Her career path seems as organic as the food she serves and promotes. Food activist and chef Alice Waters is often thought of as the Rachel Carson of the organic food movement.
After a stay in France, she began pushing Americans to eat fresh, locally grown organic foods. She opened Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, in 1971 and later founded the Edible Schoolyard Project in which she advocates for farmers and teachers.
Q. Did you come from a foodie family?
A. I certainly didn’t come from a foodie family. I came from a family who cared about the dinner table and sitting down every night, but my mom was not a very good cook, and she was overwhelmed by the idea of feeding us all every night. I have three sisters. They didn’t have much money, but they had a Victory garden out in the back of the house that was there since World War II. They used the garden in the summers in New Jersey.
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Q. Many of your admirers in the food and restaurant industry don’t think organic, non-GMO foods is a sustainable model for feeding the world.
A. In fact, it is and I think that is one of the myths that is part of the thinking of the fast-food culture. I consider that experience of meeting the farmers and connecting with seasonal food, cooking it myself and gathering with my friends and family around the table as the most important experience of my life.
Q. Yet so many people feel organic food is more expensive and part of the elitist foodie world.
A. But it is not true. It is only when you buy that food in a market that is marking it up. If you are buying something directly from the farmer, maybe you pay a little more than you would for second-rate vegetables that are coming in from around the world, but when you are cooking it for yourself, you save so much money.
Q. Has your approach to preparing a meal changed in any significant way since you opened Chez Panisse?
A. I was looking for flavor. I wanted things to taste like they did in France. I was on a search because I couldn’t find that. I couldn’t find the tasty chicken. I couldn’t find the vegetables. Ultimately, it lead me to the organic local farmers in and around the Bay Area.
Q. You are not a big person so I am presuming you don’t eat a lot.
A. When you have food that is tasty, you don’t keep wanting more, wanting more. That is just sort of an addiction to salt and sugar when you are not having flavor there. I find to eat something incredible like a perfect peach … is so satisfying that you don’t need much more than that. You really don’t.
Q. You have become maybe an accidental advocate for teachers because of your school programs. Has it made a difference?
A. I really have, but I do have a master plan and it is very deliberate. It is not accidental. I would like to see criteria in the public school system that requires schools to buy from local, sustainable farms. When that happens, it means we support those farmers who are taking care of the land, and at the same time, we feed children the most nourishing food.
Q. Growing up, I had a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich every day for lunch. What did you prepare for your daughter, Fanny?
A. (Laughs) Well, I had those peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches but I had them on whole wheat bread. I never wanted to eat them because they were so dry. I was a really picky eater when I was a little kid. I liked the tomatoes and corn in the summer. I thought a lot about a school lunch and I packed my daughter’s school lunch every day. I know children like to eat food that is not all mixed together. I would do carrot curls and sometimes little lettuce leaves that she could dip. I always wrote her a little note in her lunchbox. She loved to have these lunches.