Alice's Wonderland

Over the past 30 years, Alice Waters, creator and proprietor of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., has revolutionized the way Americans think about food. In an attempt to recreate the memorable dining experiences she had as a college student in France, the New Jersey-born Waters hit upon a simple formula: eat organically grown produce that's in season, and meats and fish that haven't been shot full of hormones and preservatives. Her message turned out to be the chef's equivalent of architect Mies van der Rohe's "less is more." Indeed, Waters, 57, is credited with bringing to the culinary mainstream her reverence for fresh, local ingredients in dishes with a Mediterranean sensibility. Many of the country's best chefs have trained in her kitchen, and a number of them will be among the 600 lining long outdoor tables at the University of California, Berkeley, next Sunday for a 30th-birthday bash. Proceeds from the $500-a-plate lunch will go to Waters's five-year-old Chez Panisse Foundation, which funds school and community farming projects. NEWSWEEK's Tara Weingarten recently broke Levain bread with Waters to learn more about her "delicious revolution."

WATERS: [Long pause] No, I just knew I wanted to change the way my little community was eating. I felt like somehow in that restaurant, I could connect with my friends in a way that was more like what I found in France. It was a sensual awakening that I had had on my trip. I never imagined what path I would follow. And, of course, you know where I ended up.

It's all-important. When you don't have something that's beautiful in and of itself, it's very difficult to make anything worthwhile. You end up putting in a lot of salt and a lot of sugar in an attempt to bring out some kind of flavor that it should have naturally. The more beautiful and bright and varied the food is to start with, the easier it is to cook well... It seems so simple, and it is so simple.

There's a lot they can do. I will go to a farmers market on a Saturday and buy things that I'll cook later in the week. Maybe I'll buy tomatoes. So I'll eat the really ripe ones today and then make a tomato sauce with them on the third day. The same with fruit. The same with salad and greens. I may make a soup with the greens several days later as they start to wilt. You have to think a little bit ahead and plan your meals.

I didn't do it. This is the way people have eaten since the beginning of time. Farmers ate what was local and fresh with their families and friends. The rest of their crop they brought to market.

The farmers market is the greatest place to see the seasons wash over you, to have the smells of fresh fruits everywhere. And it connects you to the cycle of the planet. You don't expect to see tomatoes there in the middle of the winter. And there's always something inexpensive because it's so plentiful. It's a great movement that's happening across the country. Its roots were there, but just like everything else, they got transformed and distorted in the '50s and '60s.

I don't want to call it that. But it's because we don't understand what values are associated with eating. We somehow think of food as fuel. When you buy fast food, you get fast-food values. You may think you're only getting off with a halfway-toxic hamburger, but it's a whole lot more than that. Maybe you know that it's destroying the land, but you're also getting unconscious messages: labor is cheap, food is cheap, people should eat in a hurry, children should be entertained while they're eating, that everything should be the same all the time.

We ran out of time--I think he would have planted one if he had a little more time.

[Laughing] I have a letter addressed; I haven't put it in the mail yet.

I've got a letter to prove that they put some organic food on one of their flights once, and that it came from the farmers market in Dallas. So we know it happened at least once, because this man in food service got indoctrinated in the farmers-market mentality. But he's left American Airlines. Now he's putting organic food on Swissair. I love it.

That's the question of the hour. We're serving lamb that's been organically fed. We're going to spit-roast it over fig wood, which lends a most sweet aroma. For dessert, we'll have mulberry-ice-cream cones.

[Big burst of laughter] Every year, when the restaurant's birthday comes up, I think, "Can we keep on going? I know we should, but can we?" This is the end of a generation. We had a retreat this year, because I wanted to be convinced that there are young people who really wanted to run this restaurant. Fortunately, I see that there are.

At some point, when I lose that juice for it, when it becomes routine, when it's not a challenging proposition, then I'll rethink whether it should go on.

This is a pilot program for a curriculum for public schools. Most families in this country don't even eat one meal a day with each other. So how are we going to pass on our values to them if we don't eat with them?