In their own words…
“The reporting, writing and sleepless hours spent squinting into a computer screen during the National Championship produced some of the most intense, and fulfilling, moments of my life. Two days competing with brilliant writers from around the country with similar goals and dreams made the competition that much more inspiring.
Three years ago, I sat in a reporting class and read a series of past Hearst-winning stories, and I thought, “There’s no way I’ll ever write like this.” Now, finding my name among that group is the most memorable, profound and humbling honor of my journalism career. It’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
A kindergartner steps on the bus and rides to school. He walks to English class, then to math and then grabs a pair of gloves, trots outside and inspects the organic strawberries he planted the week before in his garden class.
That’s the kind of school Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley’s renowned Chez Panisse restaurant, dreams of and hopes to see throughout America one day. Waters, who’s also founded the in-school garden program “The Edible Schoolyard,” said she believes by educating children about what they eat, how it’s produced and where it comes from, schools could thwart the pervasive youth health problems in America today.
Obesity in America has increased from 15 percent in the late 1970s to 32.9 percent in 2004, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another study showed that rates have almost tripled for every age group from 2 to 19 years old.
“Really and truly I think we need to concentrate on the public school system, and I see that as a big economic possibility for revitalizing local, sustainable agriculture around the country,” said Waters, who is credited by many with popularizing local, organic produce. “If we gave a criteria to the schools, and they were asked to buy food for their cafeteria in a certain way, we would change things overnight.”
In 1997, Waters kicked off the program, meant to teach students at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Middle School about organic produce, show them how to grow it and start them on a healthy diet.
“She’s incredibly focused on education. That is her thing,” said Marsha Guerrero, program coordinator for The Edible Schoolyard program. “She is working to change school lunch on a national level.”
Guerrero said the program, which supports about 950 students, works in a three-part rotation, each portion lasting from one to two months. Students start in the garden, move to the kitchen and then return to the garden for the final section.
“Because they’re really given responsibility, and it’s not a pretend kind of work, they really take a sense of ownership,” Guerrero said. “They’re proud of it.”
Guerrero said they’re trying to spread the idea by working to grow similar programs in New Mexico, North Carolina and New Orleans.
Former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli and San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer each said Waters was just the person to lead such a national movement in the school system.
“It requires a kind of radical transformation,” Bertolli said, “and she’s really good at starting radical transformations.”
Waters’ efforts with the schoolyard contributed to her receiving the Center for Health and the Global Environment’s 2008 Global Environmental Citizen Award along with Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said Kathleen Frith, the Center’s associate director.
Waters, who just finished a book about The Edible Schoolyard, said she’s inspired to keep working with public schools and promote healthy diets, and she has no intention of stopping.
“She’s a passionate person. She doesn’t do anything half heartedly. It’s how she’s made; it’s how she’s wired,” Guerrero said. “She’s just one of those people in the world.”
Three times a week, a truck putters 45 miles south from a farm in Sonoma County, headed for Berkeley’s North Shattuck neighborhood, filled with plump, corn-bred, nine-week-old ducks.
The ducks, better known as Liberty Ducks, are descended from Denmark and destined for a two-story, vine-covered culinary Mecca. The birds are bred, nurtured and sold by a Northern Californian fourth-generation farmer, and they represent a nearly four-decade-old philosophy of the restaurant Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters.
“We ended up very quickly on the doorsteps of the organic farmers,” Waters said of her first years in the restaurant business.
Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats organically cultivated by local growers, like the ducks brought from Sonoma County Poultry, pepper a menu as focused as Waters’ passion. One of the most decorated, respected and renowned chefs in America, she is credited by many with re-popularizing the old idea of serving unaltered, garden-fresh foods, an effort that has influenced places far beyond Chez Panisse’s white-clothed tables.
Dressed in a shin-length charcoal dress and wrapped in a multi-colored scarf, Waters sat in a back room on the second floor of her restaurant and, as she talked about her ongoing love affair with clean, healthy foods, sipped on a Blue Bottle Coffee latte splashed with organic Straus Family cream made 60 miles north of San Francisco.
