Pilot Fish Trailblazer Award Nominee: Alice Waters

It’s around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.–Alice Waters

Our next Pilot Fish Trailblazer nominee has dedicated her life to food activism. Why food?

The answer is simple: food is at the heart of everything we do. As the great food writer, MFK Fisher once said, “First we eat, then we do everything else.”  Food has been a life-long passion for Alice Waters,  food pioneer and visionary, who over the past 40 years has revolutionized what and how we eat.  Her way of thinking about food—eat locally and sustainably and shop at farmer’s markets—has become so mainstream that it may be hard to remember what the American food scene was like before Alice Waters.

Alice Waters stands in the Edible Garden at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, April 30, 2010. http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/2011/06/23/chez-panisse-40th-anniversary-schedule-and-list-of-chez-panisse-family-dinners/

Alice Waters stands in the Edible Garden at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, April 30, 2010. Source: http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/2011/06/23/chez-panisse-40th-anniversary-schedule-and-list-of-chez-panisse-family-dinners/

For those of you who grew up eating sushi or baguettes, it may be difficult for you to envision the enormous shift in American dining habits and sensibilities since the 1960’s. But I invite you to do a little time traveling and go back with me to the American food wasteland fifty years ago where there was one type of lettuce in the grocery store (iceberg), and one kind of mushroom (white).   Dinner consisted of meat or fish bought home from the grocery store, frozen, defrosted, and grilled.   Potatoes were boiled, scalloped or baked. Vegetables came out of a can or out of the freezer.  Swanson’s TV dinners were a novelty and the only people who ate pasta were Italian Americans. School lunches featured bologna or boiled ham on Wonder Bread slathered with mayonnaise and people went to McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s for a little fast food excitement.

Eating out in family-style restaurants was reserved for special occasions, and the height of refinement was French cuisine—only French. (Apparently to most Americans, haute cuisine didn’t exist in other countries.) In this rarefied, continental atmosphere, the maître d’s uniform was a tuxedo and the chef (who made a special appearances for important guests) wore a starched white chef’s jacket and a towering tocque. The menu (like the one below from Lutèce) was filled with French dishes that “ordinary” people never ate—like vichyssoise and escargot. Other exotic ingredients were shipped long distances and arrived frozen. The writer Calvin Trillin jokingly suggests that the food, which was called “continental,” came in fact from one continent—Antartica, because it was still in a frozen block when the chef was preparing to cook it.

Menu from the Lutece Restaurant, 1970's.

Source: Google Images. Menu from the Lutèce Restaurant, New York in the 1970’s

But then, in 1971, a young, somewhat idealistic, 23-year old Alice Waters arrived on the American food scene. She was a Berkeley graduate, inspired by the political activist, Mario Savio, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). From Mario she absorbed the lesson of the power of the individual to take political action to bring about change.

Then, after spending a year in France, she fused political action with food activism by opening a restaurant with a bold new philosophy of food, inspired by her love of the Parisian farmer’s markets, its fresh food bursting with flavor, and meals prepared simply and expertly. In France, she also learned the power of food to inspire and to bring friends together around a table, sharing a meal and talking for hours. She loved the sense of community, of camaraderie in Parisian cafes and homes.

This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.~Alice Waters

Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, was founded on these principles over 42 years ago and its doors are still open to everyone who appreciates good food, grown locally, and prepared expertly.

I wanted people to come to the restaurant and feel at home, so I put it in a house–Alice Waters

Chez Panisse pizza

Photo by Stu Spivak (Pizetta) Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Her taste in food is eclectic. If you go to her restaurant in Berkeley, California one day you might eat Cuscus alla trapanese–Sicilian-style fish and shellfish stew cooked in the café fireplace with saffron and almonds, and on the next day a spit-roasted chicken with creamy chanterelles, chicories, and shoestring potatoes, or even homemade pizza cooked on a brick oven–created by an Italian craftsman especially for Alice.

For over 40 years, Chez Panisse and Alice Waters have earned dozens of awards as her food movement has taken hold. Alice is the only woman to receive the James Beard Chef of the Year Award.   Her activism has also expanded to include her leadership role in the Slow Food Movement and her Edible Schoolyard Project, which teaches schoolchildren about growing healthy food and good eating in over 1,000 schools across the country. She has also mentored and inspired generations of chefs, including Rick Bayless, David Chang, and Stephanie Alexander, and the food journalist Michael Pollan.

The way we subsidize food makes it cheaper to go to McDonald’s and get a hamburger than a salad, and that’s insane. It’s pure government policy.–Alice Waters

Calvin Trillin has nicknamed Alice “the Emma Goldman of New American cuisine.” Even though her philosophy seems far from radical today, that just may be because many of us now share Alice’s vision of good, healthy food, grown locally and sustainably, and prepared expertly.

So what do you think? Do you give Alice your vote (one fork or two) for our Pilot Fish Trailblazer Award?

More about Alice:

Have a great week, everyone, and as Alice would say, “Bon appétit!”

This is the fifth in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society.   To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and  Jane Goodall, click on the embedded links.  Suggest new nominees in the comments section below.

18 replies »

  1. Really, you’ve picked another one of my heroines. Two years ago I stood in front of her restaurant and thought about the immense difference her philosophy of food has made. We were too early to dine. But I plan to go another time. Since I worked with school- age children to make butterfly and vegetable gardens at their schools, I give her much credit for changing the culture in some schools and neighborhoods with her school program. Great choice…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sally. So close to Mecca and you couldn’t eat there! How sad for you! Hope you get to go soon. Truth is that I haven’t gone yet either. Hopefully next year…We’ll have to compare notes. I’m so glad you like our trailblazer selection. Who else would you nominate?


    • Hi Tina. Very true! So you have been to Chez Panisse several times? How wonderful! Let me know if you think of someone else you’d nominate. I’m always on the lookout for creative people! Have a great week.


  3. Excellent nominee, Patti! Alice Waters certainly is a trailblazer. Just yesterday, I was walking into my building as a neighbor and his two-year-old daughter were walking out. He told me that his daughter wanted some baba ganoush so he was taking her to a nearby cafe to get some. How marvelous! I didn’t know what baba ganoush was until I was well into my twenties (maybe thirties). Alice Waters helped expand our palates and minds. A whole world of cuisine is open to us now and that is due in no small part to Alice Waters.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I love that story, Jackie! Baba Ganoush. How wonderful that a whole world of food is open to us now. I still remember the first time I ate brie cheese in my 20’s. It was like opening a door to another world. Have a wonderful (and flavorful) week!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Maria.

      So glad you found Alice interesting! Change is coming slowly to the food industry, in terms of healthier ingredients, but there is so much sugar in our food. No wonder why we have an obesity problem in this country. I am eating less and less processed food. Are you?


  5. Hi. Welcome to my site! I’m so glad you stopped by and added your thoughts. Yes, there has been a huge change in our way of eating…some for the better…some for the worse! I think the last time I ate in McDonald’s was about 30 years ago!


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