Food Arts presents its September 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alice Waters, the designated mother of California cuisine.
When, in 1971, the former Montessori teacher opened her landmark Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse (named after a character in a Marcel Pagnol film), she had no formal culinary training. But before long, she would put a new style of cooking, one which would become known as California cuisine, indelibly on the map.
Waters had spent a year of study abroad, “eating in France.” She returned with a mission: no only to eat but to serve food as good as she had experienced there. Self-taught from the books of the late Elizabeth David and Richard Olney, Waters built Chez Panisse upon an irresistible mix of French recipes and California ingredients, always the best and the freshest in season. And Waters’s definition of fresh is stricter than most. She once traveled to New York to prepare a lunch with planted flats of lettuce and picked the greens at the last minute before making her salads.
“My obsession with salads must have had its beginnings in the costume my mother created for me to wear to the local park’s party and contest in New Jersey when I was three and a half,” she writes in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (Random House, NY, 1982). “Dressed as queen of the garden… I wore a lettuce leaf skirt atop my bathing suit, garlands of red and green peppers wound about my ankles and a crown of asparagus atop my head…”
Perfect variegated salads, California pizzas, whole roasted garlic, mesquite grilling—these are but a few of Waters’s culinary contributions.
For over 20 years, Chez Panisse has presented a five-course dinner every night, never once repeating an entire menu. Waters later opened a more informal café with an à la carte menu upstairs and in 1984, Café Fanny, a stand-up breakfast and lunch spot, famed for large bowls of café au lait.
Waters has been a leader in fostering the relationship of the chef with the farmer and purveyor. In fact, she cites this as one of her most significant contributions, along with supporting a network of organic farms and promoting the wider availability of affordable, fresh, organically grown foods.
She’s also led the way with regional dinners and wine and food parings. Her kitchen has served as a graduate school for an impressive roster of American chefs—Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller, Joyce Goldstein, Deborah Madison, Mark Peel, Jonathan Waxman, Judy Rogers.
“Before Chez Panisse, the job of chef was regarded by most Americans as a minor profession requiring certain skills but little intellectualism,” notes restaurant critic John Mariani in his book America Eats Out (William Morrow, NY, 1991). “What Waters and her followers showed was that the application of intelligence, inquisitiveness and a fervid interest in food culture could remake American gastronomy.”
And though she never set out to do it, Waters has become one of the country’s premier role models for women chefs. “I really don’t think in those terms. I consider the restaurant’s philosophy and influence more important than the fact that I’m a woman,” she says. Nevertheless, countless women chefs cite her as an inspiring pioneer who opened many doors for women in the past two decades.
Waters lives in Berkeley with her nine-year-old daughter, Fanny, and her husband, wine merchant Stephen Singer, who co-owns Table 29 in Napa with Jonathan Waxman.