She talked in a soft, elegant tone but glowed with excitement when she mentioned straight-from-the-garden ingredients, helping children eat healthier diets or her long-term relationship with California farmers – her “friends,” she said.
“Every time I’m buying food, I’m supporting those people who are taking care of the land,” the 64-year-old Waters said, brushing back her short, maple-colored hair as a chef in the kitchen behind her chopped fresh shallots.
“I couldn’t have done what I do in another market just because she’s really created the drive for everyone to do similar things and to have the same sort of attention to products,” said Jim Reichardt, owner of Sonoma County Poultry. “She created the market.”
Reichardt and farmers like Karen and Ben Lucero, owners of Lucero Organic Farms about 75 miles northeast of Berkeley, talk about Waters with reverence, almost as if they owe their livelihoods to her work.
“It’s a blessing to everyone,” said Karen Lucero, who supplies Chez Panisse with strawberries. “She’s buying the produce and doing lovely things with it.”
When Waters, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, opened the restaurant in 1971, full of ideas and dreams from her time spent studying in London and traveling in France, she said she didn’t have the same commitment to sustainable products that she does now, instead focusing just on serving French-inspired “delicious food.” She even grimaced when asked about the wooden panels made from redwood trees outlining Chez Panisse’s second-floor walls, although she quickly added that the bottom floor was made from recycled lumber.
Waters’ search for those delicious ingredients eventually led her to the local farmers and their organic produce like the strawberries from Lodi and the ducks from Sonoma County.
“She’s so keen on the prime ingredient and cooking as a simple process,” said Paul Bertolli, a Chez Panisse chef from 1982 to 1992, current book author and owner of California salumi producer, Fra’Mani. “The stuff that used to come in the door was such that you just didn’t want to screw it up.”
Bertolli said that although his time at Chez Panisse launched his career, and he loved working for Waters, she was, at times, challenging.
“When I was working with her in the kitchen, she’d say ‘Paul, make this taste good.’”
Bertolli remembered one occasion when Waters wanted to serve anchovies even though they were still mostly frozen, making them almost impossible to scale, clean or cook. He said they stacked grills on top of each other because the fish kept slipping through the grates.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Alice, this is crazy. Then she said, ‘as Elizabeth David said, ‘good cooking is trouble’” Bertolli remembered, laughing. “She would ask me to do crazy things.”
Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic since 1986, said that drive for perfection and sometimes impractically high standards have made her successful in the restaurant business and beyond.
“What Alice has done really well is stick with Chez Panisse. She’s had basically a singular message,” Bauer said. “I think the other thing is that so many other chefs have cashed in monetarily on their vision. She’s really stuck to her vision.
“Her restaurant has become a platform, but not a platform to line her own pockets,” he said. “It’s a platform for her own visions.”
Bauer also said Chez Panisse is one of seven restaurants – among thousands – he has awarded four stars.
“I gave her four because she does what no one else does,” he said. “I think that it’s still magical.”
Chez Panisse has also been included among S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants since Restaurant Magazine began the rankings in 2002, and they awarded Waters the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Lifetime Achievement award in 2007.
Other awards include the 1997 James Beard Humanitarian Award, Bon Appetit magazine’s 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award and most recently the 2008 Global Environmental Citizen Award she received along with Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
“We felt like Ms. Waters’ work with sustainable food has been groundbreaking,” said Kathleen Frith, associate director at the Center for Health and the Global Environment, which gives out the award. “I think she has done a great job helping people understand how our food choices are linked to both our health and the health of the environment.”
Beyond the lofty awards and international praise, Waters’ love always leads back to the beauty of pure, simple food, like her favorites – garlic and parsley – and a desire to share that “deliciousness” with the rest of the world.
“You have the opportunity of awakening your senses. You have the pleasure of eating with your family and friends,” she said. “You have a sense of time and place. You feel connected to a community.”
