Alice Waters: food revolutionary and nutrition activist

David Prior, director of communications, describes the restuarant's homey atmostphere as "an aesthetic Craftsman building," which sets the stage for the culinary art and nutritional revolution of Chez Panisse. Photo by Yael Heiblum

BERKELEY, Calif. — What started as an ideal in the 1970s is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. The innovative restaurant Chez Panisse, founded by Alice Waters in 1971, was, and is to this day, implementing activist ideals in the world of food as Waters continues to be dedicated to helping people “realize the implication that fast food has on health of the nation and the environment,” said David Prior, director of communications.

“By understanding the roots of the free-speech movement you can understand this restaurant,” said Prior, explaining Waters’ 1960s involvement in the movement that gave students the right to use the university has a place for political activity and debate. But Waters and her friends didn’t have a business plan.

“They had no experience whatsoever, just interested in sitting around the table,” he said, referring to the early days when Waters wanted to cook for her friends. On later visits to France, Waters became inspired by the fresh produce she saw in the markets and the local eating customs.

At Chez Panisse, Alice Waters ensures that all ingredients are brought in fresh daily, including the floral arrangements. Photo by Yael Heiblum

She came back to the States with  the idea of eating what is fresh on any given day, and opened a restaurant in which the constantly changing menus would be “inspired by what comes through the door,” said by Prior; this was a revolutionary proposal at the time, in part because there was no network of small farmers who could supply her. Over the years, the restaurant became a “fusion of gourmet and politics,” said Prior. In addition to Waters’ emphasis on seasonal, local and organic, the Chez Panisse kitchen uses ingredients in the wild, including boar and mushrooms. Over the years “the way Americans think about food has changed … you can say without hesitation that organic, local produce had its birthplace here, gathering momentum in the past decade,” said Prior.

By starting The Edible Schoolyard project 15 years ago, in which produce gardens at schools are used to teach science, cooking and nutrition, Waters hopes to “change the knowledge, attitude and behavior that children have around food and nutrition,” said Prior. Beginning with Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Junior Middle School and now at seven other locations across the nation, as well as influencing more than 300 others,  students learn how to lead healthier lifestyles by “enrich[ing] the existing curriculum with lifelong nutrition and interactive education,” he said. For example, in history class, children learn how ancient civilizations ground wheat and turned it into flour firsthand, while also learning why whole wheat is better than white bread.

Water’s slow-food revolution has inspired countless other people, schools and organizations to consider the importance of healthy eating and fresh, pesticide-free produce. In the fall, she is co-creating a college class, Edible Education 101: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement, at the University of California at Berkeley, in the hopes that the next generation will carry on her vision.