Alice Waters, founder of the seminal California restaurant Chez Panisse, dishes on her new memoir, Coming to My Senses, and shares her ideas on good food and an edible education with Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis.
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Credit: Getty: John Leyba / Contributor

What’s the most important leadership lesson that you learned from your dad, who wrote a book on it called Organic Leadership?

Alice Waters: Don’t be immediately judgmental. You really need to hear what people are saying. He always put together a group of people in every department to have a conversation. Businesses can be more successful if they eat together and talk together. And I’m not just talking about the people who run it. I’m talking about all the people who work there. You have everybody at the table. It brings the community of the business together.

What does fast-food culture symbolize to you?

AW: It has taught us values that go against our human nature, and [those values] have, I think, really changed and destroyed the world in a profound way. We have become what we have eaten: fast, cheap, and easy. It’s taught us about the values of uniformity. And that more is better. And that time is money. And that it’s OK to eat in your car. And that cooking is drudgery and that farming is, too. And many, many, more values that I think have really imprisoned us and made us unhappy. 

Are you hopeful that the good food movement will shape the way we eat over the next 50 years?

AW: Well, I know that more and more people are coming back to their senses, but we really need to go into the public schools. It’s why I’m focused completely on edible education in California and a free, sustainable school lunch for every student from K through 12. We can’t feed kids in the cafeteria … in a 20-minute eating frenzy. We have to sit together at a table. My hope is that we can connect that meal with academia and get academic minutes for eating our lunch and really connect it to what we’re studying in the classroom.

This is the edible education curriculum?

AW: When you’re studying the Silk Road in India, you could be eating the food that you’re having along the Silk Road. So you might be having an Indian lentil soup, chapati, carrot salad with cumin, and you’re talking at the tables about what was brought along the Silk Road and where that was on the planet. We’re trying to push this across the country for K through 12.

What do you want the legacy of Edible Schoolyard to be?

AW: That learning by doing is the best way to teach. And by using food and a garden to teach the values of stewardship, nourishment, and communication, children will be prepared to live on this planet together.

What’s more important—having access to healthy ingredients or knowing how to cook them?

AW: Right now, access. Supporting the people who take care of the land, that’s number one. I do believe that that’s where nutrition is, in the ground. My farmer, Bob Cannard, always told me his vegetables were 10 times more nutritious than other people’s vegetables. I never believed it. But now his vegetables are evaluated, and they are more nutritious. And it’s because he allows the soil to be everything it can be for those vegetables growing in it.

What’s your favorite book that you’ve produced so far?

AW: I love the little pantry book [My Pantry] I did with my daughter. She did the illustrations and we worked on the recipes together. It’s focused on health—maybe more so than any book I’ve written.

Credit: Getty: Ron Adar / Contributor

You’re known for the kind of cooking that requires simple tools. What’s the most extravagant piece of technology you have at home?

AW: Maybe the toaster oven. My daughter likes to use a blender for her health food drinks, so I have allowed that in my kitchen under the counter. But I’m a cast-iron pan, mortar and pestle person. Very much less is more.

Tell me about your grilled cheese technique. You use olive oil but not butter?

AW: I like to do it on whole-grain bread. I use alpine cheese and grate it on the bread. And I do use olive oil. I cook it like al mattone [under a brick] with one of my smaller cast-iron pans on top of the sandwich and then turn it over. And when it comes out, I rub garlic on it.

Is there anything that you absolutely don’t like to cook or eat?

AW: I don’t know if there’s anything I don’t really like to cook. I like to cook in my fireplace. I just made an egg in a spoon, because my daughter is home and she said, “Mom, couldn’t you make that egg on a spoon?” I couldn’t resist that plea. So I made a fire in the fireplace, even though it’s kind of warm today. And we had an egg on a spoon. I have a salad with just about every meal—even with breakfast.

Who do you follow on social media?

AW: I only follow my friends on Instagram.

How do you define healthy?

AW: It’s about living well. It’s not just about the food that you put in your mouth, it’s about the way you connect with the world around you and connect to nature. Health begins in the ground. I think falling in love with the beauty of nature is nourishing in ways we cannot even begin to talk about. Bringing people around the table and eating together is one of the healthiest things you can do. When you all cook together and eat together, clean up together, it makes you feel good. And in this country we have to rediscover that togetherness.