New York Times Review
IN the 1960S, after her sophomore year of college, Alice Waters and a friend spent a year in Paris. She was not the only child of the American suburbs who went to Europe and proceeded to cut classes, hitch rides from truck drivers, date locals, fail to learn the language and wake up to pleasures that the United States hadn't prepared her for. Not very many, though, would go quite as far as she did to recapture those pleasures when she got home. The ones that she spent her life chasing down as the owner and later the chef of Chez Panisse were the foods French people ate and the way they ate them: warm baguettes with apricot jam in the morning, rosé wine with dinner, mysterious lettuces in oil and vinegar before dessert, little red buttons of wild strawberries in the spring, Vacherin cheese with its "beautiful undulating top with a straw-orange crust" around Christmas, Belon oysters and buckwheat crepes in Brittany. Waters describes these discoveries with the intense specificity we all give our life-changing first encounters in "Coming to My Senses," a partial autobiography that ends on the night in 1971 when she opened Chez Panisse. Casually and conversationally, the book relates her education as a sensualist. The book is a prequel, the story before the story everybody knows, an account of what she was doing before she was bitten by a radioactive spider and began to exhibit strange new powers. In recent years, Waters has brought a single-minded discipline to advocating the things she values: organics, local farms, methods of buying and cooking food that a 19th-century French housewife would recognize. The purity of her vision has sometimes made her an imperfect singer of her own song. When she wanted to show the audience of "60 Minutes" how easy it is to make breakfast, she chose to fry a single egg in a long-handled spoon over the logs in an open hearth built into her home kitchen. She has had so much to say about how the rest of us ought to eat that it's been easy to assume that she always had a master plan to transform the American diet nailed to the wall of Chez Panisse, like Luther's 95 Theses but with mesclun and goat cheese. In "Coming to My Senses," she's eager to show us that it wasn't like that at all. In the early days she and her cooks didn't talk about where their ingredients came from. She looked down on organic vegetables; the ones she knew from Berkeley's co-op were "overgrown and wilted, piled haphazardly in a dusty bin, with no presentation like you'd find in a French shop." Before she had an ideology, she had desires. By the end of her book we understand that she built Chez Panisse because she couldn't find a restaurant to satisfy those desires and wanted one to exist. At first glance, and even on a second and a third, her path is meandering and oblique. She spent her early years in northern New Jersey. Her mother darned socks, mended dresses instead of buying new ones, and talked about the hungry children in India while insisting Alice clean her plate at the dinner table where the entire family sat down each night at 7. Although American food before Chez Panisse is often portrayed as a gastronomic dark age when no vegetable escaped the canneries and freezers, in Waters's childhood house the old home-grown foods hadn't been entirely replaced by the new industrialized ones. Her family ate canned chop suey, frozen fish sticks and iceberg lettuce with Wishbone dressing, but there was also applesauce from backyard trees and fresh corn, tomatoes and rhubarb from a victory garden that her parents kept up after the victory. High school in Indiana is a blur of alcohol, automobiles and boys. This is Waters on a pregnancy scare just before her senior year: "When you've been drunk in the back seats of cars, you're really not sure what happened after the fact." Later in life the boys get less blurry, but Waters is just as keen on hanging out with them. She writes about her enthusiasm for sex in an unforced and unembarrassed way; it's just another example of how she found her own route to the things that make her happy. Waters followed a friend from high school to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where "there didn't seem to be much to do other than make out at the beach." She doesn't remember her courses or whether she went to class. When Waters's extracurricular drinking got her kicked out of her sorority on "morals charges," the same friend said, "Let's just get out of here." And that's how Alice Waters ended up walking onto the Berkeley campus and running straight into the 1960s. Berkeley she remembers: the leaders of the free speech movement, the filmmakers and art-house cinema programmers, the printmakers and calligraphers and painters; the rock critics and musicians; the friends who grew lettuce and baked fruit tarts and served chicken liver paté on chipped Limoges plates in houses filled with art. Later she would drag people from all those pursuits into Chez Panisse as customers or employees or financial backers, a few of whom she describes as "unnameable dope dealers." At the time she just drank it all up, learning a new way of arranging life around ideas, aesthetics and food. This was a counterculture, and it wasn't the one fermenting in Haight-Ashbury. "I didn't want anything to do with the hippies' style of health-food cooking," she writes. "To me, that world was all about stale, dry brown bread and an indiscriminate way of eating cross-legged on couches or on the ground with none of the formality of the table. There was an aesthetic demarcation between the hippies and me, certainly as far as the food was concerned; I thought their approach was absolutely uncivilized, unrefined." Nobody sat cross-legged on the ground at the dinners Waters and her friends cooked for one another. They were nights of conversation, camaraderie and shared appreciation of good cooking, the qualities she wanted to bring to Chez Panisse. Her reference points were the restaurants she loved in France, yes, but also the way things were done at home. Chez Panisse's first pastry chef, Lindsey Shere, baked tarts two at a time, just as she did for dinner parties. The cooks chopped their own vegetables. And, in what became the hallmark of Chez Panisse, there were no choices. You showed up and ate what was being served, just the way young Alice did at her mother's table, although Waters doesn't seem to have enforced a cleanplate rule. The revolution of Chez Panisse was not political, at least in the beginning. It was cultural and aesthetic, and it was built on domestic arts that were generally the domain of women, not the professional skills of the men who ran fancy restaurant kitchens. Stuck in their hierarchies and traditions, those chefs had fallen out of touch with the spirit of the times, opening a small crack in the pavement where Chez Panisse took root. ? PETE WELLS is the restaurant critic of The Times. It's easy to assume Waters had a master plan, like Luther's 95 Theses but with mesclun and goat cheese.
Publishers Weekly Review
Chef and restaurateur Waters (In the Green Kitchen, etc.) offers a personal view of her early life in this intimate and colorful memoir. The founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, Calif., Waters recalls a happy though gastronomically dull (e.g., frozen fish sticks, iceberg lettuce) upbringing in Chatham, N.J., as one of four sisters born to a Democrat mother and Republican father. Her supportive parents sent her to the University of California, Berkeley, where in the 1960s she became a political activist, aligning herself with the free-speech movement and the protest against the Vietnam War. She traveled to France for a junior year abroad and fell in love with all things French, eventually declaring the French history as her college major. Waters also fell in love with French food during the trip; her tastes and senses were, in her words, "awakened." Waters began to dream of opening a restaurant; she purchased a house in Berkeley and in l971, at the age of 27, opened Chez Panisse-a unique, organic, locally sourced restaurant with a prix fixe menu and just one main entrée served each evening, producing an experience much like dining in a private home. Readers will be charmed by Waters's adoration of exquisitely prepared food. Her anecdotes and her descriptions of friends and customers (many of whom were filmmakers, artists, and prominent thinkers of the time) bring the era and the restaurant to the mind's eye in vibrant detail. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.