The food revolution began here at Chez Panisse, the world-famous restaurant Alice Waters opened in 1971. At that time, most of America's finer restaurants used frozen or processed ingredients and pesticide-laden produce. Waters didn't.
"It was meant to be a neighborhood restaurant," she explains. "I never imagined anything more than that. I wanted that family of friends." She says that approach let her follow her dream. "I was able to focus on what was really important, which was the quality of the food, the purity of the food. And I used to look at every plate that came back to make sure that it was all eaten." She admits with a laugh that if it wasn't, she would go out in the dining room and asked them why they didn't eat the food. "I was concerned about their pleasure at the table," she says, "and whether they would come back."
Patrons did come back in greater numbers for the memorable, one-of-a-kind meals made with fresh, locally grown, seasonal produce. Free-range livestock and organic ingredients were hard to find, and expensive 35 years ago. But Waters refused to cut corners or compromise on quality. As a result, Chez Panisse came close to shutting its doors many times. But Alice Waters never quit.
The restauranteur credits her determination to her idealism, and a vision of the kind of food that could be served in small restaurants. "I just never let go of that and I'm not sure where that came from--that passion. But I never thought that it wouldn't be successful."
Today, Chez Panisse is a profitable restaurant that serves 500 diners daily. Gourmet Magazine named it "the best restaurant in America." With that kind of acclaim, Waters could have become a celebrity chef or started a chain of restaurants. Instead, she turned her attention to school children and the problems of obesity.
"I'm very concerned about what children are eating and the fact that they aren't eating at the table with their families anymore," she says. "Instead they're out grazing in 'fast food nation.' And it's teaching them a set of values that is destroying our culture."
Part of the profits from Chez Panisse supports the Edible Schoolyard at King Middle School in nearby Berkeley, California. The half-hectare schoolyard has been transformed into a garden. For the past 12 years, students have grown, prepared, and eaten the food they've produced, from vegetables to herbs. There are even a few chickens to provide eggs. Waters says the goal is to teach kids about healthy eating as an alternative to fast food. "It's not just the food they're tasting. It's the care that comes with the food. It's the teachers who want to set that table in a beautiful way. And this is a program that can bring beauty and meaning into peoples' lives."
The Berkeley model of schoolyard gardens and healthy cafeteria menus is now being replicated around the country. And Waters is taking her healthy eating campaign to the rest of America by joining forces with Slow Food, an international movement that promotes sustainability, biodiversity, and a return to simplicity.
She compares the movement to a loaf of bread coming out of the oven. "Everybody wants a piece of that bread. Once they taste it, they want it again. It's an instinctual thing, and I think we can connect in this very essential way, in this very peaceful way. We can rebuild communities and families."
Alice Waters is now planning her next ambitious project: a huge, unprecedented four-day gathering in San Francisco next year that she's calling Slow Food Nation. She hopes to attract 50,000 participants to the event and bring together hundreds of farmers, producers, and chefs. It's Alice Waters' way of thinking globally and acting locally and another step toward changing the way Americans eat.