Alice Waters: “Her Writing Popularized Eating Locally, Organically, and Sustainably”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It was on this day in 1971 that Alice Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. It’s now considered to be the birthplace of California cuisine, a fusion style where locally grown foods are used to prepare dishes from different traditions around the world, and the resulting dinner is arranged very artistically on the plate.

Waters went to college at Berkeley in the mid-’60s. She majored in French studies. During one summer she traveled to France and had a meal in Brittany, which she says was an inspiration for the rest of her life:

“I’ve remembered this dinner a thousand times. The chef, a woman, announced the menu: cured ham and melon, trout with almonds, and raspberry tart. The trout had just come from the stream and the raspberries from the garden. It was this immediacy that made those dishes so special.”

She returned to Berkeley, did a lot of French cooking for her friends, and decided to start a restaurant with a friend also interested in French cuisine, Paul Aratow, a Berkeley professor of comparative literature. And on this day in 1971, Chez Panisse opened its doors. It had a set menu: pâtés en croûte, salad, duck with olives — and for dessert, an almond tart. It cost $3.95. There wasn’t much hype around this neighborhood bistro in North Berkeley at first. But then four years later Gourmet magazine featured an article about it. Soon foodies from all over the country began making pilgrimages to the birthplace of California Cuisine.

Chez Panisse began listing on the menu the way it prepared its dishes, and the places where ingredients came from — so these days a Chez Panisse menu lists stuff like “Marin Sun Farms beef tenderloin grilled over vine cuttings” or “king salmon baked in rock salt with wild fennel gratin, new potatoes, and wilted amaranth greens” or “Santa Rosa plum ice cream profiteroles with plum caramel.” It’s still at the same location in Berkeley, but the $3.95 set dinner price tag is a thing of the distant past. The set weekend night dinner menu is on the order of a hundred dollars a head now.

Alice Waters has helped to revolutionize ideas about food in the United States, popularizing the practices of eating locally, organically, and sustainably. She’s written about a dozen food-related books, including Slow Food: The Case for Taste (2004) and In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (2010) and  We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto (2021).

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