Alice Waters, the famed chef, author, and activist, addressed a packed house at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater in Houston on Monday night, sharing her values and advocating for an “edible education” in public schools.
Waters is widely credited with revolutionizing New American cuisine through her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse, which has focused on organic, local, seasonal foods prepared simply ever since its inception in 1971. Her influence as an early champion of farmers markets and school lunch reform can hardly be overstated, though she’s been well recognized along the way. Chez Panisse was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine, Waters was named Best Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation, and in 2009, Waters became the only American chef to receive the French Legion of Honor.
She is also, it turns out, staggeringly unpretentious. A guest of Urban Harvest and the Progressive Forum, Waters wore a simple blue long-sleeved dress and low-heeled brown boots, speaking from her notes in a careful, thoughtful voice. A large screen displayed slides from her new book, 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering. Noting early that she tended to avoid public speaking, Waters seemed nervous at moments, though she needn’t have been. Her hour-long address was punctuated by affectionate chuckles and warm applause from an elated middle-aged audience who, at the end, formed a snaking line in the lobby for her book signing.
Though most of her material was a personal retrospective, Waters said her goal was to give her audience a better idea of the “edible education” she hopes will become a regular part of all public schools. This would be a sensory, hands-on experience of every part of the food cycle, from growing food in a garden on the school grounds to harvesting it and using it to cook and eat in the cafeteria. It’s a vision realized at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, where Waters started the program sixteen years ago, as detailed in her book The Edible Schoolyard.
Waters walked the audience through her own edible education, from the awakening of her senses as a student in France to lobbying President Bill Clinton to start an organic garden at the White House. (He installed vegetable planters on the roof; Michelle Obama made the garden a reality in 2009.) Throughout, she said, she was guided by taste. Her original, single-minded aim to recreate the tastes she experienced in France became all encompassing.
In this way, hers is a story about the power of values. What she achieved is but a byproduct of living her uncompromising values, as opposed to letting ambition direct her choices. She didn’t set out to win the French Legion of Honor. She wanted to give her friends the experience of taste that she had known.
Waters’ message encourages those who feel daunted by all the good work there is to do. “If you analyze what we’re doing from the outside,” she said, “it would seem huge and multi-layered, daunting—sustainability, economics, economy of scale, food justice, beauty of presentation, worker’s rights, ecology. But if you watched what we’re doing, we’re shelling peas. We’re setting the table. We’re doing the dishes. We’re following our instincts. If one practices the basic day-to-day activities of life with integrity and consciousness, everything I’ve been talking about just naturally flows into the experience.”