Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Alice Waters

Episode Summary

Alice Waters (1944-present) is a pioneer of California cuisine and an organic food advocate.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

This month, we’re talking about Tastemakers -- women who changed the culinary game. For much of history, women have been relegated to domestic tasks. Yet female innovators in food and beverage are often undercelebrated. We’re trying to change that.

Today’s Tastemaker is an American chef, restaurateur, food activist, and author famous for promoting organic, locally grown, sustainable ingredients and pioneering the farm-to-table movement often called California Cuisine. Let’s talk about the one and only Alice Waters. 

Alice was born in Chatham Borough, New Jersey on April 28, 1944 to Charles and Margaret Waters. Charles worked as a management consultant and  Margaret was a homemaker.

After graduating from high school, Alice decided to travel across the country for college. She first enrolled at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and then eventually transferred to Berkeley, where she studied French Culture. 

While at Berkeley, Alice was heavily influenced by the counter-culture revolution that was occurring on campus. She was active in the Free Speech Movement, a massive campus protest that took place throughout the 1964-65 academic year. 

The Free Speech Movement demanded that the university administration lift a ban on on-campus political activities and acknowledge students’ rights to freedom of speech. The protest was also related to the Civil Rights Movement and the movement against the Vietnam War. It was the first act of mass civil disobedience on an American college campus in the 1960s. This idealism had a life-long effect on Alice.

While in college, Alice studied abroad in France, where she lived on a market street and spent her time shopping for local produce and learning to cook simple, fresh meals. That period spawned her love for farm-to-table cooking. 

Alice graduated from Berkeley in 1967. 

After graduation, she moved to London for a year to study at the International Montessori School. Alice also spent time travelling around Europe, including a trip to Turkey, and a return to France.

Alice eventually moved back to California, and, in 1971, she and her friend Lindsey Shere opened a market-inspired restaurant in Berkeley called Chez Panisse. It may be surprising today, but in the 1970s, farmers’ markets and organic food had yet to reach a mass audience. There was significantly less interest in and understanding of food sourcing, ingredient seasonality, and really anything related to what we might now call “foodie culture.”

Chez Panisse was the OG pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. The now-legendary restaurant served a set fixed-price menu that changed daily, and was uncompromisingly focused on using only seasonal, locally grown ingredients. Alice also put considerable effort into forging relationships with the suppliers and producers of the ingredients she used and helped build a network for these local farmers, artisans, and producers.

For its first eight years, Chez Panisse, was constantly in debt.  Alice was only able to avoid bankruptcy thanks to financial help from supportive friends. Eventually the restaurant began to turn a profit, and in 1980 Alice turned the upstairs area into Chez Panisse Café where a la carte lunch and dinner menus were served, allowing for more patrons and providing a more recognizable dining experience. In 1984, Alice also opened Café Fanny a few blocks away.

Alice’s passion for promoting fresh, sustainable, locally grown food eventually led her to activism. On the 25th anniversary of the opening of Çhez Panisse, Alice began the Chez Panisse Foundation. Its mission “to transform public education by using food to teach, nurture and empower young people.”

One of the Foundation’s most famous projects, the Edible Schoolyard program, was established by Alice in 1995. The first Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School consists of a 1-acre organic garden and a full kitchen classroom. Middle School students take part in growing and harvesting food from the garden, and then learn how to prepare those foods. 

The Edible Schoolyard is meant to create new relationships between students and the foods they eat, and studies have proven its success. By 2009, the Edible Schoolyard was recognized as an extraordinary and thriving educational tool. There are now five affiliate Edible Schoolyards across the country, including one in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina!

Alice’s other advocacy projects through the Foundation include a school lunch initiative to promote the provision of a healthy, fresh meal to each student as part of every school day. 

Alice is part of the Slow Food movement, which works to promote small-scale organic farming, biodiversity, and the preservation of local food traditions in opposition to the “fast food” industry. She has served as Vice President of Slow Food International since 2002. 

For her pioneering work at Chez Panisse and with her Foundation, Alice has received many, many awards. Chez Panisse and Alice received the James Beard Foundation awards for outstanding restaurant and outstanding chef in 1992, and Alice received the James Beard lifetime achievement award in 2004. Alice was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015. She also received the French Legion of Honor in 2009. She currently lives with her husband in California. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Tastemaker. We’ll be talking about a wine industry pioneer.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!