An inspiring food pioneer, restaurateur, activist and mother, Alice opened her famous Chez Panisse in 1971, which popularized the organic, locally-grown food trend in restaurants and has been one of the world’s best restaurants ever since. In the meantime, Alice has also written a number of influential cookbooks, founded the Chez Panisse Foundation and The Edible Schoolyard Project and been a mother to her daughter, Fanny.
Photo: Gilles Mingasson
Q: We’ve heard a lot about you cooking with Fanny and instilling a love of food in her life. When did you start cooking together and how has that evolved?
It started in the garden. I tried to plant things that she would like to eat when she was little – peas, strawberries, green beans –and then she’d go out foraging on her own. She’d sniff the basil and feel empowered learning the names of the edible plants and being on her own. So that started her relationship with nature and the landscape, which I think is really important for kids to develop at a young age. Then, she understood that a pea was a pea and had the confidence to shell it on her own and from there we started cooking together.
Q: So that confidence she grew in the garden started to translate to the kitchen?
Yes. She started coming with me to the restaurant, standing on a box and helping out with little tasks. She’d help out with the bread making, pizza toppings – simple things she felt she could do. Then we started enjoying these tasks at home together.
She really loved pounding things in a mortar and a pestle. I normally use a Suribachi or something pretty inexpensive and while I was doing other things, she’d pound the garlic or the basil, smelling it all at the same time and doing these easy little jobs that kids like.
From very early on she enjoyed being a part of the meal – being together and setting the table together - it never felt like a job to her. She loved drawing up little menus, for example, (still does!). You know, she found it a bit of a creative outlet, she always has.
Alice Waters with her daughter Fanny (left), circa 1987.
Q: You say that helping you in the kitchen (at home or the restaurant) never felt like a job to Fanny – do you think it’s because you never treated your job as a chore?
Oh, yes, without any question. She picked up on the pleasure aspect of what I was doing. And she understood that at the end of it we all sat down and ate together. And she always wanted to be there, at the table. And I think that when the food is good on the table everybody does want to be there, and eat, and talk and just be present.
Q: What would you say to those looking to get their kids more involved in the kitchen and in sitting down to dinner?
Mealtime can’t be a stressful thing – you have to make an uncomplicated decision about what you’re going to be making so it’s not something that’s making you crazy and by the time you sit down to eat you’re not too tired to be there.
Q: Were there any favorite uncomplicated meals you made consistently for Fanny at home when she was growing up?
She always liked when I put something on the grill because I have a fireplace in my kitchen. But she also loved peas and so that was her thing and she would have eaten them every night. I would steam the peas and put a little olive oil on them, sometimes a tiny bit of butter. But nothing complicated. And I think that’s something that’s very important in getting kids involved. They like tastes that are very clear and separate and as they grow older, they can put more complex flavors together. But at the beginning, it’s very important that they taste things in a very un-sauced way.
Q: That’s really interesting and something we don’t always consider with children – building upon basic flavors of real foods. So, Fanny, for example, knew a pea was a pea. And later on, she could decide what she wanted to do with that pea...?
Q: How does being a professional chef and cooking for a restaurant affect being a home chef and cooking for your family?
Well, when I first started cooking at the restaurant, I thought I could cook that food at home, and that happened for a while. But when Fanny was born, I just realized I couldn’t and that I was very dependent on other people helping me. And so I began preparing much simpler things at home and in fact probably more nutritious things at home. And now what I’m doing at home is really influencing the restaurant. Because I’m experimenting with things like farro and whole grain bread and really trying to bring those ideas to Chez Panisse and the work I do with The Edible Schoolyard. And using these whole grains and starting to make fresh mill grain pastas, which are so tasty, you realize the white version is actually not so interesting. And I never thought I’d like brown rice – ever. And I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s a beautiful grain you can do so much with.
Q: Since 1971, Chez Panisse has been serving the best of local and organic food. Did you find it difficult remaining staunchly local and organic in the home, being so busy, raising a child, etc.?
You know, I never did. I fell in love with light, seasonal food and didn’t want it any other way. And the way to make that happen is to buy locally from the people who grow it. And when you have that taste, you feel like you want to support these people taking care of the land. I think it’s all a matter of asking. I always ask wherever I go, “What’s local? What’s organic?” I go to the farmer’s market twice a week and pick out what I’m going to eat immediately versus what I’m going to save for later in the week. I’ll get some very ripe tomatoes and then some not so ripe tomatoes that I can have later on in the week. I think ahead. And then whatever I don’t get at the famer’s market I get from a little health food store nearby. I have to say, I really never eat vegetables out of season.
