The next president should consider adding food to public schools’ curriculums, Berkeley chef Alice Waters said in an interview with the Hearst Foundation on Wednesday.
The internationally known executive chef and owner of Chez Panisse said food is losing its place in culture as families flock to burger joints. To battle this trend, she said students need to engage in food in schools across America and around the world.
“I’m growing hopeful at this moment, because I think we have a real possibility of influencing the next president in terms of agriculture in public education,” Waters said. “There’s an openness, a possibility of doing things differently.”
Waters, a leader of the organic and locally grown food movements, said food is an essential part of many of the crises facing America – obesity, healthcare, the environment and the economy – but it’s one that’s rarely mentioned.
Waters said addressing these issues needs to start with the president giving press conferences in front of compost heaps instead of the White House Rose Garden.
“We need to have the next president speak eloquently and passionately and really believe that feeding everyone in this country is a priority – the priority,” the 64-year-old said. “We need…somebody who will say this is something that is important.”
The easiest solution to fixing how America eats is through the schools, Waters said.
She proposes making food the main course in classrooms and cafeterias across the country by having children grow gardens in the schoolyard. Students can learn math by measuring the sizes of peas and learn about ancient Egyptians through exploring the foods they ate. Consider it no chili left behind.
“I think it is an essential exploration,” she said. “I daresay before reading and writing and arithmetic, we need to know about this.”
Waters is already acting on her ideas. She helped students transform an empty parking lot into a gorgeous garden at Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, in Berkeley. She also works with the Yale Sustainable Food Project, an organic farm that supplies food year-round to its dining halls.
Sean Fraga, a Yale junior and project photographer, said its presence on campus has boosted students’ knowledge about organic foods.
“Making the campus into a classroom has a tremendous impact,” he said. “When the university does rather than just says, I think it makes a huge impact.”
Waters also railed against the inhumane treatment of livestock at some large businesses.
Carter Nguyen, a salesman at the organic Prather Ranch Meat Company said he hopes politicians heed Waters’ call to action.
“It’s horrible, what the world is now,” Nguyen said from behind the counter. “It’s not the old-fashioned way to take care of animals. All the animals are indoors now – that’s not the animals should live.”
With a new administration taking office in January and the food crisis worsening, Waters said she hopes the country is ripe for change – from politicians down to restaurant customers.
“It’s not just voting,” Waters said. “It’s about voting with your fork.”
Alice Waters’ appearance isn’t the flashiness you’d expect from a world-class chef. Aside from a dark, striped scarf, she wears little color and little jewelry.
So it makes sense her world-renowned cuisine that sparked the organic food movement has a simple presentation and an even simpler method of preparation.
“I think that when people come to the restaurant, it’s a surprise to have the best dessert be the fruit on the table that’s completely unprepared,” Waters said. “Very carefully selected, but unprepared.”
But based on years of experience and close ties with local, organic farmers, Waters has learned how to pick out the best ingredients since she opened her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley in 1971.
She judges butter by its color and strawberries by their closeness to fruit she tasted in France decades ago. She can even pinpoint the time of the year based on what fruit she sees at farmers markets. Who needs a calendar when you know Bing cherries are ripe in June and royal apricots last only a few days after Memorial Day?
But food is the life of the 64-year-old executive chef and owner of Chez Panisse.
She doesn’t bother with tablespoons or measuring cups – she relies on her taste buds. Like a great quarterback, she calls audibles at the kitchen line, tweaking recipes and even entire meals based on the quality of her fresh ingredients. That’s why her restaurant offers vague menus in advance and doesn’t finalize anything until it gets that day’s meat and produce.
“We’re taking what (the farmer) has and trying to make the best use of it,” Waters said. “It’s a very different idea of cooking.”
That reliance on only the best ingredients led her to local, organic farms in the ’70s – a revolutionary idea at the time.
“It wasn’t an idea that we were looking for sustainable farmers and ranchers; we were looking for flavor,” she said. “[We] ended up very closely on the doorsteps of the organic farmers and the local people that were able to bring food that was ripe and in season right to the restaurant.”
And once she found the best local farmers in the area, she never turned back.
Waters’ innovative cuisine spread across the country, and organic orchards and farmers markets began popping up everywhere.
Steve Kashiwase, whose farm supplied the fruit for Wednesday night’s nectarine galette with peach leaf ice cream, credited Waters for boosting sales every year since his farm became organic in 1990.
Likewise, Leif Hedendal, an employee of Blossom Bluff Orchards, said his farm has seen “a significant” increase in business since it switched to organic last year. He said Waters is to thank for that.
“She’s definitely at the front of the movement,” Hedendal said at a farmers market as he loaded the nectarines that would appear on Waters’ tables the next day. “When she started Chez Panisse in the ’70s, there wasn’t really any movement in the restaurants to sell locally grown stuff. The farmers market movement started here, and it was with her collaboration, for sure.”
The organic movement has since strayed from Waters’ slow food roots and into mass-produced snacks shipped across the country. Major companies market organic breakfast cereals and peanut butter, and the fresh greens she got from France to replace iceberg lettuce 36 years ago have become the fixture of salad mixes in supermarkets everywhere.
“I must say, it’s pretty shocking to see a bag of mesclun lettuce produced by Dole,” Waters said.
“There’s all kinds of crazy things in there.”
Despite her restaurant’s $85 meals and her distaste of mass-market foods, Waters said she is committed to opening up food to everyone. Chez Panisse literally and figuratively embodies that idea, as no walls separate the kitchen from the dining area. Chefs chat freely with customers. Diners can see and smell cooks chopping onions and feel the warmth of the oven’s fire as they walk to their tables.
