Visionary moments aren’t something that come easily to Alice Waters. The owner-in-chef of the famed Berkeley bistro Chez Panisse, this 64-year-old living legend is accustomed to more tangible things, like the color of good cheese or the softness of a ripe peach.
But when her daughter Fanny was born in the mid-80s, she said, a realization hit her right between the eyes: it was time to bring the message of Chez Panisse — the idea that healthy food is a necessity for a healthy society — beyond the walls of the restaurant. Her baby was growing up, and Waters wanted her to live in a world that viewed food not as a fuel, but as a pleasure.
Waters calls it the Delicious Revolution. It’s a movement that has garnered her a rabid following, a litany of success stories and now a place in California history.
On December 10th, Waters will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame, board chair Dina Eastwood announced last week. Her ballot having braved the nomination process, committee review and a deciding vote from Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the chef will now join the likes of Ronald Reagan, Jack Nicholson and Tiger Woods in the halls of the hosting California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.
It’s a laurel on which Waters won’t rest. Her ambitious plans to turn around the way Americans view food are well underway, she said, but she can’t afford to stop now.
“I’m waiting for the moment we can take for granted that we’re going to have tasty food,” she said Wednesday in her restaurant, holding a freshly-picked Royal Crest peach in her left hand. “No one has really talked about it — what we’re eating might be making us sick. No one wants to talk about that possibility.”
Waters isn’t a policy wonk — true to her Berkeley activist roots, she prefers to take action directly. That’s why she started the Edible Schoolyard, a program at Berkeley’s Martin Luthor King, Jr. Middle School that has integrated a garden into the schoolyard and cooking into the curriculum, teaching students about responsible food production and giving them a good meal at the same time.
Contrary to the experience of any parent who’s tried to get their kids to weed out the garden, Edible Schoolyard director Marsha Guerro said the 11- to 14-year-old students love planting their own food and watching it grow before their eyes.
“I talk about a lot of them learning in spite of themselves — they often don’t know that they learning,” Guerro said. “But it’s amazing to see kids come in the garden and see something come that’s grown, and say, ‘Those were the seeds!’”
California Hall of Fame or not, Waters’ energy is remarkable, her supporters say. And along with her plans to expand the Edible Schoolyard nationwide, her belief that people can be brought together through food might be just the thing a divided world needs.
“We’re all foodies,” Waters said. “We all eat. It’s our common life.”
There’s a story about agrarian author Wendell Berry that food buffs and literary types like to pass around. According to popular legend, when an out-of-state fan asked Berry to travel and speak at a conference, the writer responded with a 14-line poem. It read in part: “In the labor of the fields longer than a man’s life I am at home. Don’t come with me. You stay home too.”
Alice Waters loves Wendell Berry’s work. As an organically-minded restauratrice and a supporter of local produce, she finds that Berry’s message lauding small-scale farming and closeness with the earth strikes a similar chord within her own philosophy. But by all appearances, the strongest connection between the 64-year-old owner of Berkeley eatery Chez Panisse and the author is their shared devotion to that fundamental mandate — “Stay home.”
It’s been nearly forty years since Waters first opened Chez Panisse’s doors on Shattuck Avenue, welcoming friends into the grimy stucco “former hippie crash pad” that she has since built into one of America’s premier French cuisine restaurants. In all those years, she has never opened another restaurant — although she supports nearby standing-room-only Café Fanny — and she has absolutely no plans to do so.
Admittedly, Chez Panisse certainly looks different than it used to: the polished-wood walls with copper highlights and artfully-exposed rafters look more like an homage to the restaurant’s bohemian spirit than the actual thing. And Waters has changed too — she’s mellowed into her role as a respected chef, a burgundy scarf thrown over her dress the only visible indication of a mischievous spirit in her otherwise eloquent and poised persona. But despite the gloss of age and respectability now smoothing her rough edges, the elder Waters has remained true to her basic convictions: she has continued to serve delicious food cooked from fresh seasonal ingredients; she still frequents local farmers markets and area suppliers, seeking out what’s in season for the next dish on her table; and most of all, she still invests the whole of her being in Berkeley, a sharp contrast to the many alumni of her kitchen that have since spun themselves off into trademarked names and chains of glittering restaurants, sacrificing what rooted them in the world for a show on television or their picture in a cookbook.
Has she been asked to leave Berkeley and open a brand new Chez Panisse in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York? Oh, yes, she says. But she can’t imagine doing it.
“I like restaurants where someone is home,” she said. “I like people to become familiar with the people who run them, the waiters and the cooks. I don’t just want to be in the restaurant business to make money — I think I’m not capable of doing that. I think there are very few people who are capable of doing that.”
Friends who have known Waters since her culinary debut agree: ever since her first meal service at Chez Panisse — pate, duck with olives and a plum tart for dessert — the woman who brought American cuisine back to the forefront of the culinary world has been a one-town gal.
“It’s always been her place,” retired Chez Panisse pastry chef Lindsey Shere said of Berkeley. A longtime friend of Waters, Shere met the chef at one of her famous Berkeley dinner parties and worked for her restaurant for over 25 years. “At a certain point you feel responsible. You don’t just give it up in a moment. She has very strong belief in family, in locality, and she lives it.”
Compare this to Jeremiah Tower, the golden-boy head chef at Chez Panisse from the mid-70s to the early 80s. Tower likes to tell people that Waters hired him on the spot in 1973, after he wandered into the kitchen looking for a job and fixed a soup for the harried chef. Despite his bravado, those who worked at the restaurant said it was easy to see that Tower had talent, talent that ultimately gave Chez Panisse the final push into the spotlight the restaurant needed.
