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INTERVIEW with Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse

StarChefs: What are you most proud of from your work with Edible School Yard Program and the Garden Project of the San Francisco County Jail?

Alice Waters: Both programs are really transformational in a profound way. The Garden Project demonstrates over the years that working in the garden and offering people food really changes you and heals you. The Garden Project has been the model for the Edible School Yard at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middles School here in Berkeley. After all, the program works wonders for jail inmates, people with very serious problems, so wouldn't you get even better results with kids? It's very satisfying for me to be able to tell people about these programs and have them immediately want to give their money and support. I've always believed that if you're doing the right thing, the money will come.

SC: What advice would you give to people around the country for starting these programs in their communities?

AW: Believe that it can be done. And being shown model projects can be very inspiring. I was moved by my first exposure to the garden at the San Francisco County Jail. Hearing Catherine Sneed, the Director of the Garden Project is quite motivational and visiting the garden is a great way to understand. Bring in people from the community who have related businesses who can end their names and support initially. They will bring other people. This gives programs credibility. And when there's a garden, people will see the results of the work and it can't help but seem so purposeful and right.

SC: You are the pioneer in eating seasonally and cooking with organic ingredients. What was it in your life that made you take this road?

AW: It just grew--organically! I went to France when I was nineteen. This was my first connection with farmer's markets and real food. I loved what I ate and I wanted that kind of food here. Since its inception, the restaurant has been searching for high quality, delicious ingredients. As we moved along, I realized that the best tasting food came from the people who were taking care of the land and nourishing it. These were the organic farmers. So it all just sort of came together...

SC: StarChefs is assembling a database of every farmer's market in the country. What tips can you give our audience on the best way to shop in farmer's markets if they have only shopped in supermarkets?

AW: Most vendors at farmer's markets will let you taste their produce. Tasting the food is a great part of the market. Also buy small amounts of lots of different things. This way you can see how to cook with them and work with a variety of foods, instead of getting a lot of one thing. I would go to the market without any expectations about what I want to eat and cook that day. See what is ripe and best and buy that. Then go back and look in cookbooks to see what you can do with it.

SC: You were so eloquent and inspirational at the James Beard Awards talking about the importance of eating locally and building relationships with farmers. Please share some of these insights with the StarChefs audience.

AW: Over twenty-five years at Chez Panisse, I have seen the relationships we have with the people who grow the food for us broaden. We take responsibility for each other: they need us and we need them. There's a very satisfying, back-and-forth of communication that brings us together like family. Having this support system helps you feel so purposeful in what you're doing.

SC: For the generations to come, what can we do for the children in inner cities to encourage a greater appreciation of the land and community?

AW: Change the curriculum in schools! That's the way to reach everyone. There are lots of wonderful programs that bring kids out to farms and get gardens started in communities and schools. But we need activities, big and small, that everyone in school can participate in. We got the middle school here in Berkeley where we started the Edible Schoolyard to join a CSA farm (CSA stands for community-supported agriculture). Every week the farm delivers seven boxes to the classrooms, and opening the boxes is like a wonderful show-and-tell. Sometimes the students prepare the vegetables in the classrooms, and sometimes they take them home for their families to prepare. They've visited the farm, too. It's been a great experience. And just going to a farmer's market is a way for city kids to begin to understand their relationship to the land.

SC: What have you learned from your work with children?

AW: They're hungry for good food. They are hungry for people to pay attention to them. They need to be taken care of and appreciated, but too often they're neglected. As soon as you give them a little attention, their response is incredible. Even teenagers! Positive reinforcement is so essential to their lives. So many of us are so busy, we don't give them this. The garden can help them: it's a tangible way of showing how actions have consequences--if you plant it and take care of it, it will grow!

SC: For the very few people who are not familiar with your restaurant, what was you inspiration for Chez Panisse?

AW: Definitely my trip to France when I was nineteen. I went to farmer's markets for the first time. I was there in 1963, which was a great time for French food, because you could still get so much wonderful produce directly from the people who grew it.

SC: For those who want to pursue a career as a chef and/or restaurateur, what path should they take?

AW: When I look at resumes, I'm interested in people who have experience in gardens. To learn how to farm is a great path. There's an intensive farming course at the University of Santa Cruz that teaches you the basics of gardening. Growing your own food is a one of the best introductions to working in the kitchen. And apprenticeships in good kitchens can also be very beneficial. Culinary schools can teach you basic techniques, which is helpful, but traveling, eating and reading are all essential to mastering this profession.

SC: If you could have lunch or dinner with someone in history, who would that be? What would you serve?

AW: Thomas Jefferson. Because as an avid gardener, he would probably appreciate something like the very first peas of the season. I would just steam a bowl of wonderful, fresh-picked peas with a pat of really good butter and maybe some basil.