Editor's Note: This profile of Alice Waters orginally appeared in the Contra Costa Times on Aug. 28, 2006.
One summer night in the early 1980s, Alice Waters, the iconic founder of Chez Panisse, asked her head chef to prepare anchovies just trawled from Monterey Bay.
Filleting and grilling nearly 1,000 tiny fish in a three-hour period struck Paul Bertolli as impossible, but Waters wanted the food served at its freshest. He scrambled to fill more than 100 orders, ultimately propping a cooling rack over the grills to expand the cooking space.
Bertolli, who had become head chef about a year prior, learned quickly that adaptability was a critical skill at Chez Panisse. On any given day, local mushroom foragers might show up at the back door a few hours before the 6 p.m. seating, with just-picked lepiota rachodes or porcinis. A vendor could call about perfect gooseneck barnacles.
Excited by the chance to employ ingredients at their peak, Waters would rewrite that night's fixed-price menu, prepared the week prior, as little as 15 minutes before the doors opened.
"The menu is just an abstraction, a projection of what you think you will do, " said Bertolli, who later founded the acclaimed Oliveto restaurant in Oakland and Fra' Mani Handcrafted Salumi in Berkeley. "There was a sense, however frustratingly, of spontaneity, of openness and responsiveness to the alive quality of food."
This adherence to nature -- allowing seasons and what sprouts locally to dictate the menu rather than customer whims and dining trends -- represented a dramatic reinterpretation of restaurant modes when Chez Panisse opened 35 years ago today.
But Waters' influence stretches beyond the dining room. Today she dedicates most of her energy to confronting a childhood obesity rate that has tripled since 1980, devoting money and resources to improve school lunches as well as attitudes about food.
Waters spearheaded the Edible Schoolyard, an organic garden and kitchen classroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, as well as the School Lunch Initiative, an effort to supply organic food to Berkeley school lunch programs.
She also advocates globally for the slow food movement, proclaiming that locally grown and organic food is not just tastier but healthier, environmentally responsible and economically just.
"I was just looking for flavor and I ended up at the door of organic farmers, " Waters said. "Then I realized how important they were. I became a crusader and I haven't stopped."
Alice Waters was born in Chatham, New Jersey, on April 28, 1944. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1967 with a degree in French cultural studies and trained as a teacher at the Montessori School in London before spending a formative year traveling and tasting across France.
She had no formal culinary training but, by her account, in the introduction to the "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, " she copied and practiced the techniques of traditional French chefs. Once she internalized their lessons, Waters developed a personal style "based on the ingredients available to me here in California."
Many now credit Waters or at least Chez Panisse with inventing California Cuisine, characterized by a fusion of international influences featuring seasonal and local ingredients.
As the author or co-author of eight cookbooks, Waters has shaped countless home cooks. Her disciples have founded some of the most renowned restaurants and food companies in the Bay Area and beyond: Oliveto, Zuni Cafe, Pizzaiolo, César, Eccolo, Acme Bread Co. Many more restaurants and chefs have emulated the Chez Panisse approach.
"She really changed the way that restaurants in America cook, creating an interest in regional, local, organic ingredients, " said Christopher Lee, a Chez Panisse chef from 1989 until 2003 and now co-owner of Eccolo in Berkeley. "That was a wave that caused change all the way across America."
But at least one person has suggested publicly, and many have whispered privately, that the Chez Panisse influence has been all-too pervasive, homogenizing the expectations of the collective Bay Area palette.
"So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark, " wrote Daniel Patterson[JCT4], chef-owner of Coi in San Francisco, in the New York Times last December.
Patterson, who was criticized widely for his essay, declined to comment on Waters for this article. Another person not talking publicly about her anymore is Jeremiah Tower[JCT5], who became chef at Chez Panisse two years after its founding. But he certainly spoke up in his 2003 book, "California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution."
In it, he claims credit for inventing or at least drawing attention to California Cuisine, with an all-things-grilled lunch at a food writers junket in the early '80s. He was supposed to be the warm-up act for a renowned French chef, but by Tower's reckoning, his fennel sausage, mixed shellfish and lamb loin overshadowed the dinner.
"The love affair between the American food press and California had begun, " he wrote, only a tad immodestly.
He went on to suggest that Waters, initially at least, couldn't distinguish between quality green beans and those "an elephant would pass up" and created menus that didn't meld, when she created them at all. She spent little time in the kitchen, Towers said, focusing instead on grabbing the glory as the restaurant's public face.
