Alice Waters has moved from the kitchen to the garden to the soap box in her 40 years as a pioneer of the sustainable and locally grown food movement. But on one recent night, The Salt found her “hanging” in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
The chef and food activist was on hand as the museum honored her with a place on the wall for her role as the champion of the food movement. For the portrait, photographer Dave Woody first started snapping Waters in a kitchen. But once they moved her to the garden, the photo really came alive, he says.
In the photo, she poses at a slight angle with a hint of sass. A mulberry tree towers over her, but she’s in command. The portrait now hangs just down the hall from Hillary Clinton and around the corner from Walt Whitman.
As she walks down the hall to our interview, she pauses for a moment at nearly every portrait, puts her hand over her heart and quietly exhales.
“I never was really thinking about this 40 years ago when I opened Chez Panisse,” she says. “I was really thinking about taste.”
Indeed, Waters opened her restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., simply to have a place where she could eat “real” food with her friends. Twenty-four years after that, she started a foundation to get the Edible Schoolyard program up and running. In it, grade-school students build connections between food, health and the environment, by working in the school garden and kitchen.
“If you can bring them into a positive relationship with food when they’re four, they’ll grow up thinking differently about the world around them,” she says. By empowering kids to learn about food, she hopes to reconnect Americans to their health, their farmers and their family dinner table.
José Andrés, who was named the 2011 outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation, says Waters has shown how a restaurant can act like a Trojan horse when it comes to food-related health issues, like obesity.
“It can infiltrate the mind of a country or infiltrate the political system from within,” he tells The Salt. “We can start finding out today the solutions [to obesity] through the quality of food we feed our children instead of funding the health system 30 years from now.”
Waters isn’t planning on taking a break anytime soon, either. Not only is she writing another book, she’s leading the charge to guarantee every U.S. kid in school a free, healthy meal.
“That’s the ultimate social justice,” she tells The Salt. “They can have breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.”
To achieve that goal, Waters wants to build on the Edible Schoolyard program and pair every school in the country with an affiliated garden or farm. Kids could grow real food and cook all year round.
Along with the free meal, Waters says an edible education class, much like a required physical education class, should become an institute in all school curricula. It’s a huge goal for a tiny, elegant woman. But other big-name chefs are stepping into her corner.
“It’s definitely an uphill battle,” chef Mike Isabella says. “When it comes to … all the different school systems — it’s very hard. But I’ll be a part of the fight.”
Waters says she is planning a pilot program with California Gov. Jerry Brown. When Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson heard about her idea, he jumped at the chance and offered to start the first school in the state capital, she says.
Her philosophy is not new, she says, but one that is reminiscent of a time before industrialization when people ate foods in season, bought locally and sat down at the table for meals.
“It’s not like I’m talking about something fantastic,” she says. “It’s something that’s in our DNA, in our genes already. We just have to get back to that place. It’s like coming home.”