Changing the Way We Eat: Alice Waters’ Delicious Revolution

This is an edited version of the transcript of a conversation with and interview of the world-renowned visionary chef, restaurateur, author, educator and activist, Alice Waters, conducted by Nikki Silvestri, founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, who has considered Alice a mentor since the time they collaborated on an edible education course at UC Berkeley. The session took place on April 7th, 2023, in front of a live audience as part of the Bioneers Conference in Berkeley.

While studying culinary arts there in the 1960s, Alice Waters’ creative passions were awakened by France’s food culture that elevated flavor, freshness and seasonality. She was enchanted by the slow food approach to meals, daily trips to farmers’ markets and the wealth of food literacy among the population.

After returning to the U.S., Alice launched a veritable food revolution. Her ongoing 50-year legacy is that she has radically changed the way many of us eat. Her zeal for good food inspired her to open the now world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley where local, organic, seasonal foods have delighted the palates of her patrons for decades and where a movement antithetical to the uniformity, commodification and hustle of fast food began.

Alice Waters has been a defining force of the local, slow food, farm-to-table and edible schoolyard movements. Her latest endeavor is The Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education dedicated to advancing “a transformative vision for the well-being of our communities, our food systems and our planet.” 

Nikki Silvestri

NIKKI SILVESTRI: Alice, in your latest book, We Are What We Eat, A Slow Food Manifesto you talk about culture change and how food is at the root of many culture shifts. I’m curious why you wrote this book now? What do you most want people to understand?

ALICE WATERS: I finished the book right at the beginning of the pandemic. It became urgent that I write down these thoughts because I think that we learned a lot during the pandemic about what was happening to our industrial food system. We learned a lot about what it is to ship food around the world. We learned about farmworkers that were brought across the border to work in meat factories when nobody else was allowed to come across the border. We learned a lot about hunger. I wanted to understand how we lost our human values in such a short period of time since the end of World War II.

With my co-authors, we decided that the reason was the introduction of fast food. It wasn’t just that the food became available everywhere, but it was the values that we sort of digested with the food – more is better; time is money; everything should be available 24/7; it’s okay to eat in your car; it takes too much time to sit at a table; kids don’t like to eat your kind of food. The most important one for me was that food should be fast, cheap and easy. But it has never been since the beginning of time. People cared about food. People shared food at the table. Now, we’re not doing that anymore.

My theory is that when you eat food, you eat the values that come with it, and it has an effect on your whole life. You become engaged in the world in a very different way. People weren’t gathering anymore, they were home; they were on a screen, and that screen was telling them this is what you need to buy.

Alice Waters

 Since the 1980s, there has been a one-size-fits-all, industrialized school food system. What has happened in those years in schools is shocking to me. It’s important that I talk about my Montessori education. I went to England in 1968, which was a good time to be in London, where I took the course for the international Montessori training. I didn’t realize how important it would be in my life.

 Dr. Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori schools, believed in education of the senses and learning-by-doing. She had been the first woman doctor in Italy in the 1880s. She wanted to know why children who lived in the slums of Naples or in India couldn’t learn the way other children learned. She discovered that they were sensorially deprived. In other words, they were not using all of their senses. They were not smelling and tasting and looking carefully, listening carefully to what was going on in their world. Those senses are pathways into our minds. Maria Montessori believed that our hands are instruments of our minds. 

A very important part of the training was to go out into the park and pick leaves and come back and trace the leaves in my notebook. Then I learned how to calligraph the name of the tree. In that way, I really learned.

But I got fired from the Montessori school. Not because I bit a kid who was biting all the other kids, but because I was wearing a see-through blouse with flowers embroidered all over it, and some parents of 3 to 6-year-old kids objected.

NIKKI: It was the times.

ALICE:  I’m so grateful that that happened because it made me realize that when I returned to Berkeley, I should do what I really loved to do, which was cooking at home. We had all kinds of people coming and having dinner with us. Then I thought, if I open a little restaurant, they’ll be able to come and eat and pay for it.

NIKKI: Since that time, you have connected your passion for food to a passion for attending to values at the core of our culture, which is our children, with the Edible Schoolyard Project.

