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Chef, author Alice Waters on falling in love with food that’s good for you

November 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Chef and author Alice Waters was one of the first proponents of using seasonal, organic ingredients. The pioneer of "California cuisine" has dedicated herself to educating students about the importance of reconnecting cooking to nature. Judy Woodruff sits down with Waters to discuss how how easy it can be to eat healthy.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: This Thanksgiving, we have three holiday-themed stories.

First up, Judy Woodruff visits with trendsetting restaurateur Alice Waters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a day when nearly all farmers markets and grocery stores carry organic produce, it’s hard to imagine the idea as novel. But when chef Alice Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in a Berkeley neighborhood over 40 years ago, her concept of cooking with seasonal organic ingredients bought fresh from local farms was new.

ALICE WATERS, chef/restaurateur: If it’s just picked, it has a kind of life about it. It’s evident to the people who are coming into the restaurant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The style became known as California cuisine, and Waters one of its pioneers. Waters has become a leader outside the kitchen, too, educating students about food and where it comes from.

In 1995, she founded the Edible Schoolyard Project. Students learn to plant and harvest a garden, then prepare the produce in the kitchen. It now has a network of some 3,000 schools around the world.

ALICE WATERS: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Waters is the author of 14 books. Her latest, a cookbook, “The Art of Simple Food II,” came out this fall.

Alice Waters, thank you for talking with us.

ALICE WATERS: Pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you were one of first proponents of organic food, locally grown food. Now, across the country, we have grocery stores filled with organic food. Locally grown food is available just about everywhere, farmers markets popping up.

Is this what you wanted to see?

ALICE WATERS: You know, when I opened Chez Panisse 42 years ago, I wasn’t really looking for a marketplace. I was looking for taste.

And — and it was that sort of search for something that really tasted like the food I had eaten in France, I ended up at the doorsteps of the organic local farmers and producers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why — why do you — you have talked about this a lot. Why do you believe organic food, locally grown food, especially organic, is so important for people?

And I ask because there have been a couple of studies, one big study, that said it’s really not that much healthier for people.

ALICE WATERS: Well, first and foremost is that the organic growers are taking care of the land. And that’s where our food comes from.

So, we want the farmers to be supported who really care about not only our nourishment, but the nourishment of the land. And I think that’s — that’s really what it’s about. It’s reconnecting with people who are those stewards and those caretakers.

But I have also found that they plant all kinds of fruits and vegetables now that have more flavor. So, I’m looking for the vegetables and fruits particularly that are the varietals, that have this kind of gastronomic importance.

And I don’t think we have really thought about that so much in this country. When I go to Italy, that’s — that’s — that’s what the farmers do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know you get asked this question all the time, but what about those people who can’t — who say, it all sounds great, I wish I could afford it, but I can’t afford to buy organic food, I can’t afford to buy locally grown food?

ALICE WATERS: Well, I think there’s the issue of knowing how to cook and making a dinner in an affordable way.

I think we have lost all of our — our cooking knowledge and understanding about seasons because the sort of fast food industry would like us to believe that even cooking is drudgery and sitting down at the table is unimportant, and, you know, it’s just better and cheaper to buy something that’s prepared for us.

But, you know, when you think about it, when something is very cheap, it means that somebody is losing out, and I think that person is the farmer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is that kind of food that you believe we should all eat more of, is it available? Is it available to most people?

ALICE WATERS: Well, it could be. And it should be.

And I’m — I just am focused completely on public education, because that’s the place where we can learn about food and what’s good for us and reconnect to nature. It’s so important to that we go into the public schools and we feed all of the kids something that is really good for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this part of the same conversation the country has been starting to have about obesity?

ALICE WATERS: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have heard some of it from the White House, but there’s — there’s a whole movement around that right now.

ALICE WATERS: Well, you know, we pay either up front or we pay out back. And we are really paying out back with our health and our lack of health, good health.

And I think there’s a way that you can — children particularly — just fall in love with food that’s good for them. And that’s been my experience. You know, I have been working in the schools, in the public schools, for 19 years. And we have been doing the Edible Schoolyard Project.

And we are bringing children into a relationship, a new relationship to food and to growing food. And it’s not a gardening class and it’s not really a cooking class. They do their math in the garden. It’s like a living lab. And it’s just — it’s captivating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Here’s a question I’m dying to ask you. What about cooking on the part of people who think they’re too busy, who just don’t time to cook? What do you say?

ALICE WATERS: Well, that’s — that’s a beautiful question.

And I always say that if you go to the farmers market on a weekend, and you buy really delicious-tasting fruits and vegetables, all — all other things as well, a nice organic chicken, you can very easily cook during the week, because you have ingredients that have taste.

Like, in the summer, you’re just slicing that tomato, and it’s so effortless. You’re — you’re cooking a little piece of fish. It’s difficult to cook when you don’t have those ingredients. And it’s — it’s beautiful to take a whole chicken and roast it in the oven, and maybe keep those bones, make a soup at the end of a meal, and then have another dinner the next night that incorporates that stock that you have made.

But when you’re just every day trying to start from scratch, and it’s overwhelming when you’re working. But I can — I feel like I could cook a meal in 10 minutes if I have the ingredients there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is Thanksgiving week when we’re — when we’re talking. Are there particular traditions in Alice Waters’ family that you believe is really important to remember around this time?

ALICE WATERS: Well, certainly, there are traditions in my family since I have been about 20 — 20, someplace around there , after I had gone to France.

But I always cook with my friends. They all come over, and we do it together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alice Waters, it’s a delight to talk with you.

ALICE WATERS: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much. And I know you are — have answered some questions from our viewers. And we will be posting those online. Thank you.

ALICE WATERS: Well, thank you very much.