July 1996 – When New York University announced in the summer of 1996 the creation of the nation’s first food studies program, a New York Times reporter called Alice Waters, the “mother of modern American cooking,” for a comment. Her response wouldn’t have surprised anyone who has followed her career. Where in the curriculum, Waters asked the reporter, are the farmers? “The program needs real emphasis on the agriculture side,” she said. “The students should have to go out and grow tomatoes and harvest potatoes.”
Since opening Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, Waters has been practically a patron saint for many small, organic farmers. Her world-renowned restaurant was one of the first to have a “forager” on staff, a person assigned the task of seeking out the best, freshest ingredients available and forging links with the farmers who were growing them.
‘Give your money directly to the people who are growing your
food. They need it. And we don’t need middlemen.’
Chez Panisse Vegetables
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Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook
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Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
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Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution
By Thomas McName
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Chino Ranch has long been one of Waters’ favorite suppliers. The northern San DiegoCounty farm air-freights crates of its most immaculate vegetables to the restaurant every week. This practice is one of the reasons why it’s not hard to spend $50 per person for dinner there, even at the less expensive upstairs cafe.
Charging more than all but a few can afford for vegetables flown in on jets hardly meets the definition of “sustainable,” some critics have pointed out. But Waters responds that the direct-marketed food system that Chez Panisse has nurtured reaches far beyond the walls of the restaurant. It is a system that reaches the masses through farmers markets.
Waters has been a farmers market enthusiast ever since her student days in Paris in the 1960s. She recalls that she passed through a street market near her apartment every day and couldn’t help but buy things even though she had no place to cook.
These days, she and her chefs are regular shoppers at the markets in Berkeley. And Waters rarely misses an opportunity to speak up for farmers markets, urging everyone to make shopping at them a habit, a recurring theme in her newest book, “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” just out from Harper Collins.
In a conversation with Seasonal Chef, Waters reflected on her feelings about farmers markets, among other topics.
Q: A lot of organic farmers are trying to teach consumers that cosmetic appeal is meaningless, that an occasional bug comes with the territory. And yet in your books, you stress the importance of aesthetic perfection in food. Would you serve flea beetle-bitten arugula in your restaurant?
A: Yes, but I would think about how to use it. I probably wouldn’t make an arugula salad out of it. But I would throw it into the pasta. If it was an apple with little spots all over it, I wouldn’t put it on a fruit plate but I would make a tart out of it. I would choose something else that looks real good for the fruit plate.
Q: Why do you prefer organic produce?
A: Taste, for sure. And I’m interested in it because I know I need to support the people who are taking care of the land and thinking of the future, people who are thinking about how communities come together. It’s my feeling that that can happen when the person growing the food is connected with the person who is eating it. A result of those connections is a sense of caring about somebody else’s welfare. That’s how you build up those bonds which ultimately leads you to a sense of a group made up of people who care about one another. I’m interested in organic food for all those reasons. But of course also because organic produce is pure and wholesome and delicious and alive when I get it. And nine times out of 10, it’s picked very ripe.
Q: Are you able to find all of the organic produce you need for your restaurant?
A:I was going to wait until the year 2000 to make the definitive turn to organic, and probably it will take us that long before we can get every single solitary thing organic. But I’ve decided that I’m going to say to all the cooks tomorrow that starting this week I want us to exclusively use organically grown fruits and vegetables. We’re 95 percent of the way there right now, and there’s no reason why we can’t be 100 percent.
Q: Are there any vegetables that you would like to find more of?
A: I can never get enough young watercress. Not the big old stuff you can get everywhere, but young water cress. I would make salads out of that every day. I’ve arranged with the garden at the San Francisco jail to grow radishes for us, but we could use more radishes, the young, just-picked kind. It seems to be one of those things that grows so quickly that it changes all the time. Somebody has to be really devoted to it to get it right. Something else that I would really love to get is a russet potato that really fries well. The organic ones that we get just don’t crisp well enough, maybe because of the sugar or the water content.
Q: What formerly obscure vegetables have surprised you with their success in the mainstream?
A: All of the bitter salad ingredients from Italy. For example, the radicchios. People like those now. But I really believe that there are very few fruits and vegetables that are not desirable when they are just picked when ripe and brought to the farmers market. It’s a different sense of a vegetable. Things that people didn’t think they liked, they end up liking.
Q: Tomato season is upon us. Do you have a favorite variety?
A:A good tomato is a product of the variety and where it’s grown and how it’s picked. So it really depends. It’s a little hard to say absolutely. But one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had was an Early Girl that was dry-farmed up in Napa at a friend’s house. Every year I’ve looked forward to his tomatoes. But I also love those red Gold Stripes and the Green Tigers. I like that sweetness with a little stripe of acidity in it.
Q: Given that consumers seem to have an insatiable demand for convenience, can farmers markets compete with supermarkets?
A: I think they can. When you come in contact with the people in the farmers market, and the food, and you taste it, you can never go back. There’s no comparison.
Yes, it takes a little longer to shop at the farmers market, but what you get, in my mind, is an experience that enriches one’s life. It’s an experience of connecting with people. It smells good. It tastes good. It has a good feeling about it. There’s no way that that kind of experience can’t seduce people and make the supermarket experience in comparison pretty depressing.
Also we have to begin to understand that a little bit of time shopping in farmers markets will save time in the cooking. If you buy ripe tomatoes, all you have to do is slice them. You don’t have to add salt and sugar, all that stuff that you do to doctor things up that don’t taste very good in the first place.
Also I think the message about the hidden costs of supermarket produce for your health and for the health of the community must be understood. I’ve always said give your money directly to the people who are growing it. They need it. And we don’t need a middleman.
Q: Do you think organic produce can gain acceptance in supermarkets?
A: I love that supermarkets are getting organic produce. It brings a certain kind of consciousness to the general public. But organic produce in supermarkets is so overpriced and usually it is not very good looking and, in fact, sometimes rotten because it doesn’t have a long shelf life. People may buy something like that, spend a lot of money on it and feel like they got something that represents organic produce. So I can’t really decide whether it’s doing a disfavor or a service to the organic movement. In general I think it’s probably not a good idea to have it in a supermarket. But sometimes you’re dependent on supermarkets. And I would rather buy slightly second-rate organic produce than conventionally grown produce. Then I will make something of it.
I’ve thought there should be somebody in the supermarket who could hawk organic produce a little bit. But supermarkets don’t seem to be able to afford someone like that. There are millions of checkers and helpers all around the store, but supermarkets just don’t seem to understand the need to have someone like that in a produce section.
Q: What do you think the future holds for small farmers?
A: I think there’s a lot more consciousness from the public and from the restaurateurs who can support farms, and so I see that as something very, very positive. I’m very excited about that because you need to have the kind of relationship in which the person on one side cares about and supports the person on the other side, and vice versa.
I am impressed with a group of farms in New Jersey that have banded together to aggressively market their produce to the public and to restaurants. It was so exciting to see that because people don’t think that certain things are available, so they don’t ask. And to have people out there helping farmers to connect with consumers was very encouraging to me. This group has connected with one of the biggest, most important restaurateurs in the country, a guy named Joe Baum. He’s been in the restaurant business for God knows how many years. He’s respected in all circles. He runs Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room in New York, just to mention two. That will set an example for all others.
Things are now happening exponentially, so it’s not going to take the next group of restaurateurs so long to establish connections with people on the farms. I just hope farmers will rise to the occasion. I hope there are farmers out there who are ready to grow, because there’s going to be something dramatic happening in the next five years.