MARGARET WARNER: Finally this evening, Alice Waters opened a Berkeley, California, restaurant 30 years ago, and in the process launched a delicious revolution. Elizabeth Farnsworth reports.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Fans and friends of Alice Waters gathered under the campanile at the University of California in Berkeley Sunday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her restaurant, Chez Panisse. They came from near and far to honor the woman some say has revolutionized American cooking.
CORBY KUMMER: Everybody who has any love of food has to be here to pay tribute to Alice. But it's not just that. We get to see each other and work and help. It's a community that's been built up over all these years, and it's like a big family reunion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Corby Kummer is a food writer and Senior Editor at the "Atlantic Monthly."
CORBY KUMMER: Alice has helped everyone in America understand more about where their food comes from: Not in a package at the supermarket, that it grows in the ground. And not just that, but they should find where it grows in the ground near them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kummer joined with about 200 volunteers who, under the guidance of Chez Panisse chefs, helped prepare the meal for more than 600 people. The price of a ticket was $500. Film directors George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and other luminaries were there, as were neighbors of the Berkeley restaurant, food activists, and farmers Waters has championed over the years. Mas Masumoto grows peaches and grapes near Fresno.
DAVID MASUMOTO: She started the revolution, in many ways, of bringing a match between farmers and people who enjoy our fruits of labor. So for me it has that sense of closure on the harvest cycle.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The extravaganza was vintage Alice Waters: Stylish, high spirited and delicious, but also serious in purpose. All proceeds will go to the Chez Panisse Foundation, which promotes Waters' vision of good eating. She explained it in an interview in the kitchen of her Berkeley home.
ALICE WATERS: It's a way people have been eating since the beginning of time-- I mean, just eating what is locally available, sharing it with their families, cooking it simply, eating in season. Food is about something we all have in common. Food is what we have in common. And some of us do it two or three times a day. And if you do it with the right purpose, you can change the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Waters was drawn into changing the world at UC- Berkeley in the 1960s. But she spent her junior year in southern France, and her experiences there determined what happened next.
ALICE WATERS: I'd never imagined sort of a life like that. And when I came back, I wanted to live like that. I wanted to eat like that. I wanted to sit in cafes. I wanted to walk in the marketplace in the morning. I wanted to get my hot loaf of bread. It was a way of life that was so compelling, so sensuous, and of such great interest. And so I opened the restaurant and I just thought, "well, I'm just going to do this, create this other world." And that seemed to me a very political way of reaching people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She named the new restaurant "Chez Panisse" after a loveable character in a 1930s series of French films by Marcel Pagnol. Waters and her colleagues developed a distinctive style of cooking heavily influenced by what she'd learned in southern France, but using organic, seasonal ingredients from nearby California gardens and farms. The style of cooking became known as "California cuisine." Before long, Waters was recognized as an equal by legendary cooks like Edna Lewis, Julia Child, and Marion Cunningham.
MARION CUNNINGHAM: She certainly set a standard that simplicity could be the best of all paths in food preparation based upon the quality of the ingredients. And it really is that, no more than that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Since those early years, the restaurant has changed only slightly. It's still housed on one of Berkeley's main streets in what used to be a private home.
WAITER: Alison, I'm coming in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Each day the staff prepares meals fresh from the fields for the more expensive downstairs restaurant and for the more casual cafe upstairs. Waters doesn't cook at Chez Panisse regularly anymore, but she oversees the menu and joins chefs in a tasting session each day when she's in town.
ALICE WATERS: It's got a little spice in it. What's the spice?
CHEF: On the onions, I cooked them with broth, a little clam.
ALICE WATERTS: Uh-huh. It's really good.
CHEF: A little fennel and red wine vinegar.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Waters says 85% of good cooking is in the shopping. I asked her where the green beans came from.
ALICE WATERS: I think that they probably came from a wonderful farm called "Dirty Girl," down towards Half Moon Bay. It's a little bit of a cooler climate, and they've been growing a lot of those little small straight beans.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why are they so much better than other beans I've had?
ALICE WATERS: For a lot of reasons, and some of them are that they chose the right variety to plant in the right place, which is very important. And then they care about them in the right way, so they're putting all that great compost on them. And then ultimately, they're picking them when they're young and they're bringing them directly to us that day. So there's a kind of aliveness about the food. And that's... That's very important. It makes food sort of irresistible.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Irresistible food is by its very nature political in Waters' view.
ALICE WATERS: I have to get some of that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She has promoted organic farming and buys from vendors at farmers' markets like this one in Berkeley. She said she recognizes that her restaurant, where dinners cost from $35-$75, is too expensive for most people, but argues that it is possible for anyone to eat well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If I were somebody who doesn't have much money and I'm walking through here and I come to this place, what could I buy here and cook that would be cheap and really good for my family?
ALICE WATERS: Well, I suspect it's probably melons, but you tell us. I mean, I... I'm always looking for really exactly what's in season. And there's a moment for tomatoes and it's the moment for peppers. And the farmers who have a whole lot of one thing are trying to sell it quickly. And if you were making a pasta with tomatoes and you had about, you know, a handful of tomatoes that are probably about $2 or $3, and a little bit of basil for another $1, and a box of pasta, a little olive oil... I think you have a meal. I think you could have a meal for $6.
FARMER: Yeah $6.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Waters spends most of her time now promoting and raising money for projects that teach children where good food comes from. She started the Chez Panisse Foundation five years ago to promote that cause, among others. And one of the main beneficiaries is a program called "the Edible Schoolyard" at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley. Waters helped fund the planting of a large garden at the school, and all sixth and seventh graders learn to till, weed, and plant. It's one of the most popular classes, according to a student survey.
JACOB SCHNEIDER: Well, it's helped me realize how much stuff actually grows in the ground and how much stuff... You know, everything comes in packages these days. It's helped me see, you know... We grow all kinds of things here. And through the garden, in the kitchen I've learned how to eat more healthy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Students are also taught to decorate and set a table. And they sit down to eat together, the only time some of them ever gather with adults for a meal.
ALICE WATERS: Most of them didn't eat with their families at night. When both parents are working, they don't get home till late, people are eating at all different hours. And so they're not participating in the ritual of the table. And that's the place where we communicate about our culture. That's the place we learn things. Because it's not happening at home anymore, it's really important that it happen at school, in the public school system. It's our last democratic institution, truly democratic. Every kid has to go to school.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Waters also helped get a ballot measure passed in Berkeley last year that provides funds to upgrade kitchens in all the schools so fresh foods can be prepared on site. She says children are eating way to much fast food, and that it teaches the wrong values.
ALICE WATERS: You're getting the idea that food is cheap, and that labor is cheap, and that you have to eat in a hurry, and that children have to be entertained while they're eating, and that there's no sense of season.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The guests at the Chez Panisse anniversary party did not have to hurry. They spent five hours eating the six-course meal, which was fine with Waters who is a leader of an organization that started in Europe called "Slow Food." In Berkeley there has been lots of talk over the years about one revolution or another, but so far it's Alice Waters' delicious revolution that has survived.