Wednesday, December 3, 2008


This entry is not, as the reader might expect, about water in bottles or water from magical springs. Nope. This entry is about Alice Waters, proprietor and visionnaire of the oft-celebrated Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.
(Beautiful book cover below by David Goines, long-time illustrator for Chez Panisse, the image below linked from his site.)

Alice came to the Indiana heartland to speak this week. Such a juxtaposition could be barely imagined: the woman arguably responsible for California Cuisine -- all about locally grown, organic and sustainable foods -- speaking right here in Naptown, where each summer there is a contest to decide which “food” -- the Twinkie or the SlimJim -- turns out the best battered-then-deep-fried offering at the State Fair. As a quick aside, the greatest joke of all that the Fair now touts that no trans-fats are used at the venue! Somehow, when you’re talking Elephant Ears or Corn Dogs, I think it matters little whether the fats are “trans.”

Alice’s lecture was sold out -- which means many here are at least interested in Alice’s message, which begins with opening minds to the limitless delights of food, and transcends to opening the mind about culture, diversity, politics and the blessings of The Earth. That can only be a good thing.

Rather less-than-good was a food sampling, served up afterward, by a local culinary school. With to-be-expected gluten in everything, I could not partake, but could smell and see food that was sloppily plated and redolent with stale (and far too much) garlic -- such that I was a not bit disappointed that I could not eat any of it. Had these students and teachers even heard of Alice Waters before this? Perhaps not, and we can only hope they were able to hear her speak to stir some inspiration in their hearts.

However, a sweet surprise was to find Peet’s Coffees and Teas being served -- straight up out of Berkeley! I could, of course, partake of a Peet’s Coffee, but was left to wonder how it appeared there. In a decade, I’ve never seen Peet's in Indy. A request from Alice? Perchance a thought of “let’s have coffee from Berkeley because Chez Panisse is in Berkeley?” I care not -- I could drink it and it was splendid.

Alice spoke regretfully of the vanishing family meal, where everyone would sit together at the table to share in the everyday experiential event of food and conversation. Per Alice, only 15% of families in this country still come together regularly at the dinner table. One of her major projects is currently The Edible Schoolyard -- a wonderful experiment in a formerly rundown Berkeley middle school.

Image linked to The Edible Schoolyard

Rightfully, it can no longer be called an experiment but clearly a shining success. Here, through hands-on gardening and preparation of fresh food, children are learning the basic values of hard work, self worth, rewards, respect, integrity, appreciation and so much more.

The real reason that Alice is special enough to warrant her own page on The Naked Fork is that Chez Panisse was highly formative in my own relationship to and learning about food. Just out of college, I had the supreme experience of eating at her wonderful restaurant during its early (and, yes, more affordable) years. As now, Waters offered a single
prix fixe meal each night at the main restaurant. It was often new and even challenging food -- but one always trusted in Alice and ate it, always to great amazement and admiration. Eating at Chez Panisse taught me to keep an open mind about food, and (almost) never to turn up my nose to anything unless it was unclean or unsafe in any way.

For more about Alice
, her history and the restaurant:

The California Museum/Alice Waters

Chez Panisse Restaurant

1 comment:

Rex, the FudGai said...

Not only is the city racing in the Trans-fat Am, it has little inkling about taste. To wit: Each summer -- in the prime of fresh strawberry season -- Indianapolis also puts on a big “Strawberry Festival” downtown. Thousands throng to this event, which trucks in huge cafeteria-style white buckets -- the size & shape of mop buckets -- of previously frozen strawberries in heavy syrup purchased from a national food service. Definitely not fresh, definitely not local, definitely ersatz and definitely ridiculous. Yes, it is for a good cause -- a wonderful inner city church and there is a great gathering of community -- but the only way to serve the masses seems to have greatly changed the complexion of what no doubt was also a celebration of God’s gifts when the festival started in the 1850s. Laden the produce down with towns of sugar. At least they still make the shortcake by hand! ... I think. No wonder, 10Ks notwithstanding, this burg is one of THE most obese.

Rex...aka, the Fud Gai