A big idea from a small restaurant: the Slow Food movement

Entrance of Chez Panise has hanging vines and a front porch. Photograph by Aidan McGarrigle

BERKELEY, Calif. — When Alice Waters opened the now famous Chez Panisse restaurant, she brought the ethos of organic and local food to the small town of Berkeley. Little did she know this would later spark a food revolution throughout America, expanding beyond the borders of Berkeley.

 Inspired on a trip to France, Waters learned to appreciate the value of fresh and organic food. She adopted this principal and created her own restaurant with a few of her friends on Aug. 28, 1971. Their primary aim was to keep the restaurant “local, seasonal and organic … You wouldn’t spray pesticides on your plate,” Varun Mehra, Waters’ personal assistant, said.  Eventually, they bought a farm with farmer Bob Caner. This exclusive farm only supplies the restaurant; however, they buy from 85 other farms as well. The restaurant staff constantly looks for the best ingredients and has a specific mechanism for obtaining them, said Mehra: Some farmers arrange their harvests according to the demands of the restaurant.  The kitchen is arranged according to the ingredients of the day.

As the success of Chez Pannise continued to grow, Waters’ ideology on healthy eating spread. The unhealthy nature of school lunches was an issue that she and others felt strongly about. She believed kids should be offered healthy selections and be able to make healthy choices on their own. Eventually, Waters created the first Edible Schoolyard in 1996 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, about a mile from her restaurant in Berkeley. This offered kids from grades 6 to 8 healthy food, cooking and gardening classes. This program has expanded, and there are now seven Edible Schoolyards around America, and more than 300 similar programs that were influenced by Waters.

Flower arrangements prepared before Chez Panisse opens. Photograph by Aidan McGarrigle

Waters’ contributions to the food industry have been recognized internationally, and in 2002 she was elected to be the vice president of Slow Food International, a nonprofit organization that places an emphasis on local food traditions. In addition, she has written nine cookbooks, including The Art of Simple Food: Notes and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, which shares her philosophy on kitchen stocking and organic meal preparation. Her newest book, 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, is being released Aug. 23, in celebration of the restaurant’s anniversary. In 2001, Chez Panisse was recognized as the best restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine. In addition, the S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants Association gave Waters its lifetime achievement award. She is the only female winner in the award’s history.

Waters’ success is evident. “People are starting to understand the implications of industrial agriculture,” Mehra said.  She has made a strong impact on America’s outlook on healthy living and continues to keep the standard of Chez Pannise high, as well as actively spreading the ideologies at its roots.