Sun, May 06, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Alice Waters, organic to the core

Thirty-five years ago in Berkeley, California, Alice Waters set up a ground-breaking restaurant that has since become the template for eco-eateries the world over

By Allegrea McEvedy  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Doris Muscatine, right, watches Alice Waters dump garlic cloves into a basket for the 1997 garlic festival at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.


I am sitting all of a jitter in Sally Clarke's much-respected restaurant, named after the chef-patron herself, in Kensington Church Street, London, about to meet one of my absolute heroines, Alice Waters. I've got a pot of peppermint tea with lemon verbena (both from Clarke's garden) in front of me in the vague hope that their soothing effect will help with my nerves when the great lady comes in.

Alice Waters started championing organic food some 35 years ago, after she opened her seminal restaurant in Berkeley, California, called Chez Panisse, and over the next 10 years, what it developed into has become the benchmark for eco-eateries all over the world.

Her work was the precursor to everything from the organic movement, to farmers' markets, to foraging and educating children about what they eat. Most of those concepts have only come into public consciousness over here in the past five or 10 years, while Waters was doing it in the 1970s, all on her own, driven by nothing except her own views on what was really important. A true visionary and free-thinker, Waters is in the UK to collect her Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious World's 50 Best Restaurants awards.

It was Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at London's River Cafe who introduced me, through Waters' books, to what this extraordinary woman was doing 9,650km away. And when I bagged a visa to work in America a couple of years later, I headed to California at the first opportunity to check it out. Unfortunately, because of the nature of my visa, I was not allowed a permanent job in the States, but I happily worked at Chez Panisse for free just to watch and learn. And learn I did: I was shown around by the chef Paul — who had a pet project, taking a year to make his own prosciutto in a cupboard under the stairs in the restaurant. I met some of their dairy suppliers — or "co-producers" in Waters' parlance — in Sonoma County, which has a strong tradition of cheesemaking. And I learned about really great pizza. The atmosphere in the kitchen was a revelation for me too, having come via the hustle and bustle of a typical New York kitchen. By contrast, the kitchen in Chez Panisse was calm beyond belief — like they'd all had a team epidural before service.

The main thing I learned was both enormous and slightly intangible — an almost ethereal respect for the produce, to really feel the seasons, and acknowledge that flavor-wise any given thing, be it bird or beetroot, is simply a result of its history.

Waters' manner is gentle, and her mood is calm; she dresses simply, with a little peace symbol on a chain around her neck, and she has a slightly other-worldly voice — so far she's conforming nicely to the Mother Earth view of her I've had for the past 12 years or so. It would be all too easy to categorize her as an idealist hippy, who cut her teeth and grew her hair in San Francisco in the 1960s, but that would be selling her criminally short.

We talk about the beginning: she loved having friends round to eat, so much so that she ended up doing a big supper nearly every night and thought "they might as well pay." She had no chef training, but grew up with a health-conscious mother — "we always had fruit for dessert" — and a father who tended a victory garden, one of those relics from the war effort where folk were encouraged to grow food and then send it over for the boys.

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