Through her Chez Panisse Foundation, Waters supports organic foods across the country, including the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
Sean Fraga, a junior at Yale and photographer for the project, said Waters’ celebrity status and involvement with the on-campus farm made her a hit when she spoke at the university this year.
“It was a huge deal that Alice Waters would come speak at Yale,” Fraga said. “The place was just packed, and people loved it. When she spoke, she was absolutely passionate about everything she’s doing.”
And everything she’s doing is, well, just about everything.
Waters’ foundation runs The Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre garden at Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley that gives students hands-on experience with food production.
She’s appeared in two documentaries, episodes of “The View” and countless newspaper stories. She’s also written eight books with her ninth, “The Edible Schoolyard,” scheduled to be released later this year.
Waters’ popularity has made her a favorite of celebrities such as Martha Stewart and prompted requests to open restaurants across the country – offers she has all declined.
Fittingly, it’s also helped business at the local farms she adores.
“I sell entirely at farmers markets, and I hear people constantly say they went to her restaurant and saw us on the menu and want some,” said Kashiwase, the fruit farmer in Winton, Calif.
Waters also welcomes the publicity as a way to promote her activism, including calls to end world hunger and fight global warming through local farms.
“We’re only talking about hybrids – why aren’t we talking about walking to the farmers market?” Waters said.
“This needs to be in our conversation. It needs to be on the front page of the New York Times.”
Waters said she’ll continue her crusade to change the world’s diet when she cooks at the United Nations World Hunger Week this October. It’s a global stage, but Waters said she has no idea what she’ll serve yet.
Of course not. That depends on what she finds at the local, organic markets in New York that morning.
Steve Zadig’s auto racing career had never been higher, but his passion for the sport had never been lower.
The Palo Alto resident had just raced his endurance car to a third-place finish in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the country’s longest road race, in 2006. But as he thought about the smog spewing out of his car, Zadig’s passion began to wear down like old tires. How could a man who perfects his patent on clean wave energy Monday through Friday do so much damage to the environment on the weekend?
“I had had a lot of successes the past couple years, but I didn’t think I could continue,” he said. “My racing was in conflict with what I really believed. It was like I was burning gas on an open flame. As happy as I was, I doubted I could still do it.”
Rather than give up his passion, Zadig looked for alternatives to gasoline. And, like many racers worldwide struggling to make 500-mile races eco-friendly, he found ethanol.
The IndyCar Series switched to 100 percent ethanol last year to offset the enormous carbon footprint of dozens of cars racing in 17 races across the world.
The result? IndyCar uses 20,000 fewer gallons of fuel and emits only trace amounts of carbon monoxide.
Steve Luczo, co-owner of the California-based Luczo Dragon Racing team, said the switch has also shown the world that if ethanol can power 220-mph race cars, it can fuel commuters.
“It’s probably the best opportunity to show we can do these types of things and be environmentally conscious,” Luczo said.
Other series are also looking at alternative energy: the American Le Mans Series is switching to cellulosic ethanol later this year, and Formula One is jumping to hybrids in 2009.
As other motorsports like NASCAR and go-karts resist change, more courses and drivers are making the move themselves.
Infineon Raceway has replaced gas-powered lawnmowers with 3,000 sheep to maintain its 1,600-acre property before it hosts the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350 later this month. The Sonoma, Calif., speedway has also boosted its recycling program, recycling 56 tons of bottles and cans since 2004, said Diana Brennan, senior manager for media and community relations.
Donald Durbin, owner of Cambrian Go-Karts in San Jose, said more indoor tracks are switching to electric karts to reduce pollution. And while some teams are building cleaner, battery-operated karts, most drivers lack the money to follow.
“It’s not that they don’t care, but they just realize that in this particular sport, someone else is dictating the rules,” Durbin said. “When it does go up top, then everyone else will follow.”
Zadig didn’t want to wait on everyone else. But as he looked into new fuels for his new Green Alternative Motorsports team, he couldn’t change his engine to run on biodiesel fuel or experiment with hydrogen cars.
“I wanted to do something relevant to consumers – not something so exotic that it was X years away from reality,” Zadig said.
He finally settled on cellulosic ethanol, a fuel made from organic scraps and non-edible parts of plants. It cuts carbon emissions by 80 percent, boosts the car’s horsepower and even lets its engine run cooler.
There was just one problem.
“Everything worked great until I tried to find it,” he said.
After a long search, he stumbled on Iogen, a Canadian company that makes the fuel from long grasses that cover the Great Plains. Zadig spent a few thousand dollars reworking the fuel line and cell in his LeMans Prototype cars and fine-tuning the engine to run on the new fuel.
Many fellow competitors applauded his move to go green, but others dismissed it as an empty gesture.
“People say, ‘Yeah, but you have to ship it from 3,000 miles away,’” Zadig said. “But the reality is it’s the fuel of the future.”
Since Zadig switched to ethanol, his racing career has continued to accelerate. Although electrical problems kept him out of the front in December’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, he clocked the race’s fastest lap, and his teammates finished second. Zadig will travel to Buttonwillow, Calif., for a six-hour race this weekend.
Although most of his competitors will continue to run on gasoline, Zadig said it’s only a matter of time before they follow his lead.
“We’re approaching that point,” Zadig said. “Whether the environment forces us to do it or our finite resources force us to do it, we’re going to have to do something.”