But differences in philosophy soon became apparent. Tower was a creature of the 80s, wanting bigger and better, accounts say. Shere remembers that he didn’t like the simple French fare that Waters was making him cook, preferring the heavier haute cuisine dishes that are the staple of glamorous restaurants worldwide. He wanted more than the homey one-star local restaurant that his counterpart saw no need to expand or glam up.
When he broke with Chez Panisse, Tower broke with style, founding an opulent haute cuisine restaurant, aptly named “Stars,” in San Francisco. From there, he spread his name to restaurants in Oakville, Palo Alto, even Singapore. The California sensation, his food a must-have for the San Francisco elite, even licensed out his name.
Waters refused to follow. Former boyfriend Tom Luddy, a film producer, said that she knew she could never match Tower’s zest for expansion — and nor would she want to.
“She never believed in doing more than you can control, she never believed in franchising,” he said. “She’d be a millionaire if she did.”
Instead, Waters has chosen to invest herself fully in the surrounding community, working with a Berkeley middle school to establish a student-run garden, supporting local growers and helping keep area farmers markets in business. Meanwhile, Chez Panisse has quietly become an international sensation, nearly always placing in the top 50 of restaurants in rankings worldwide.
And the elegant chef isn’t alone — she’s recruited a core of Bay Area faithful from her kitchen, their present enterprises ranging from baking to meat production, to carry out her vision of locality. Good food is an end to itself, she says, and in true Wendell Berry form, home is where the heart is.
“I love living in Berkeley — this is a place that’s connecting with us,” she said. “I like to know that these restaurants are friends. And I think they feel the same way.”
There’s a simple formula for prosperity, Miki Jurcan says: Healthy humans equal a healthy society. But living on the fringe of Oakland’s downtown, blocks away from opulence in one direction and austerity in the other, it’s easy for the weather-worn Yugoslavian to see that something got derailed along the way.
Some people blame politics, ideology, economics. For the 55-year-old Jurcan, these are mere shoots of a more tangible root, tendrils of something he can grab hold of as he kneels at Alameda Point, his hands playing across the ground. He says the soil of America itself is to blame, the vengeance of an earth so scathed by waste, ambitious farming and chemical fertilizers that whatever it yields to the plow now carries a taint of the society that created it.
“The reality is, in this country, we have been taking and taking and taking,” he said. “Our western nation’s idea is that we’re in charge of nature.”
Jurcan doesn’t look like a revolutionary or a businessman — with grizzled white hair, camouflage pants and a tufted beard, he more resembles an especially-unkempt Willie Nelson — but he excels in both capacities. The former photojournalist is growing something at the defunct Alameda Naval Air Station, something he thinks might just be the key to America’s reclamation. Lift up the lid of one of the six plywood bins clustered throughout the quarter-acre plot, and meet Jurcan’s secret weapon — Eisenia foetida, the earthworm.
Jurcan is a worm farmer; he’s raised millions of the squiggling creatures since he moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, four years ago. Through Bay Worms, a non-profit company he helped build in 2005, the Oakland man raises his brood in rough-cut wooden crates and uses them to compost donated food and animal waste, producing a sultry black loam that buyers at the farmers market swear is better than Miracle-Gro. Earthworms, he explains, are nature’s best composters: they tear through the truckloads of waste he brings in from food banks and animal farms, grinding them up and enriching them with the natural microflora of their stomachs. What’s left behind is something so rich in PNK — the crucial growing minerals of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium — that plants thrive almost in spite of themselves.
“I had a young woman buy castings from me one weekend, and then come back later and buy another ten pounds,” he said of a recent farmers market encounter. “She said her mother-in-law was getting jealous of her garden.”
Jurcan, who worked as a printer before getting into the composting business, isn’t the first to connect the dots between earthworms and the earth’s fertility: the composting method he uses in Alameda originated long ago in India. But he’s one of the few Westerners taking notice of the mounting scientific evidence indicating that earthworm “castings” are superior to traditional compost — and far safer than anything DuPont or Monsanto has dreamed up.
As he walks between the rows of composting bins busy at work, talk of big companies and bureaucracies provoke a dismissive “ptuh” from the wiry Yugoslavian: their single-minded devotion to short-term results have left the fading earth in the state it is, he says. In his book, “green” commercial composters are scarcely better: they just heap the collected waste in a gigantic pile, spray it with strawberry-tinged water for the smell and bag it after a few weeks. He has a better way, pulling out records from his grungy working van to prove it.
In recent experiments conducted by local University of California students, Jurcan’s castings beat the municipal compost in all measured metrics by more then 100 percent, producing taller, sturdier and greener plants. Trust the worms, and you’ll get the rich soil that Jurcan can afford to sell for a dollar a pound — the cheapest castings in the nation, he says. What’s more, Jurcan processed over 50 tons of waste last year, a statistic he recounts with pride.
Still, looking over his small plot of land, framed by the distant skyline of San Francisco, the earthworm farmer wants more. He wants to build more bins so he can expand his composting capacity. He wants to join more farmers markets so he can sell the soil that suits the earth so well. But mostly, he just wants large commercial farmers to admit that there’s a problem with the way they’re growing plants.
“You cannot have a functioning society if you don’t have good social justice and a good environment,” he said. “We are running on fumes, and sooner or later we are going to crash.”