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Why Alice Matters: The Book of Chez Panisse (PHOTOS)

08/26/2011 03:13 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2011

It is 11am on a Monday morning at the office of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. Four women, mid-twenties, chatter animatedly at office desks. But the gossip of the day isn't about the weekend events or a new love interest. It's about new research on gluten and its possible role in autism and Leaky Gut Syndrome. "Leaky Gut Syndrome?" One of them squeals. The room is alive with exchange, exhaustive outpourings of information and wide-eyed questions. These people are serious about food.

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Upstairs in the cafe, Bob Dylan blasts on the stereo, as toques rush across the floor. There are 117 people who run this restaurant every day, and it is a well-oiled machine. But there is something especially manic about this morning. That's because it's not just any Monday; it's the first day of the 40th anniversary week. And it is madness.

I wait in the office as the restaurant's founder, Alice Waters, finishes her interview with NPR's Terry Gross. She is running late. The surprisingly young, Australian-born Chez Panisse spokesman, David Prior, comes to greet me. He smiles widely, but pushes a mane of hair out of his eyes; his brow is already glistening at 11am.

He sits me down in the cafe upstairs and starts chasing around a cup of coffee. We sit, but are relocated three times as the staff prepares for the lunch rush. Finally cozy in a cafe table, Prior sips his coffee and flips through every leaf of the 303-page 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, Waters's thirteenth book, out this week. He tenderly touches the paper and identifies the people in each photo. He tells me about the restaurant's history, culture and projects.

"I received a copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables [another of Waters's books] for my 13th birthday," he remembers. "Isn't that funny?"

I look through the book, today's menu and the itinerary for the anniversary weekend — more than 20 events, in total. The circus kicks off with an Opening Ceremony at the Berkeley Art Museum featuring "the unveiling": the introduction of a massive picture of Waters into the National Portrait Gallery.

Such Mao-like worship surely fuels the fire of Chez Panisse criticism. In the past week alone, thousand-dollar pig roasts and countless interviews have dominated the attention of food blogs, and Jake Gyllenhaal was paraded through the Edible Schoolyard at the Hunters Point Boys & Girls Club on the Today show: a face for the movement. David Chang and Anthony Bourdain live for stuff like this.

But dictator jokes aside, Waters's influence on how America approaches food, farming and cooking is indisputable. Cynicism is easy and creates nothing new. But an entire industry has changed thanks to Chez Panisse.

First, there's the food. At a dinner party last month, someone asked me to describe the best thing I'd ever eaten. I reviewed a mental menu of all-time favorite dishes: My mother's perfect pavlova and homemade gelato, drizzled with chokecherry cassis; the Brussels sprout chips at Marlowe, greasy with lemony olive oil and crunchy sea salt; and a bratwurst Rueben with homemade sauerkraut cooked by my boyfriend on a portable grill at the Oakland Marina. But nothing came close to the bowl of asparagus orecchiette I ate at Chez Panisse Cafe. Simple, perfect and luscious, that slightly creamy bowl with bright asparagus a tang of Meyer lemon will never be forgotten. It is the best thing I have ever eaten.

And food is only part of the story.

When Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, she knew little about sustainability or food justice. She just wanted a place like the cafes she'd visited in France, where her friends could eat, drink and party — la dolce vita for the privileged kids in Berkeley. But as anything that lasts for 40 years, the restaurant's goals changed entirely. And so did Waters.

"We weren't trying to do anything revolutionary," she told me later. "We were only trying to find the things that tasted best. And naturally, that search led us to the small sustainable farmers. We started to see how precious those people were to the industry." As the fast food revolution raged on in the restaurant's first decade, Waters realized just how precious those contributions would become.

As food marched toward the convenient — cheap, packaged, manipulated — Waters urged eaters to get back to their roots. Restaurants imported from around the world, promising any flavor on demand. Waters offered only what was fresh, local and in-season. "That's how we ate in France," said Waters. "Because it tasted best and it was the cheapest." While the popular restaurants of the day served baked Alaskas, Waters offered a copper bowl of perfect fruit, picked locally by her friends. Soon Waters realized that if small farms were going to stay, she would need to find a way to make them popular. Continuing a small food system would become her responsibility.

From the beginning, Waters served her staff three meals a day, with wine pairings if desired — a tradition she continues today. When water bottles started crowding landfills, she refused to serve bottled water in the restaurant and started carbonating her own — an unheard of practice in 1981. Later, she refused to serve unsustainable beef in the restaurant, and when she couldn't find grass-fed meat on the market, she bought her own damn cow and butchered it. "And she used everything," says Prior. "Suddenly there were hamburgers on the menu to use up the ground beef." When inquiring customers couldn't find grass-fed beef either, she started a meat CSA box program until stores started carrying it.