Waters said she would leave sorting out her impact to others. But in the cookbook introduction, she wrote that her approach isn't "radical or unconventional." If it seems so, she said, it's only because we have become "so removed from any real involvement with the food we buy, cook and consume."
Waters is small and pretty. For a time, friends called her Tiny. She speaks quietly, pausing often in mid sentence, but exhibits flashes of fervor.
Midway through an interview, Waters excused herself to take a phone call concerning the "Slow Food Nation" conference that she is helping organize.
She is vice president of Slow Food, an international organization that contends big agribusiness is homogenizing tastes, destroying ecological diversity and undermining small food producers around the globe.
Walking back into the room, she said: "That's beautiful. A beautiful contribution."
A philanthropist had agreed to help fund the San Francisco event. Waters literally jumped up and down as she relayed the news to an employee.
Current and former Chez Panisse staffers say this excitement is infectious. They feel they're part of something much bigger than running a four-star restaurant. Those who don't buy into this mission usually don't last.
"Alice is really demanding of herself and everybody that she's involved with, assuming and insisting that everybody be signed on for the project, " said Steve Sullivan, the founder of Acme Bread in Berkeley, who joined Chez Panisse as a busboy at 18 and worked his way up to baker.
But her take on a project, a goal, a practice tends to be expressed in absolutist -- and some feel idealistic -- terms.
Marsha Guerrero, director of Berkeley's School Lunch Initiative, once relayed to Waters what she thought was a cute anecdote about holding a saltine cracker eating contest with the children at the Edible Schoolyard.
"Marsha, " she recalls being scolded, "that is the last thing in the world I want to hear. We are teaching kids about gluttony."
Waters repeatedly calls fast food "dehumanizing." Not unhealthy and untasty, but dehumanizing. Since it means families spend less time preparing and enjoying meals together, she believes it's tearing at the social fabric.
Her solution is as tidy as it is far-reaching: Every U.S. school should have a garden that, together with local organic farms, supplies lunch programs. The federal government should foot the bill, she said, since it will make back the money in public health care savings.
Being reared on organic food and learning how to grow produce will foster an appreciation for good and healthy food in children while discrediting "fast food values." Meanwhile, since 20 percent of the population is in school, the spike in demand would topple the industrialized food empire, bolstering small, local farms across the nation.
To take just one point, some dietitians and food advocates believe that an insistence on expensive organic food, in public schools with stretched budgets, is an overshoot.
"The big issue is first getting fruits and vegetables on the tables of poor families, " said George Manalo-LeClair, director of legislation and policy for California Food Policy Advocates. "Then we can talk about organic."
But Waters, encouraged by the sustainable agriculture movement's sudden success, is holding firm to the details of her vision.
"It has to be sustainable and organic, " she said, "because what we're talking about is something that goes very deep into thinking about the future of all of us on this planet."
Chez Panisse is a reflection of Waters' slow food philosophy.
While most restaurants work with at most a few produce providers, Chez Panisse's refrigerator is packed with fruits and vegetables from more than 70, primarily local, farms. Waters largely created and sustains the network.
"It's more expensive, " said Waters' assistant, Sylvan Brackett, "but worth it."
The chefs select the best produce for Chez Panisse's famous fruit plate. The rest end up in a sorbet or sherbet. Almost nothing is wasted.
One former chef said that Waters would even occasionally Dumpster dive, monitoring what and how much the staff tossed out.
The adjacent meat locker is filled with fresh fish and grass-fed lamb and beef.
Several years ago, Waters attended a speech by Michael Pollan, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley and author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma, " concerning the use of corn to feed cattle. It helps the animals plump up faster, but their systems can only digest it with a heavy regimen of antibiotics.
Chez Panisse stopped serving beef for a year, Brackett said, until they could find a grass-fed version that met their standards.
Behind the restaurant stand several large grease buckets, which are converted to biodiesel, and rows of recycling and compost bins.
One April Fools' Day a few years ago, a Bay Area radio station announced Chez Panisse was serving compost croutons. People showed up for the recipe.
In fact, the food waste is returned to the farms, which use it for fertilizer.
Chez Panisse is as close to an environmentally closed loop as a restaurant could be. It's the little corner of the globe where Alice Waters could implement her vision uncompromised. Like the Edible Schoolyard, she believes it's a model for what should and could catch on in the wider world.
"We're not trying to preach at them, " she said, "we're trying to seduce them, if you will, through taste."
But Patterson, noting near the end of the New York Times article that dinner for two at Chez Panisse runs $200, poses the question that clings to most of Waters' ambitions: "How can we build an egalitarian society based on a lifestyle so few can afford?"