Alice Waters is an American chef and co-owner of Chez Panisse, the original “California Cuisine” restaurant in Berkeley, California, as well as the informal Café Fanny in West Berkeley. A champion of locally-grown and fresh ingredients, she has been credited with creating and developing California Cuisine and has written or co-written several books on the subject, including the influential Chez Panisse Cooking (written with then-chef Paul Bertolli). She has also promoted organic and small farm products heavily in her restaurants, in her books, and in her Edible Schoolyard program at the King Middle School in Berkeley. Her ideas for “edible education” have been introduced into the entire Berkeley school system, and with the current crisis in childhood obesity, have attracted the attention of the national media. She is a head advocate of a multi-billion dollar stimulus package that works to give every child in the public school system free breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack. She states that taxpayers should endorse this package because we are already paying for it in terms of our health.
Waters advocates eating locally produced foods that are in season, because she believes that the international shipment of mass-produced food is both harmful to the environment and produces an inferior product for the consumer.
Q: You definitely have a goal for this book beyond recipes and technique. What is your objective?
A: I want people to focus on where the ingredients come from. That’s really what’s important to me. It’s not so much what they’re cooking, it’s with what ingredients they’re cooking. It can be a hot dog — but where’s that hot dog from? What kind of ranches are producing the meat? Are the animals being fed hormones and antibiotics out there on the range? Are they in feedlots? Are they enjoying the natural resources of the region? You know, what’s in the hot dog? What’s in the bun? What’s in the mustard? What’s in the ketchup?
That’s what I’m interested in. Because every decision we make about the food that we eat has consequences. And they aren’t just about people’s personal health. There are consequences in terms of the healthcare system for all of us if people eat food that makes them sick. And there are environmental consequences. But I think the thing that people don’t understand is that there are cultural consequences.
When we’re eating fast food, we’re not just eating the food, we’re eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it’s telling us that food should be cheap. It’s telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It’s telling us that advertising confers value. That it’s OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It’s telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant — in fact we don’t even need to know. And all of those values are informing what’s happening in the world around us. We’re ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in.
Q: I’ve been cooking from this book for about a month now.
A: You have? Tell me, did the recipes work?
Q: Yeah, they were wonderful. But as you say, it’s less about the recipes than your ideas of where to get the food. And I’ve been following those ideas too. I went to the farmers’ market several times.
A: You know this would be any old book of recipes if it weren’t for the philosophy of food at the beginning. If you’re just going into the store and buying those ingredients, if you’re really a good cook you could probably make something. But what is beautiful is that this changes your life. It brings you into the whole community of people and hopefully brings you back to the dinner table.
Q: So how often would you go to the farmers’ market in a week?
A: Twice. I mean, if I could I’d go every day, but I go on Saturday when I can buy a lot of things, and on Tuesday. And then I’ll go get other things in the regular market as a sort of backup.
Q: You recognize, though, that it takes more time to do it this way than going to the store.
A: I do absolutely recognize it takes more time. But this is all part of fast food values. Let’s do it quickly. Let’s get it over with. Let’s let the machines do it for us, because kitchen work is drudgery and so is garden work. Let somebody else do that.
Get out of that mind-set and tell yourself cooking is a meditation. I like to do it. It’s relaxing for me to come home — it truly is! — and wash the salad. I love to see the salad in the sink. To spin the salad. I like to dry it. I like to pound to make a vinaigrette with my mortar and pestle. I enjoy grinding coffee and putting it in the filter and warming up the milk. It’s part of a ritual that gives my life meaning and beauty.
I feel particularly like this on my book tour, that this is a crazy kind of life. It’s over before you know it. And so you have to find ways of slowing it down. And this is an everyday delightful way to slow it down. Take time. Take a moment. The most important value of this book aside from nourishment is that there’s pleasure in the doing. It’s pleasure in work. It’s something that we don’t understand in this country. Work is over there and pleasure’s over here, and we work our whole lives so that we can go on a cruise ship. It’s just insanity, and some people don’t even make it to the cruise ship.
Q: I was struck often in making the recipes by how simple they were. So the buying of the food was more time-consuming than the cooking –
A: That’s right. When you spend time buying tasty things you hardly have to cook them. You just slice a little piece of fig and some fresh cheese, and, voilà!
We have to demystify this whole idea — many restaurants are complicated for the sake of complication. And I think that leads people to believe that they can’t cook it. I’m trying to empower people in the kitchen. It isn’t anything but slicing a tomato. You can do this. You can do this.
* * *
If this seems preachy, that’s because it is — and unapologetically so.
Some people might say, “Well, I don’t have time to cook meals from scratch, and besides, who in their right mind would slave at the stove for hours on end when you can just buy it from a store?” I suppose though, if you value something strongly enough, you’ll set aside time to do it.
Speaking for myself only, cooking is important to me. Cooking — whether from scratch, or cooking for someone — is equal to love. It’s a gift I can give every single day. It’s also an act of creation. When you create, you bring joy, light and beauty into the world, and that joy is expressed in a meaningful way. I can’t imagine, nor would I want to live in a world where the lives we live are as soulless and gray, as a meal produced by microwaving something straight out of a box.
Wild Cod, with Rancho Gordo Beans and Smoked Bacon
1 onion, peeled, trimmed and diced
1 carrot, peeled, trimmed and diced
2 celery stalks, trimmed and diced
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup Rancho Gordo beans — (1)
3 cups cold water
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 cod fillet
2 strips smoked bacon
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly milled black pepper, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
Chopped parsley (optional, for garnish)
For the beans:
The day before you make this dish, place the beans in a pot along with enough cold water to cover and soak for 8 hours, or preferably overnight. You can skip this step if you like, but you’ll have to adjust the bean cooking time as it’ll take longer.
Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, then add the onion, carrot and celery. Sauté the vegetables until they’re tender and quite soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t let the vegetables burn; keep the heat on medium or medium-low. Set aside when done.
Drain the pot of beans, then add 3 cups cold water and the sautéed onion, carrot and celery, and bay leaf if using. Bring this to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partly cover and let simmer for 60-90 minutes or until the beans are tender. You can add salt to taste if you like, but go easy if you do; the beans will absorb the salt, so you’ll probably need to adjust seasoning at the end. When done, taste for salt and pepper.
For the cod:
Pre-heat oven at 350 F.
Lay the cod fillet on a plate and lightly sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt. Set aside for 5 minutes.
Place the cod fillet in a Pyrex baking dish large enough to hold the fillet. Lightly sprinkle with some freshly milled black pepper and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Roast the cod fillet for 10-12 minutes at 350 F, or until the fillet is fork-tender and cooked through.
For the bacon:
Coarsely dice the bacon, then fry over medium heat or until the bacon has crisped up. Drain off the drippings or reserve for another use.
Spoon beans onto a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a portion of the cod fillet. Top cod with the smoked bacon. Drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil atop the fish and beans, if you like. Scatter some chopped parsley atop the fish, if using. Serve immediately.
This recipe is sized for 2 people.
Time: About 20 minutes, not including prep. The beans can be made in advance; if you do, re-heat them and keep them warm while you proceed with the rest of the recipe.
(1) — I used Sangre de Toro (“Blood of the Bull”) heirloom beans, but any of the bean varieties that Rancho Gordo sells will do, especially the dried chickpeas. Or, if you’d rather use non-RG dried beans, that’s fine as well.