"Alice rolled the dice and created the demand for sustainability," says Prior. And it worked. Every menu across the country boasts local, organic, sustainable food, championing the farm, boat or dairy that produced the ingredients. And now Waters wants to do the same for the rest of our food.

Today, Waters looks beyond the restaurant, focusing on food justice with projects like her Edible Schoolyard Organization. It started with a garden and kitchen to promote healthy eating and an understanding of how food systems work through hands-on, early education at South Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. But now the program has spread, with gardens in San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and other cities. This is Waters's baby now.

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Chez Panisse Through The Years

When it's finally time to meet the great Alice Waters, I find a tiny woman smiling sweetly in her office, standing before a wall of soon-to-be-released books, signing each one. She offers me a seat and pours me a glass of water. When our interview runs into the lunch rush, an excited gaggle of young Chez Panissers deliver a thin-crust broccoli rabe pizza and a little gem salad. Waters pulls a plate from her desk and shimmies a slice of pizza on it, setting it on top of my notes. "Eat," she commands. Someone brings me a peach.

She never sits, but eats her lunch in large bites as she continues to sign books. I remember my dinner party fodder, and ask her to describe the best thing she has ever eaten. She shakes her head. "That's impossible," she says.

"Too many to count?"

"No, it's not that." She stops and points to the peach in front of me. "It's like that peach. At the beginning of the season, you are in love with that bright, perfect peach and it's the best thing you've ever eaten," she explains. "But then the late season peach comes along, and it's juicy and full, bursting with summer. And now that's the best thing. It changes all the time."

With such zeal for produce, she describes fruits as one might describe lovers. And if the folklore is true (the twice-married Waters has been romantically linked to Tom Luddy, Jerry Budrick, Stephen Singer, David Goines and Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others), she might describe those in a similar tongue.

"I once had an Early Girl tomato at my friend Jay's house and I thought that was the best thing I'd ever had," she smiles. "But then I visited friends in Senegal and I ate sea urchin pulled fresh out of the sea. It tasted like the ocean. And the wine..." She shakes her head, unable to go on. "Food like that," she says. "It wakes people up." She shrugs casually, but those four words are the very foundation of Chez Panisse.

In Waters's eyes, we all deserve to eat that way; not just the privileged few. "We need to bring people back to their senses," she says. When I ask, she addresses the cost of good food, arguing that, "We all pay one way: we eat healthier food up front or we pay the pay the medical bills out back."

Without knowledge of her projects, such a statement smacks of paternal elitism. But Waters works tirelessly to make this possible, and she appears hurt at the implication that cost is not something she would consider. "The economic viability is the entire point," she explains. "That is why we need Chez Panisse — to find those vendors and those resources. The people in the restaurant, they are the ones on the front lines. It's a collaboration."

Considering the effort that goes into the Edible Schoolyard, critics like Anthony Bourdain, who likened Waters to a hippie who doesn't grasp that poor people can't afford organic milk, seem egregiously unfair. For Waters, it's not about making poor people afford organic milk; it's about making organic milk affordable.

On Fresh Air, she revealed to Terry Gross that her family never ate at restaurants when she was growing up. "We didn't have the money," she explained. So they grew food in the garden. This is the lifestyle she promotes. For those who don't have a yard, Waters champions community gardens. Enter: The Edible Schoolyard Organization.

And most brilliantly, Waters has harnessed her powerful friends to make this happen. "You have to use the resources you have," she says with a smile.

Jake Gyllenhaal joined the Edible Schoolyard Organization as a board member last year, and though his Hollywood stardom might elicit an eye roll from some, it's his involvement that broadcasts the goals of the Hunters Point Boys & Girls Club to the world, on one of the most popular television programs in America.

Likewise, this week's lavish, over-the-top anniversary celebration activities may draw sneers from critics, but every event exists solely to raise more money for The Edible Schoolyard Organization. Tickets to the 40th birthday eve dinner by chef David Tanis are $2,500 per person. But all seats have been sold out for ages, and the waiting list is heavy with names. So is the one for the dinner the night before. And the one the night before that.

Waters knows her audience. She has gathered her francophones, hat-makers, wine-swirlers and cheese-sniffers in the name of social justice. She has gathered her community of privilege and tapped it for the Edible Schoolyard.

This is what she means by "the power of gathering."

In food, we gather our friends and family to pour the wine and "pass the peas," as Waters says. We forage and farm and harvest: a gathering to bring to the table.

But Waters knows the power of gathering has always transcended food. It's the power of gathering every wealthy foodie in the Bay Area for a weeklong dinner series to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Edible Schoolyard Organization. Or of gathering Hollywood heavyweights and the voices on The Hill to inspire a federally funded school lunch program and a farm at the White House. Or convincing your friends to comb the couch for pennies to help you start a restaurant that might actually change the world.

As she writes in the final sentence of her introduction: "This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive." It wakes people up.