they will eat it together."
    Waters also recruited chef Ann Cooper, author of "Bitter Harvest" and "Lunch Lessons," to come to Berkeley in 2005 to lead the local school district's food program.
    Twenty years later, the Edible Schoolyard Project hosts a network of over 5,500 programs in all 50 US states and 57 countries, feeding more than nine million students.
    After five years in Berkeley, Cooper left to lead the Boulder, Colorado, school district's food-service program and start her own foundation to promote good school food.
    Boulder's 52,000-student district serves 13,000 meals a day, cooking almost everything from scratch and using 25 percent local and regional ingredients.
    "And our participation and number of kids eating per day has gone up almost 30 percent since I've been here," said Cooper. "Kids are eating much healthier food, are getting educated about healthy food, and that's going to their families."

    Not resting on her laurels

    Waters is campaigning for free, sustainable lunches for all US schoolchildren.
    Waters, now 72, is not content to stay home and cook in her kitchen, which is stocked with a glass cruet of homemade vinegar, various salt mixtures, chile flakes and homemade preserved tomatoes and apricots in syrup.
    In mid-September, she flew to Washington, D. C. to meet members of Congress to discuss the benefits of universal free lunch for all children from kindergarten through 12th grade.
    This week, she's flying to Italy to attend Terra Madre, the Slow Food International biennial conference -- she is the group's international vice president -- where food producers from around the world meet to promote their local food cultures and traditions.
    Many people have called her unrealistic and idealistic over the course of her 45-year fight for good food, claiming her single-mindedness ignores the difficulties of changing the food supply.
    "I think the trajectory has been to view her as unrealistically idealistic, not to notice what was happening as a result of her actions, and then suddenly see that what she had proposed was brilliant and worked just as she had suggested," said Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health" and other books.
    "Her contribution has been way too easy to underestimate but underestimating it is a big mistake.  She's a force and deserves every ounce of recognition that comes her way."