Slow Food Nation: Conversation with Alice Waters

Sustainable food advocate will receive the Foundation Medal at the UC Santa Cruz's Founders Celebration Fiat Fifty dinner on September 26, 2015

Alice Waters opened her groundbreaking restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley in 1971, the same year UC Santa Cruz started its farming program. (Photo by Amanda Marsalis)

Alice Waters is a tireless advocate for sustainable foods—and she has never been shy about voicing strong opinions and taking principled stances, whether the subject is GMOs, dietary trends, or companies she believes are co-opting the language of the Slow Food movement but without the passion and commitment.

During an informal Skype session with UC Santa Cruz Review magazine, Waters spoke candidly about everything from affordable high-quality food to the essential role of young people in America's "Delicious Revolution" and the need for vigilance when checking food labels at grocery stores.

 Waters was in Rome at the time of the interview, working on a food-related project at the American Academy, a foundation for arts and scholars started at the turn of the last century. Waters will receive the Foundation Medal at the UC Santa Cruz's Founders Celebration Fiat Fifty dinner on September 26, 2015.

Dan White: What was your starting point, your first inkling that food was going to be the focus of your life?

Alice Waters: For me, it was taste. Taste! When the food is really tasty, everybody wants to stay at the table. My parents had a garden. I know I ate strawberries out of the garden. I know they made rhubarb compote, corn on the cob, and tomato salad. Those are early things, but I never loved food until I went to France. There was a meal there (that changed my life)—I wrote about that in my first cookbook, but there were little things, too, like a hot baguette and apricot jam and eating in a certain way, eating as a kind of ritual. It felt like food was about care and conversation and a lot of other things. After I got back from France, I felt like I knew how to cook. I was just lucky that I went to France when it was a Slow Food culture.

DW: How would you define Slow Food culture?

AW: There is a set of values and practices that are based on a traditional way of eating and producing food and cooking that comes really since the beginning of civilization, where you buy what is local, you eat what is in season, where you take care of the land, and you eat with family and friends. You celebrate events of one's life together. You think of food as precious. There are values that have had the test of time. When I was in France (studying abroad, in 1965), parents brought their kids home from school and fed them at home for two hours and went to the market twice a day, and they ate together both at lunch and at dinner. People went out to restaurants in Paris from their offices together; it was just a very different world. And it is only since really the '50s where people have started the whole industrial system to make money. I mean, food is not a commodity. Food is something really precious and we need to use it all, and this culture wants us to waste it so that we buy more. It … is really hard for children to get out of it, or even parents. It is addictive because it is full of sugar and salt.

DW: A few years after that life-changing Paris trip, you started Chez Panisse in 1971 in Berkeley—the same year the UCSC farm was founded. Do you see a similar trajectory—a food movement that started out below the radar, almost as an underground phenomenon, and became much more mainstream?

AW: Without any question. I think it started out as a countercultural movement. Chez Panisse was empowered by that whole era of the '60s when you felt like whatever you did, there would be people that would come, and we stopped the war in Vietnam. We really had some sense of an idealistic world that we could create, and certainly farming was a big part of that. I was connected to Green Gulch Farm (outside San Francisco), and when Alan Chadwick, (early visionary of the sustainable food program at UC Santa Cruz) was dying there I went to see him. Definitely we are in the same movement, which is back-to-nature. I think that we (at Chez Panisse) were really involved in Diet for a Small Planet in the '60s and there was a lot of sort of dropping out and growing your own and not buying commercial food. I felt like that was a whole part of the hippie culture.

DW: And you've had quite a few CASFS (UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems) apprentice graduates work for you at Chez Panisse.

AW: Many. And many in the Edible Schoolyard Project (in Berkeley) because Santa Cruz has the program that really trains people in farming in a very particular way so they could come and immediately become a teacher for young students. I have been back to Santa Cruz to see the Homeless Garden Project a couple of years ago—an amazing project, probably the most important project around homelessness, the only one I knew about in the world that really rehabilitates, and I know it has a tremendous amount to do with the (UC Santa Cruz) students who volunteer to help that project.

DW: Why do you think it is important for students to go through farm-apprenticeship programs, and how is it different to be a small, organic farmer now compared to when you were starting out with Chez Panisse?

AW: That is a really good question because young people are redefining what it means to be a farmer and they are bringing us out to the country. They are showing us the culture of agriculture. That is a beautiful thing. The organic farmers of the '60s, if they weren't on a commune, they were mom-and-pop operations. It was really hard work that was pretty solitary and difficult. We've never elevated the farmer in this country. We've just taken them for granted the same way we've taken our teachers for granted. I really think this whole movement could lift up the farmer and the teacher—just lift them both up as the most important jobs of this country.

DW: But isn't some of that lifting happening right now with the sourcing blackboards at the restaurants, listing the farmers that grew the spinach, the potatoes, the Swiss chard?