ALICE: Well, something else that was very important to me was that I went to France in 1965, and it was a real slow-food nation then. I’d never been out of the U.S. before then, and I was just entranced. I watched people stand in line to get a baguette, and I wondered why they would wait in line like that. Then I discovered the pleasure of a freshly-baked, hot baguette.

 There were farmers’ markets in every area of the city. That’s how people bought food. And it was very seasonal. It was the little “fraises des bois,” the wild strawberries, that woke me up. They were picked in the mountains and only available in the springtime. I thought, “Oh my goodness, it’s so wonderful.”

Kids at school, at that time, came home to eat lunch with their families and return in the afternoon. I was so affected by the beauty and by the deliciousness of the food and the comradery of students.

It was the way I wanted to live my life when I came back to the US, I wanted to live like the French.

I tried to do it at home with friends, but then I thought: “If I open a restaurant, I should be better able to find fresh locally grown food.” But I didn’t anticipate the difficulty of finding real food. It was really hard until I found the local organic farmers.

I found taste when I met Bob Cannard. He’s one of my heroes and was Chez Panisse’s first farmer. He said to us, “I want you to take whatever I grow.” There was no middleman. We took all the food scraps from Chez Panisse to Bob to compost and picked up his vegetables. We never knew what we were going to get. Bob said, “Use them. Figure it out.” Sometimes it was nettles, so we made nettles pizza.

We didn’t ask Bob to sell to us wholesale. We didn’t have a middleman who would pay the farmer wholesale prices and resell it to us at a higher price. Soon the word got out to farmers that we were paying the real cost of food. Then everybody wanted to sell to us. And we had about 70 farmers and ranchers and fishers that came to us, and we relied on them for the goodness of Chez Panisse, truly.

For example, Masumoto’s peaches. People would ask, “When are they coming?” I said, “Well, maybe for one month in September, if all goes right.”

It was the seasonal changes that inspired the food that we cooked, so we were never bored with trying to cook the same thing. We only did one menu meal downstairs. After 10 years we opened the café upstairs and served more foods for people to choose from, but at the beginning, you had to eat what we chose. And I guess people liked it, because here we are, 52 years later.

So, it led me to realize how the power of food engages people. Give them something that they’ve never tasted before, and they fall in love with it. It makes you aware of nature. When you are constantly looking to see what’s ripe, you’re in harmony with the seasons and more aware of nature. To think that we all ate that way before 1950. We canned food for the winter. We ate corn and tomatoes in New Jersey where I grew up, and I longed for them, but we never had anything that was from someplace else. Maybe an orange at Christmas from Florida, and maybe some dates from my father from California, but that was it. Otherwise, it was all from our local region.

That’s the way we’ve been eating since the beginning of civilization. I think we have the genes in us that connect us to that way of eating and thinking about nature. I know that from the experience of the Edible Schoolyard because there are a thousand sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade kids that speak 22 languages at home, and we made a kitchen classroom and a garden classroom; not to teach gardening or cooking per se, but to teach all the academic subjects, so when you’re having a geography class around the Middle East, you’re in the kitchen, you’re making pita bread, and you’re making greens, and hummus. Who knew kids like hummus and greens?

It’s partially the fact that they are empowered to cook food in season in the way that they like, but it’s also, as it is in Montessori schools, an education of the senses. Kids are empowered to learn-by-doing, by making those dishes. But they will never forget where the Middle East is and where that type of food is grown. It’s all part of their edible education.

NIKKI: There are a few themes I want to surface in what you were saying about shifting values. I heard talk about agency, and having the ability to lead: not just participate in, but lead. That seems to be one of the things the kids are learning. We live in a fast, efficiency-oriented culture, but it takes time to practice something and to do it repeatedly, so that you can gain the skills for it. It requires social patience, not just individual patience, and it’s a skill that we are collectively atrophying with our obsession with convenience, so that feels very much like something to lift up.

And you spoke of relationship skills, relationship with our own senses, relationship with nature, relationship with farmers, the relationship with the folks that come into the restaurant. 

