Before she became known as the founder of Chez Panisse, a pioneer of California cuisine, and the person who convinced Michelle Obama to start a vegetable garden at the White House, Alice Waters was a young woman who fell in love with French food while exploring the streets of Paris. In her memoir Coming to My Senses, now out in paperback, the chef reflects on her formative years, from growing up in Indiana to finding herself amid the counterculture of 1960s Berkeley.
EW caught up with Waters to talk about the book, our current food culture, and what fans can expect from her next. Read on for more, and order a copy of Coming to My Senses here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your writing process like for Coming to My Senses? Was it different from writing a cookbook?
ALICE WATERS: I’ve always written in collaboration with a lot of people. They’ve always been a lot of opinions put together, and this was the first book that was very personal and in my own court, and I did it in a very unusual way. I have an assistant who worked for me for seven years, and she takes dictation, and she’s 35. And then I had a friend, who’s a lifelong friend for 35 years, and he’s 60, and he knows how to get me to talk about things I don’t want to talk about. Both of them were just instrumental. We had a way of meeting, sometimes three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We’d work for two hours in the morning, and Bob would ask questions and Cristina would take it down, and she would ask questions. It got me to think about [and] remember things about my life that I didn’t think I could remember.
We’d stop at lunchtime, and Samantha, who’s the cook and good friend, would make us lunch, and we’d sit down all together and we’d eat lunch, then we’d work two more hours after lunch. I miss it!
In the book, you say your mom was “a health food person,” but you rebelled. You would spit out your vitamins and eat treats at the local bakery with your friends. Of course, now you’re a strong advocate for an organic diet and healthy eating. What’s something else you realized later in life your mom was right about?
She was right about planting a victory garden, about keeping it her whole life. [It] was part of the war effort, and she kept it going even when they moved out to California, and she always ate from it, always picked things for her salad from the garden.… She used to really feed us from that garden. That, obviously, really had an effect on me, and I didn’t realize it.
Your entire book is about your life before Chez Panisse. What would you say is the importance of the moments before?
I really wanted to talk to young people, to the counterculture of the United States and counterculture of the world, and show them how empowered I was by a set of beliefs about how to live my life. I felt a lot of support for whatever I decided to do, and really it was responsible for me opening a restaurant when I had no experience. I just had a passion, and I think it’s so important that young people follow their passion and that they’re not going to follow the pressures of our industrialized school system — they are not going to go after the money, they are going to go after the thing that gives them pleasure and the possibility of making a living differently.
What is your favorite book?
Always the first one that comes to my mind is The Man Who Planted Trees. It’s a parable written by Jean Giono, who was writing back in the early part of the [20th] century in France, and he collaborated on a number of films with Marcel Pagnol, who made films that inspired Chez Panisse. This is a book about a man who put an acorn into the ground every day in a desolate part of France, and how by doing that, the land came back again.… It’s a a beautiful parable about hopefulness.
What is your favorite cookbook?
That’s a really hard question because I have a huge cookbook collection, and I’m really interested in the writers who are really beautiful writers. It’s a hard question; I’m looking at my cookbooks right now. Elisabeth Luard, who’s a British writer, she wrote a book called Sacred Food and she goes around the world — and not just as a cookbook, but as an amazing picture book of people celebrating and gathering at the table for important moments in their lives, and food is at the center of all these rituals. She goes back in history, and I look at those pictures and I think about events that we are going to have.… There’s a picture of people eating on leaves in India as their plates, and I’m going to do an event where everything is compostable.
What is one snack you couldn’t write without?
I’m not a big snacker, but I was thinking today, if I didn’t have an organic tortilla — a corn tortilla that I could just put on the fire for a minute, and maybe I’d fill it with avocado, or even just make a little salad an put it inside there…. That’s the most satisfying little meal in a minute.
Which part of the book was hardest to write?
The really personal parts. It’s hard to write a memoir without telling the truth. I think that you have to do that, that’s what it’s about. I wanted to follow particularly what Cristina wanted to know about being 35. [She] wanted to know all about the birth-control pills and she was fascinated by that… and then the shock of what happens when you take them and you don’t think about the consequences. And then you start to wonder if the people who read your cookbooks are going to be shocked by it or not, and I just thought that it was more important that I just told the truth than anything else.
You bring up the topic of loneliness in your book. What do you think is important about communal eating, especially in a technological age when people are seemingly more and more isolated from one another?
They say that 85 percent of the kids in this country don’t have one meal with their family… and I know that’s the sense that kids have at college when they just don’t have any punctuation in the day. It’s like a run-on sentence: You can’t remember what you did the day before, and it just goes one day into the next. I’m convinced that it’s part of the stress that everybody feels right now, that we don’t have time to eat, time is money. We’ve been indoctrinated with these fast-food values, and it’s very hard to get away from them.
Can you share your thoughts on slow food versus fast food?
You’re asking a very important and very timely question, because my next book that I’m writing — I’m in the middle of writing it — the working title is You Are What You Eat. It’s the idea that when we eat fast food, we eat the values that come with the food. We’re supporting a system that is truly destroying the planet.