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Beyond Alice's Restaurant

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My first experience with Alice Waters, the founder of the ground-breaking Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, took place back in 1987; I was the cookbook buyer at the original Dean & Deluca in Manhattan, and one day, the door was flung open wide by a panting, petite woman in a funky French hat that made her look one part Gavroche and one part Jean Seberg. I could see from my place at the very back of the shop that she was schlepping along what appeared to be a heavy, Tuscan-style cast iron fireplace grill weighing in the neighborhood of fifty pounds. Virtually falling into the store, she dragged the thing down one of the aisles, and depositing it at my boss's feet, said, in a breathy voice, "Jim, you must find someone to make these things in the United States! I've just carried it back from Tuscany, and it's simply fabulous!" At which point she turned around, waved at us, bid us taa-taa, and was gone, like a sprite.

My second experience with Alice came a few years later, when I watched a widely viewed episode of Julia Child's Lessons with Master Chefs; together, Julia and Alice shopped at the latter's favorite market for fresh vegetables and made, among other dishes, a hand-chopped picholine tapenade. This was in the '90s, and while there seemed to be genuine on-screen bonhomie between the two, I couldn't help but wonder about whom Julia was referring some time later, when she grumbled famously about the prevalence of high-minded "food Nazis" and what she deemed to be a thoroughly irritating organic movement. (Julia was, of course, a product of her generation, who could just as happily produce a borderline respectable chilled pea soup from the frozen vegetable as from the fresh.)

I saw the episode around the time that I was, like Julie Powell ten years later, attempting to cook my way through Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking; but at that point, I was also an editor at HarperCollins Publishers, and nearly every one of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse cookbooks was available to me either because we published them, or because I could trade for them with my counterparts at her other publisher, Random House, (which is something that underpaid editors industry-wide tend to do). Unlike Mastering, which I first read and then cooked from, Waters' books offered me an almost total vicarious experience. Never mind the fact that Meyer lemons weren't available in Manhattan, and that wild fennel was about as rare as the Hope Diamond; roasting fresh guinea fowl over grape vine clippings in my windowless midtown studio apartment was just not ever going to happen. And this, largely, was the problem with cooking from Alice's books.

So instead, I savored Alice's breathy stories of finding the best local Bay area producers from whom to buy the freshest of ingredients; I read and re-read her cookbooks in a slightly obsessive, spine-cracking, Talmudic manner -- for pure faith and inspiration that there was another way to live, and to eat. But I rarely, if ever, cooked from them, and many of my colleagues, I discovered, didn't either. While I eventually eschewed Julia's recipes for those less heavy and more Mediterranean, I discovered that Alice's (which were often collaborative efforts with legendary Chez Panisse staffers, like Jeremiah Tower and Paul Bertolli) could also be overwrought; ingredients could be impossible to find outside of California; they often possessed the qualities of the complicated dishes created by the late Richard Olney, whose Simple French Food was one of the great oxymoronic food titles of all time. So Alice's books, having been read like novels, went straight back to my shelf.

But a few weeks ago, I received a copy of Alice's latest work, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. And just as I've done with all of her other books, I curled up on my couch and read it, novel-like. I expected the slightly pious, professorial tone for which she is known, as a former Montessori teacher-turned-leader of the local and organic food movements. I expected the recipes to be a bit thorny and convoluted. I expected to eventually just put it up on the shelf, with the rest of her books. But then, I started to cook from it.

Not generally one to follow recipes to the letter, I did in this case, to see how accurate they were (since many celebrity-authored cookbooks are more about the celebs and less about the recipes themselves). Every one I followed was dead-on. The tone was not at all dogmatic but more like a friend saying "look, here's this great fish recipe you can make for your family after coming home from work. Trust me. It's delicious." Every process and procedure was laid out in a crystal clear, commonsensical manner; every ingredient was widely available. Can't find organic? Better to look for it but if you can't get it, no rapping of knuckles. And then, the dishes themselves: A very basic fried chicken that doesn't have to chill before its plunge into the pan. Spaghettini with olive oil and garlic. Simple beef stew, perfect for a chilly Sunday afternoon. Marinated cheese with herbs and olive oil, better after two days in the fridge. Jarred olives, warmed in a little olive oil and tossed with some toasted cumin seeds. Buttermilk pancakes. Pan-fried fish. Baked peaches. A simple birthday cake, because everyone deserves one. Roast pork loin. And the most drool-worthy, basic, easy-to-produce-on-a-weeknight-roast-chicken-stuffed-with-whatever-herbs-you-have-sitting-around that I have ever tasted. And I've made, and tasted, a lot of roast chicken.

So, why all this space and kudos and preaching to the converted? Maybe it's the former book buyer in me, but American home cooks operating on autopilot frequently live straight through the creation of a classic -- something that will touch our culinary lexicon and stay with us forever -- without even realizing it, and now is one of those times. There is, in every culinary generation, one cookbook that, ten years hence, stands out as legendary; its recipes are simple, direct, and clear, and wind up impacting not only the creation of the specific dishes themselves, but the overall manner in which the reader cooks. Every age has its Joy of Cooking, its Jean Anderson's Doubleday Cookbook, its Silver Palate, its Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Ours will have The Art of Simple Food, and as food lovers and home cooks (and even professional chefs), it's an awe-inspiring thing to be able to step back from the tome itself and realize that history, with this book, is being made. Alice Waters, the same tiny woman who dragged that Tuscan grill into Dean & Deluca one afternoon twenty years ago, is the very definition of American culinary evolution and promise. And with The Art of Simple Food -- coming as a veritable treatise after her creation of a long line of brilliantly written but practically challenging cookbooks -- has produced something that we, as readers and eaters, need now more than ever: permission to leave aspirational restaurant-style cooking where it belongs -- at the restaurant -- and instead go home to our kitchens and create simple, basic, delicious food meant to warm heart and soul as well as stomach.