Have you read "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food"?
No, but it's all of a piece. I grew up in a household that had a tiny little garbage can they picked up once a week. My parents had a victory garden so [most] went into compost. And out in front of people's houses now are three garbage cans. Even if they're recycling. We have a very indoctrinated idea [against] leftovers. It's part of the fast, cheap and easy thinking -- don't sew it, just get a new one. It's going to be very hard to change those values unless you do it when kids are [as young as] 3.
Writer Adam Gopnik says food culture today is what rock 'n' roll was in the 1960s -- our preferences identify us.
I love him; [I hope he] means the good food culture. That I might agree with. Food culture is like listening to the Beatles -- it's international, it's very positive, it's inventive and creative.
But aren't some people food snobs, talking about food the way people used to talk about wine in New Yorker cartoons? Not what you're about?
Exactly. [Chez Panisse] never wanted to be more than a little one-star place at most, and then of course we lost our [Michelin] star. I was very happy! I'm sure that by not having that, we lose some people, but [we] brought them in [to] convert them. It took us a long time to use the word "organic" or "sustainable" because I didn't want to put people off. I wanted to get them to have the peach, love the peach, and then ask where it came from.
Now Wal-Mart is boasting about its organic produce. A good sign?
I think [yes] when the biggest grocer in the world decides they're going to try to buy locally and organically, even if many of their practices aren't ones that are good for people.
[However,] it can have a bad effect by knocking all the small local people out of business. People who shop at the farmers markets are always going to shop at the farmers markets, but a lot of people see the price and it costs X amount more.
I've been accused of being a farmers market philanthropist, and I love that. I am! Every time I buy in the market, I'm making a donation to my kids' future.
If you were being immodest, you could take a bow for popularizing much of this -- slow food, local food.
These have been part of civilization for a long time. It's the way people have been eating since the beginning of mankind -- in rhythm with nature. We are really hungry for that.
Do you ever watch any of these reality-TV chef shows?
I don't. All of this piques people's curiosity, and we need that, but what we really need every day is being involved in the schools.
People always complain they don't have time to cook. How long does it take you to fix dinner?
If I have chicken, I have salad ingredients, I have rice or potatoes and some fruit; I can do it in 10 minutes, as long as it takes to cook the potatoes and saute the chicken breast. If I don't have it, then it could take me a little longer.
So what's in your fridge?
You can take a look! I think there are two dozen eggs, some buttermilk that I was making, yogurt. I have sauerkraut; I have some quince paste, one avocado, kale with garlic and onions [that] I sometimes use in pasta. Whole wheat flatbreads made with whole wheat from California; I just put them on the fire, they rise up and get brown.
Do people ever try to catch you eating, say, M&MS? Do you ever backslide?
I backslide to caramel corn. But it's made with organic popcorn!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.