Apr/May 2007

Fresh, Direct

Alice Waters and the culinary revolution she wrought

Sarah Kerr


In The United States of Arugula, his deft chronicle of the rise of gourmet America, author David Kamp gives us the memories of Nora Ephron, whose reporting on the gourmet beat back in the 1960s made her "the New Journalism movement's designated foodie." Ephron recalls how, starting "in the late fifties and early sixties, sophisticated cooking became the thing to do: you were an adult, and therefore you cooked. And bought Le Creuset pots and good knives. It was just what you did—sort of like smoking dope became a few years later." This early culinary boomlet, spearheaded first by James Beard and soon after by Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, does not much figure in Thomas McNamee's new, authorized biography of Alice Waters. Maybe this is because Waters, founder of Berkeley's culture-transforming restaurant Chez Panisse, came along a few years later. Only a few years—but they were crucial ones. Waters belonged to the next generation, the one that entered adulthood suspecting that adulthood was a sellout and that saw itself naively, heroically, as having to start over from scratch.

Waters's life traces a nearly perfect arc of brilliant boomer achievement and, the inevitable downside, boomer contradiction and neurosis. Born in 1944 in New Jersey, she moved with her family to Indiana and, later, California. McNamee gives us little on her childhood beyond a few idyllic glimpses supplied by Waters herself, which seem a bit preciously predictive of the future. Her father was a great griller of steaks. For a costume contest, her mother fashioned a skirt of lettuce leaves and a crown of asparagus. Food-wise, Waters's childhood did supply her with something to glower at, but her villain was not yet the bleached, frozen-TV-dinner inheritance of many kids her age; she would go to bat against that disaster later. She disliked the grisly brown health bread that her mother made her eat and the multiple vitamins she had to swallow, until she could get to the bathroom and spit them out.

Waters was, after all, a seeker of pleasure. After a stint at a party school (if at this point she'd met a more persuasive man, one wonders, would we be eating our arugula today?), she transferred to Berkeley and left for a year in France. "She had not come to France for the food, for she knew little about food," McNamee tells us. "She liked the idea of learning to speak French. She liked the idea of meeting French boys." But once there, food, and the unpretentious exaltation of food in daily routines, was what she found. Here were these fascinating markets prowled by rigorous housewives; here was this deliciousness called olive oil, and trout with almonds served in a tiny stone house in Brittany whose welcoming instinct she would never forget. When she got back to Berkeley, she tells McNamee, "I wanted a café to hang out in, in the afternoon, and I wanted civilized meals, and I wanted to wear French clothes. The cultural experience, that aesthetic, that paying attention to every little detail—I wanted to live my life like that."

In some ways, this may be the most interesting aspect of Waters's story. Her extraordinary alertness to the scent and texture of, say, a verbena leaf appears to have been a natural gift. Her pursuit of all these "I wants," and her arranging of matters so that other people might find out they wanted the same things—this, on the other hand, would require invention and unholy amounts of work. After she spent time helping Robert Scheer of the swashbuckling antiwar journal Ramparts on his quixotic run for Congress and trained in London as a Montessori teacher, her still-vague desire to open some sort of French-themed café gradually became imbued with the righteous idealism of the time. Whatever form it would take, the effort should get away from the stultifying hierarchies of haute cuisine and the soul-starving American tendency to compartmentalize, to cut off work from life. The tradition-bound but raffish community of Marseilles shop- and barkeepers, as romanticized in a trio of 1930s French films, seemed to Waters an alluring model. Of the occasionally soap-operatic Fanny Trilogy that she fell so deeply in love with (the name Panisse comes from one of its characters, and her daughter would be named Fanny), Pauline Kael later wrote, "These are writer-controlled movies; literal-mindedness and pedestrianism are built into them." Waters's vision was, in fact, not pedestrian, but she was not above designing effects, guiding the flow, so to speak, to help customers drink down a vision of life with their wine. In this leaving behind of impersonal modernism, this purveying of a multifaceted experience more than of a style, she may have been most modern of all. McNamee reports that Waters thought long and hard about light placement for mood and hired cooks without experience, based on hunches about their getting the gestalt sensibility.

