Berkeley, Calif. • There’s something you need to know about Alice Waters, the celebrated chef who changed the way America eats.
She grew up eating frozen peas, frozen fish sticks and canned fruit salad for dinner. To complete this incongruous picture, Waters adds, “I grew up with iceberg lettuce and Wishbone dressing.”
Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse are credited with pioneering the farm-to-table movement and introducing mesclun to the masses. But she didn’t start out as a revolutionary and wants people to know that. Her journey from a childhood of 1950s convenience cooking to the heights of American gastronomy is the subject of her new memoir, released this week.
In “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,” Waters tells richly detailed, occasionally spicy tales of her early years, the travels, transformative meals, friendships and love affairs — there were many — that changed the course of her life and led her to open Chez Panisse in 1971, without any formal culinary training.
Seated in a sunlit alcove of her iconic Berkeley restaurant, which is still booked weeks in advance, Waters is animated, engaging and personable. She is also busy, with little sign of slowing down at age 73. She recently returned from a trip to India, then returned home to attend Chez Panisse’s 46th birthday celebration, then headed to Telluride for the film festival co-founded by former lover Tom Luddy, who remains a close friend, and she is now preparing for book signings.
The towering culinary figure stands a diminutive 5-foot-2 and boosts herself up on an extra banquette cushion before discussing her life story over a pot of herbal tea. “This is my most favorite recipe,” Waters says as she pours the aromatic brew of fresh mint and lemon verbena leaves.
Waters has published over a dozen books over the years, mostly cookbooks, a few about the restaurant and two illustrated children’s books. But none had prepared her for writing her memoir.
“This is a very personal book. At first, I didn’t know whether I could do it,” Waters, said. “But I knew I had to do it honestly, or not do it at all.”
The book tells self-deprecating anecdotes of early encounters with culinary greats like Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme, and recollections of her suburban New Jersey childhood. As a teen, she drank too much and stayed out past curfew. Waters was briefly a high school cheerleader and in a college sorority until getting kicked out on “morals charges” — i.e. drinking and staying out late.
She recounts painful memories she had never publicly discussed, including an attempted rape in the mid-70s when a man with a knife broke into her Berkeley apartment. She escaped by jumping head first out a second-story window. It left her terrified but ultimately empowered by her survival instinct.
“A lot of things I never talked about are in this book. It’s hard for me. And I have to keep remembering why I’m doing this,” she said.
Waters is mindful of her legacy and this book is part of it. It helps connect dots and tell her story, she hopes, to a new generation.
“I want to really make a connection with the counterculture of this country, with the young people that are curious about my past and how I came to open a restaurant when I was 27, without any experience at all. I want to tell them everything that empowered me — and made me stronger.”
Waters attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1960s at the height of the Free Speech Movement and campus uprisings against the Vietnam War. The counterculture spirit electrified her, she writes, and instilled her with idealism and the feeling she could change the world. Her book is dedicated to the “memory of Mario Savio” the movement’s late leader.
Food was not a focus for Waters until she studied in Paris, during a junior year abroad. A black-and-white photo on the book’s cover comes from Waters’ 1965 Sorbonne university I.D. card.
“I went to France and that was an awakening. It was like I had never eaten before,” said Waters. She vividly recalls tasting her first warm baguette with apricot jam, Brittany oysters fresh from the Atlantic, pungent cheeses and the discovery of mesclun, the tasty, tender mixed greens that made her enjoy salad for the first time.
“When I got back from France, I wanted to eat like the French,” Waters writes, but didn’t immediately realize it was her calling. Fresh out of college, she worked as a school teacher but ultimately got fired. She thought of opening a French-style creperie but then decided on a “little French bistro,” where she could cook affordable dinners for her bohemian circle of Berkeley friends. Chez Panisse was born.
“I think if there’s one thing I’m responsible for in this country, something that I can take a little credit for, it’s the propagation of real salad in the United States,” Waters writes. On a later trip to France, she brought back seeds for mesclun, planted them in her backyard and served them at Chez Panisse before branching out to find local farmers.
Now, of course, arugula is available in supermarkets across America. Cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients is the mantra of self-respecting cooks everywhere. But Waters was a trailblazer who preached these virtues long before they were popular, says Janet Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, whose annual chef and restaurant awards are regarded as the Oscars of the food world.
“Alice Waters was THE salad gourmet. Back in the 1970s and 80s, no one else was using the kinds of greens she used in her food,” said Ungaro. “She was leap years ahead of (others), changing the menu with fresh ingredients and whatever was in season.”
It was also revolutionary at the time for a major American chef to be a woman.
“Besides Julia Child there was no other woman talking about how America should eat,” Ungaro said, noting the two were very different. “Julia Child was about French cream sauces and loading on that butter. Alice was our first health nut that people listened to.”
Waters stopped cooking full-time in the kitchen years ago. But when home, she’s usually at the restaurant, eating meals and fine-tuning the menu, the lighting — “I just never get it right. I want it to be perfect” — and even the dining room’s aroma.
Waters says the dining experience begins at the front door, and she wants to entice people and awaken their senses from the moment they enter Chez Panisse.
“When I come in, if I don’t feel something, I burn rosemary,” she says. “I go right to the fire, light rosemary and walk around like a priest in the church swinging my incense.”