When I was the Executive Director of the nonprofit, People’s Grocery, I didn’t have enough of the beauty that you talk about. I burned all the way out, because “damn the man” and all of that just led me to damn myself, frankly, so I founded Soil and Shadow, based on the thesis that relationships require skills. What does it mean to be in relationship, to honor relationships, whether it’s with the soil, whether it’s with farmers, or whether it’s with each other?

Some of the basic skills of being in relationship are: Are you good at giving and receiving feedback? Do you integrate feedback once it’s been received, or do folks feel like they’re banging their head against a wall because they keep giving you feedback but you don’t integrate it? Do you know how to work through the discomfort of changing an agreement that is no longer useful? Do you know how to navigate conflict and take personal responsibility? There are actual skills to being in relationship. Soil and Shadow supports folks doing the good work to gain those skills so that they don’t break themselves against the grindstone.

When talking about the Edible School yard you talked about children learning the skills to be in relationship. It’s so important to teach children the skills to be in relationship through problem solving. 

You talked about how the school kids at the edible school yard speak 22 different languages. The idea of reestablishing the grace and generosity of cultural exchange before using the word appropriation is really important. It has to be safe to ask questions. It has to be safe to exchange. It has to be safe to learn about one another in a field of positive intent and goodwill. And we actually can’t assume that anymore, unfortunately, because of the way the world has evolved.

Reminding our children that there’s a way to have cultural exchange that’s graceful and generous, is actually revolutionary work.

ALICE: There are two things that have given me the confidence to believe that education and food need to go together. From one school in Berkeley, edible schoolyards have spread around the world to 6200 schools.

I was so excited by how quickly this network happened. It’s been 27 years since we started it, and we didn’t start the network for at least five years after that. It just kind of grew because people believed in learning-by-doing and the education of the senses.

We started in six schools around the country just to have proof of concept. Can it be done in a hot place like New Orleans or in the culture of a big city like LA? So, we started in those places and in North Carolina, Brooklyn and upstate New York. They all have the same set of values, but they teach them differently.

When I was in New Orleans, the first thing that they did was to invite all the neighbors to come over to the school and see if they wanted to help in the planting of the garden, and when they came, they sang songs as they worked in the garden.

Then I came up with this idea of school-supported agriculture, like community-supported agriculture. You put farmers first and pay farmers the real cost of the food because they are doing the hard work of taking care of the land with regenerative, organic farming and ranching. I wanted to set up that relationship between the people who were buying the food and the people who were growing it.

It seemed that it would be too difficult to make it happen on a large-scale unless there was an edict from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but we thought that maybe we could start with the University of California as a model for, and if it worked, it would send a message across the country and around the world. If UC decided that they were going to only buy food grown in the state of California, and serve it seasonally, just imagine what an economic stimulus it would be for the whole state.

So, I invited Janet Napolitano, the former President of the University of California, to come to my backyard during the pandemic to have lunch with me. I said, “Janet, could food be part of the carbon neutrality for 2025.” She paused and said, “Organic, yes, but maybe we have a few more years ‘til regenerative.” And I nearly fainted, so she introduced me to the new UC president, Michael Drake

who was familiar with regenerative agriculture through his work as Chancellor and President of Ohio State and Chancellor at UC Irvine. He made a number of visits to my backyard to eat and discus where we could make a model.

And at that point, UC Davis asked me if I would do an institute for edible education and regenerative ag at their Aggie Square campus in Sacramento. That stirred up all of my ideas about teaching people how to cook food affordably and in season, and using what has been grown in the state of California.

It’s going to be an amazing research project into what grows at different times of the year. We have a lot of history from people who lived here for hundreds of years. I want a regenerative design in which everybody in the kitchen has a role to play and is valued. The dishwasher is essential to a restaurant and to the work in the kitchen. So even that work should be done in a beautiful room, not in the basement. If students at the university are getting food from a nearby farm or ranch, they can have classes at the farm on science, etc. and of course regenerative ag classes. So that’s the master plan.

 There is no better place than public schools to teach that edible education and regenerative agriculture can be part of the solution to promoting health and reversing climate change and can provide meaningful work and build community. How could we not want to do that?

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