A guitar riff from Junior Kimbo’s “Release Me” drifted from the juke box as a 59-year-old man sporting a plaid shirt, wire glasses and a salt-and-pepper goatee sipped at vodka and soda, seasoned by a lemon slice wedged on the glass’ rim.
Greg Woods leaned on the more than 100-year-old mahogany bar and squeezed the yellow fruit into his glass then poked it just below the ice with a straw.
His lemon triangle, though, wasn’t like most found in bars throughout San Francisco. Just like the limes, grapefruits and a host of hand-picked spirits at Elixir Saloon in San Francisco’s Mission District, Woods’ lemon was organic.
California was the first state to pass legislation initiating major greenhouse emission cuts, and San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic bags and recycle 70 percent of its waste, and now, Elixir, located in a merlot-colored wood and gray brick 150-year-old building, is the city’s first and only bar to take more than a few shots of green.
The city-sponsored San Francisco Green Business Program officially certified Elixir three years ago as one of the first 50 green businesses in the area and the lone bar, which it still is today.
“I’m assuming that role in a way that I’m not trying to tout it as much as I’m looking to be a role model,” said 39-year-old bar owner Harold Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir’s singular green status. “As I’ve always said, being the only one never made sense. Being the first one is cool, but being the only one is bad.”
Mark Westlund, program manager for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, said the simplest way to define the now common term “going green” is “adopting policies that will save resources and ultimately improve life for coming generations.”
“I think this is great,” Woods said of the 50-person-capacity bar’s environmental efforts.
The square-jawed, light brown-haired Ehrmann, known by his high school nickname “H” around the bar, said Elixir has gone beyond the minimum environmental standards required for certification by the program, which focus primarily on business operations like recycling, minimizing waste and preserving energy and water.
“I think he’s really just trying to be environmentally conscious in an area where most people aren’t,” said Elixir bartender Johanna Staudinger. “He’s certainly passionate about it.”
Ehrmann has made efforts Westlund recommended for anyone greening their business, home or life.
He’s installed more efficient toilets and refrigeration, quit using toxic cleaning supplies, ordered energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, placed ash trays along the outside of the building, sought out eco-friendly alcohols and put in a better-working ice machine, by itself saving him $250 a month in electricity.
Partly inspired by Ehrmann’s efforts, about 10 San Franciscans started “Green and Tonic,” a program intended to help other city bars become green certified.
Two Mission District bars, Doc’s Clock and Casanova, have begun the city’s certification process with Green and Tonic’s support. The group raised almost $2,000 to kick-start their changes.
“H loved our idea and sort of took us under his wing, and it exploded into this,” said founding member and San Francisco resident Laura Cholak. “I think that everyone in our group uses Elixir as a model of what it means to go green and sustain it.”
Cholak said when they have difficulty convincing bar owners to employ the program, Ehrmann often goes in and explains the long-term monetary benefits.
“If you’re saving energy, you’re saving energy cost,” Ehrmann said. “At the end of the day, you have to be profitable.”
Besides his business efforts, Ehrmann also offers his patrons a taste of the green world.
Soon after Elixir’s certification, Ehrmann started “Green Thursdays,” a cocktail night every second Thursday of the month that offers a variety of drinks made with organic ingredients. Recent menus have included concoctions like the spicy “Pretty Pepper,” the cocoa bean-infused “Chocolate Mint Mojito” and the “Candied Agave Fizz” made with 4 Copas, the world’s first certified organic tequila.
“It’s pretty cool,” Staudinger said. “A lot of green business owners come in and mingle and meet new green people.”
Although Ehrmann has made vast efforts to make Elixir and other bars more energy conscious, he said the bar and its peers are far from perfection.
“You want to do everything you can, but the reality of running a business is that you can’t make these massive, sweeping changes all at once,” Ehrmann said. “Step by step, you get there.”
Ehrmann said he’ll keep dishing the green cocktails as long as it takes.
“I hope that green business will not be viewed as a trend or a fad,” he said. “Green business is good business.”