Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse pens memoir on culinary and sexual awakenings

Alice Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971.
Alice Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BERKELEY (California) • Alice Waters has a place in the culinary history of the United States. Chez Panisse, her Berkeley restaurant that opened in 1971, established the farm-to-table movement.

Her new memoir, Coming To My Senses: The Making Of A Counterculture Cook, is her first deeply personal account of her early life. It begins in a lower-middle-class New Jersey neighbourhood, with a mother who wore Adlai Stevenson buttons and inspired Waters' daily vitamin habit; and a conservative, hardworking father who Waters discovered was perhaps not as uptight as she thought. Both helped her finance and organise Chez Panisse.

Waters wrote the book, which Clarkson Potter will publish on Sept 5. It is the last in a three-book deal she signed more than a decade ago and the least collaborative of the dozen books that bear her name. To produce it, she spent a year telling stories to Bob Carrau, a writer and long-time family friend.

Sprinkled with photographs, the book traces her years as a backpacker smitten with France and as a young radical cooking for the Bay Area's anti-war intelligentsia. It ends the night the enthusiastic but green cook opened her tiny, fixed-price French restaurant.

Eager students of Waters' place in the culinary history of the US will most likely devour it as readily as her critics, who have called her the self-dramatising Joan of Arc of American cuisine and compared her dictatorial style with that of the Khmer Rouge, will tear into it.

But Waters, 73, says she has entered a phase in which neither praise nor criticism mean all that much to her. "I feel reassured about the content because it is what I experienced," she said. "I couldn't not be honest."

She has never expanded Chez Panisse to other cities or jumped fully into celebrity in ways that could have promoted her agenda. Rather, she prefers to personally cajole every politician, journalist and philanthropist she meets.

In 1995, she wrote a letter to then United States President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore that proposed an organic garden at the White House and a nationwide school curriculum based on sustainable agriculture. The White House staff created a small garden on the roof and started buying more organic and local food for the kitchen, a tradition the George W. Bush administration continued.

She then pushed former president Barack Obama to replace the White House chef, Cristeta Comerford, with a higher-profile chef who would better promote local and sustainably raised food. Mr Obama kept Comerford on (as have the Trumps), but planted an organic garden that remains today.

At Chez Panisse - where she is more of an executive editor than a chef these days - Waters ordered a couple of salads, one built with arugula and prosciutto and another of purslane, cucumbers and Charentais melon. A dish of roasted Monterey Bay squid came to the table, along with a tangle of hand- cut, herbed noodles with chanterelles and thyme.

Dessert was a collection of fruit starring a perfect Flavor King pluot.

She asked a waiter to fill her glass with rose and then not bring any more. More than a glass or two makes her too sleepy, she said. Not as in the old days, which she writes about in the book.

She describes drunken high- school romps in the back seats of cars and subsequent pregnancy scares, a love of men and drink so powerful, it got her kicked out of a college sorority on moral charges and trips across Europe that did as much to provoke her culinary awakening as her sexual one.

She approaches other revelations with more sobriety. There was an attempted rape by a man who sneaked into her bedroom with a knife in the mid-1970s. She survived by jumping out a second-floor window.

She writes with great affection about the men who were her big loves and shaped her views on film, music and politics, as well as the look and feel of the restaurant.

She lives alone now.

Her last romantic relationship ended a couple of years ago. She is always looking for a new one because she is, above all else, a romantic.

"Younger men are my Achilles' heel," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2017, with the headline 'Chef's memoir on culinary and sexual awakenings'. Print Edition | Subscribe