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Patt Morrison Asks: Alice Waters

The founder of Chez Panisse talks about the slow, local and organic food movement and the Edible Schoolyard Project.

January 21, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, is seen holding fresh greens picked from her backyard garden at her North Berkeley home.
Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, is seen holding fresh greens picked… (Tomas Ovalle )

Little bistro, huge impact. Like a different sort of miracle of the five loaves and two fishes, Chez Panisse, the landmark Berkeley restaurant, and its founder and guiding spirit, Alice Waters, have leveraged a small temple of slow, local and organic food into a massive force in the culinary world. Now that appetite for a new/old food culture has begun to register on the public's consciousness, if not always on its plate. Waters is clearing her table of most everything but the Edible Schoolyard Project: If we are what we eat, she wants children in class, on the playground and in the cafeteria kitchen to change their identities by the forkful.

It took nearly 20 years, but finally the White House has the vegetable garden you've been urging it to plant. Are you taking your trowel to D.C. to see how it's going?

I think it's doing wonderfully. I have a shovel -- a gift from an Italian ironworker -- for the first lady and I have to get it there. Michelle's interest in bringing schoolchildren in for the groundbreaking was important. She just found a way to make it real.

Now you've enlisted Gov. Jerry Brown and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to expand another long-standing idea of yours, the Edible Schoolyard.

I've known Jerry for a long time. I wanted him to validate edible education [with a] task force. I [want] to position edible education in a national way, the way we introduced physical education into public education. Everyone reminded me that to do this in California would really impress the powers that be in Washington.

[And] Kevin Johnson is trying to make Sacramento the greenest place on the planet. I've been talking to [him] about [a] program in a Sacramento high school: Kids running the cafeteria, turning it into a business, learn[ing] how to run the business, do the math. Schools [could] apply and have us come in to help work out the curriculum.

It's the whole nine yards; I don't see any [other] way of doing it. I don't think just upgrading food in the cafeteria can work.

You've been doing a version of this in Berkeley at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School for 15 years, and some other schools in California and around the country have similar programs. How does it work?

We have a good test case at Martin Luther King Jr. When they grow it and cook it, they all want to eat it. They like the pride, the control, measuring [planting] beds for a math class. They like being in the garden. They're learning by osmosis. I've watched them; the kids are really talking to each other [about it].

You once had a Chez Panisse Foundation; what's happened to that?

We decided to let go of the Chez Panisse Foundation because it's associated with the restaurant work and [focus on] the Edible Schoolyard Project. The website will map the movement, gather all the best practices so people will be able to take what they need for a particular program, like, "How do you save water?" "We live in New Mexico, this is the water catchment system we're using."

What's the state's role?

They're going to be cheerleading. They don't have any money; we understand that. [President] Kennedy didn't put money into physical education either -- he just gave it credibility and inspired every school to institute physical education. It was part of the curriculum, and that's the key. This needs to be part of the curriculum too.

Maybe the schools could do what Prince Charles does, selling organic products from his farms.

In Sacramento, they have Seville orange [trees] all over the Capitol grounds. Way back, a grocer in Sacramento made a Capitol marmalade. I said wouldn't it be great if the gift from the [governor's] task force could be Capitol Marmalade [that could be sold] for edible education?

The attacks on the first lady for promoting good nutrition and exercise have been shocking, as if it's un-American.

It's promoted, I think, by the fast food industry: "We have a right to eat what we want to eat." That's their only [defense]. It's going to persist, and it's something we can only address in public education.

A whole set of values comes with fast food: Everything should be fast, cheap and easy; there's always more where that came from; there are no seasons; you shouldn't be paid very much for preparing food. It's uniformity and a lack of connection.

Anything political you do now is about food, but back in 1966, you had a fling with election politicking, working to send columnist and former Times staffer Robert Scheer to Congress on an antiwar platform.

When he lost, I was so depressed that I opened Chez Panisse. I said I never want to go into politics again. I just want to be in my own restaurant and feed who I want.

Do you keep your hand in at the restaurant?

I'm always in collaboration with the cooks. I'm bringing back information every time I go away, every time I read a book. We're all talking about the menus. I think it's inspiring for them and inspiring for me.

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