Q: For those of us who live in a cooler climate that doesn’t have an abundance of year-round produce and want to stay seasonal and local…any advice?
Well, a lot of people are growing organic greens in greenhouses all year round. I know someone in Maine who’s open all winter and he closes during the summer. I personally have to have a salad every night, and there are such beautiful winter greens that grow in the cold-weather areas –from kale to different kinds of mustards, collards – that lend themselves to variation. I rely on canned tomatoes a lot. And there are such beautiful stored vegetables for the winter. I’m thinking of turnips, and potatoes, and particularly squash – carrots now are coming in every shape and color – they give a lot of variation to a winter menu.
Q: So... has Fanny ever eaten McDonald’s?
(laughing) Well, never with me, but she went with her father once when they were on the road. And she came back and told me it was too salty and too sweet. She never really acquired a taste for it. We never kept soda in the house, for example, and she never really asked for it. And actually my mother never had them in our home growing up either. But once and a while I could have a coke in the afternoon with a slice of lemon in a glass…and it was very of the moment.
Q: We are great admirers (and supporters) of the work you do with The Edible Schoolyard Project. As we understand it, one of the project’s goals is to better the way kids eat in school. What were Fanny’s school lunches like growing up? Did you pack them, if so, what was in there? Any tips for parents on getting healthy food in lunch boxes?
Well, I always packed Fanny a lunch – from the time she was in kindergarten all the way up to when she was in high school. And I really wanted her to eat her lunch and to love it, so I tried to make something special everyday. And it wasn’t time consuming if I thought about it in advance. If I waited until the last moment, that was more complicated. But if I thought about it the night before so that I could cook up an extra chicken breast, then I could make a chicken salad for her the next day. One thing I did very often was slice strawberries and squeeze orange juice over them (nothing else) and the acidity of the orange juice kept the fruit really nice until she ate it for lunch.
And I would put a little ice pack in the bottom of her lunch box so that certain foods could be kept cool.
I most often made a salad – in every different form to keep things interesting. Some days I sliced carrots, some days I cut them into matchsticks, some days I’d make them into carrot curls. I’d do the same thing with cucumbers. I always had a separate container for the vinaigrette so she could dip it or pour it on the salad herself. I’d throw garlic cloves in the little pot so that she could shake it up and decide how much garlic flavor she wanted. I made garlic toast and put that in separately and if I was making something like a bean paste I’d put that separately so she could put that on herself. There were always these little things I liked her to decide and do herself so she felt a little bit involved in her lunch. And obviously I emphasized fruits and vegetables because I knew that inevitably she’d have other stuff throughout the course of the day.
I’d often include a little note, sometimes an herb or a flower from the garden so that she knew that I was thinking about her.
And I always added a cloth napkin and some real silverware, which she’d bring back every day, and then I’d ask her what she liked and she’d say “Oh, I don’t want that tomorrow” etc. So we were kind of always talking about it.
Q: In addition to being a mom that packs school lunches everyday, you were running this hugely successful business. How did you do it all?
Well, I counted on my friends and my family. And I think you really have to do that. I mean, when I had people over for dinner, I’d get all the stuff to cook with but everyone would help to cook. So it was never my responsibility for cooking the whole meal for either family or friends. It was great because my husband loved to cook and shared that responsibility and I think that’s how we have to think about it. I had friends who had children and I thought we should all really share the responsibility for cooking the meal, and you know, maybe three times a week we could go over to someone else’s house and they would cook. And it was like a little bit of a family, a bigger family. And I think it’s important to share that responsibility – really really important. It’s really the best. And as the kids get older, they take over the meal. I’ve seen that happen with 12, 13-year-old kids! They become very good cooks this way and like cooking the meal for their family – what could be better?
Q: How have you prepared Fanny for navigating her own life and career as she gets older?
I think that we all have to be the change that we want to make and be engaged in that way and if we are, our kids will follow.
Also, we have to find the time to sit down with our kids. And it may not be dinnertime, it may be breakfast or lunch...Fanny and I would always have Saturday lunch together, always. We’d usually go to the market, come home and have lunch together. And then it became a ritual in our relationship. Even if I had work on Saturday, I would always be there for lunch.
Q: OK, so a bit unrelated but we’re curious – what’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Garlic. And also I can’t live without olive oil. These ingredients are indispensible to me…and canned tomatoes!