 AW:  That is a beginning but it really has to go into the public school system. We have to learn about farming when we are 5, not when we are graduates. We have to learn about it when we're little. This is the great part; we have this inside us. It is in our DNA that we love nature. She's our mother, she feeds us, and when children have been deprived of going out and running after school and are on their computer and iPhones and have never been connected (with nature), it may take a week or two, but it doesn't take very long before they want to be outside. They love it, and when they grow something and cook it themselves, they all want to eat it. It's like falling in love . …. It's something we're wired for.

DW: It seems like nowadays every small restaurant is listing the farms that sourced its produce and meat. Have we reached a point where the sourcing lists become too much, where the value gets diluted because everyone's doing it?

AW: I don't think so. Right now there is too much other sort of propaganda out there. We need to really know where our food comes from and to be able to support the people who are doing the right things. When you list the farms you are buying from, you are telling people that they can trust you and you can go out to those farms and you can see what is happening. We are trying to demystify (the sourcing) and inform people.

DW: You have such a strong critical stance about fast food that I'm almost afraid to ask about this. But I hear you ate at a McDonald's once.

AW: I did it as an experiment. I was stranded in Salina, Kansas. I was on the way to The Land Institute (a 28-acre sustainable agriculture and research center in Salina), and I just thought I should just go in there and see how long it takes me to eat and see what it's about.

DW: Do you remember what you ordered?

AW: The usual. A hamburger and French fries. I ate it in about five minutes. I just felt that it didn't have a lot of flavor. A lot of salt and sweet but not a lot of flavor at all, just texture.

DW: Fast-food restaurants emphasize convenience, but they also emphasize low cost. You once said that you felt food should cost more.

AW: I did. You can't possibly have cheap food. I mean, maybe if it is in season and the farmer wants to get rid of it and you are buying it straight (from the farmer), but when it's cheap, somebody is missing out, and 9 out of 10 times it's the farmer. I want to eliminate the middleman and buy directly from the farmer and then the food can be affordable, but we can never think of something as being cheap. If it is cheap, it's made by people who I think are being taken advantage of in everything, not only food.

DW: Speaking of McDonald's and other convenience foods, do you feel you've put a dent in the "Fast Food Nation" since you started out?

AW: I think there is a lot of hijacking going on right now. All the terms of our movement are being (appropriated…. They had a McDonald's restaurant boldly at the sustainable expo in Milan. It is unbelievable. They pay a certain amount to get in there. I guess people wanted the money and they took it. (Waters was referring to the presence of McDonald's at Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy. That year, the expo's chosen theme was "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life." The expo attracted food-related businesses from across the globe to discuss food innovation, sustainability, and other issues.) It is shocking how deceptive the campaigns are—how they put in one thing that's organic in a store and you get the impression that everything is, when in fact it's only the one thing. It's all of them … I feel that the deception is there. It is not about honesty and integrity, it's more important they sell than to inform people what is in food. We need to know what "grass fed" means, what "pasture-raised" means, because they are all using all the images to give you the sense that they are picking it up at the farm that day.

DW: There has been a lot of discussion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) lately. Lots of chefs in the Slow Food movement have come out against them, including you. If someone could prove scientifically that GMO foods are not bad for you, would you have a different opinion about them?

AW: No. I really think some things are really too complex to evaluate what is happening inside our bodies. I just know that so many things that are happening to us whether it is cancer or allergies. … I think we have to just be in rhythm with the natural world.

DW: Because of your stature, you now have an international platform for your ideas about food and food systems. Did you ever expect starting out to have this level of influence about these issues?

AW: Never! I didn't. Never. What I am saying is basically common sense. That's all it is. If am considered completely unusual, and people are listening, (that also means) the food fast food culture has changed the way people think. 

DW: And you've also been very outspoken lately about food labeling and the need for consumer vigilance.

AW: It is something serious. You have to ask  every imaginable question, and those people selling it in the store don't have the answers for you. You have to eat with intention and buy with intention.

DW: But in some sense, those appropriations you are talking about—non-sustainable food producers using the language, the terminology of Slow Food—isn't that a kind of backhanded compliment to the people, including you, who have pushed Slow Food values into the mainstream?

AW: You know, you're right. You're right that they see something happening and they want to get a piece of it. They are aware of that so they are using that. They got on gluten free and now they are advertising it and making people feel that that is the problem they have when in fact it could very easily be that the wheat we are making bread out of and everything else has been contaminated.

DW: Are you suspicious of food trends that explode for a while such as concerns about carbs?

AW: (Laughs) Yes. And cholesterol. And it just goes on.

DW: Do you have a hopeful outlook about the work that you and like-minded people have been doing? Do  you feel you've made a lasting impact?

AW: I'm very hopeful. I am in contact with so many young people. I just know from the 8th graders at the middle school in Berkeley (where her garden project takes place) that any of them could give a TED Talk on sustainability. They're connected globally. They know what is happening to this world. They feel an urgency to be part the solution.