The restaurant opened in August 1971, in the OK-but-nothing-special stucco house in Berkeley where it remains—several times remodeled, of course, later fitted with one of the first wood-fired ovens in an American restaurant and with plain, beautiful motifs of rich wood. Waters's parents had leveraged their own home to help out; among many early partners were the writer Greil Marcus and some helpful local pot dealers—as Waters recalls, "the only sort of counterculture people who had money." The zeitgeist sense of teamwork extended to the abolishment of the French system of kitchen stations and to a practice Chez Panisse would become famous for: foraging on the roadsides, in the forest, and in a generous neighbor's vegetable plot for the freshest possible foods. (McNamee says this hadn't happened before, and in terms of scale he's right. Still, Kamp's history has John Cage bringing in mushrooms to the Four Seasons in the early '60s.)

A dutiful chaser of details, McNamee gives us a bounty of saved menus, running down what was served on countless nights throughout the early years, as well as which luminaries, in town to visit the Pacific Film Archive, made the place a happening scene. He tells us who on the staff came and went, who slept with whom, and who took drugs on duty. This level of sometimes nightly detail can seem cloying, an odd mix of foodie academicism and evanescent gossip. But the rundown does make you feel, viscerally, how exhausting it must have been to offer this reimagining of the restaurant experience. Out was the old à la carte approach, based on the ingrained habits of both diner and cook. In was a risk-based menu, vested each night with the chef's intentions. At one point, a boyfriend found Waters on the kitchen floor, ground down by stress and temporarily blind.

Complicating this picture is the fact that Waters was not, much of the time, the chef. She was the arbiter of staff proposals for the menu, the ruthless judge of whether a dish hit the mark, the overseer of atmosphere, the lowliest kitchen help when needed, and the front-room public face. Most of Chez Panisse was her vision, in other words, but over the years a complaining minority of chefs and staffers would say she should have given more credit, in cookbooks and in public appearances, to their contributions. The internal power tussles, hapless confusion about finances, and weary ambivalence about the pressure that comes with success will be roughly familiar to anyone who has followed any rock band from this period. In this regard, Jeremiah Tower—a gambling wizard of a chef fanatically versed in culinary history—plays the role of the guitarist with superior chops. Tower's solo riffs through much the '70s could blow the room away. But some of his creations read on the page like the food equivalent of a concept album—like the menu based on Salvador Dalí. In any case, it was later in the decade that Waters decisively started to realize her calmer but more lasting dream of seduction by casual bistro, underpinned by her championing of simple, fresh ingredients, artisanal if human-made, organic if from nature, and grown whenever possible nearby.

There is a reason elegiac histories of rock were already being written twenty years ago, while the post-'60s food boom has only started to get its retrospective close-up. The vast and contradictory commercial and cultural changes wrought by the boom are still consolidating. How does the pretension of some food obsessives fit with the moral imperative of others? How will the championing of modest, community-based farms fare now that big corporations have belatedly gotten in on the organic mystique? None of this is yet clear, but it does seem that Waters has, pretty admirably, for the most part resisted the temptation to cash in on the trend by expanding her empire—franchising Chez Panisse, say, or branching into lucrative frozen food. She may not have resisted the temptation to become a widely celebrated image verging on myth—but even here, the old idealism comes into play. She needs to raise money for her project to teach inner-city children, through school gardens, about nutrition and sustainability. On the evidence of this book, Waters is flirty, cajoling, judgmental, generous, yet sometimes unaware in her dealings with people in a way that suggests narcissism, a genius institution builder and an authentic humanitarian with a bit of the cipher's mystery about her. And she pushes hard, at times, on her conceits. When she counsels us to eat what we eat at the precise moment when it is most full of vitality, she convinces. But when she extends the lecture, it can take on an almost comical note of vampirism: Quickly, we must harvest the life! There's an interesting book to be written someday, after the business side of this food business gets sorted out, about dueling themes of innocence and power in the food world, which is always about the death of one thing feeding the life of another. For now, working out these undertones seems less important than thanking a visionary for all she's taught us about health and pleasure.

Sarah Kerr is a writer based in Washington, DC.

Gusticide

August 18, 2009
9:10 pm

Not a comment really, just a compliment,
This was beautifully rhythmic and coherent writing. After and hour of reading semi-literate blog entries and the inevitable comments, this article washed over me like spring rain.

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