Alice Waters did not disappoint. As keynote speaker at the 22nd Annual Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), Waters was just as unapologetically uncompromising as ever in her vision. That vision includes gardens in every school, food and agriculture woven into every academic subject, and free, organic, sustainable school lunches for every child. Some say that vision is unrealistic: too utopian to be possible, too difficult to achieve. But Waters won’t budge.
Soft spoken yet still at full power, Waters told the audience in the UMass’ Campus Center auditorium: “I’ve never believed in compromise.”
As a chef, author, food activist and founder and owner of Berkeley’s world renowned Chez Panisse restaurant, Waters has worked for more than 40 years to bring her vision of sustainable agriculture and healthy, slow food to the forefront. She has had President Obama’s ear since he was elected, guiding the White House’s focus on healthy food and winning the 2014 National Humanities Medal. Waters doesn’t do things halfway, and she’s not done yet.
Waters’ talk was moderated by Joanne Weir, a onetime Chez Panisse employee and apprentice of Waters, an accomplished chef, teacher and cookbook author in her own right and a UMass alumni. Here are some of the most striking topics that the conversation touched on:
Waters on awakening to food’s possibilities while visiting France as a teenager:
“I felt like I’d never really eaten before. It changed me completely. They would go twice a day to the farmers’ market for the freshest produce because it made a difference. When I came back, I wanted to eat like that; I wanted to live like that.”
On the very beginning of her Edible Schoolyard project:
“I thought: ‘Wouldn’t the public school system be the perfect way to reach people?’ At the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, I had a complete vision of what an edible education could be. Interaction is the best way to teach. I thought: ‘We’ll make a garden…we could build a big cafeteria on this parking lot.’ Six months later, they got back to me. I invited the teachers to have lunches at Chez Panisse. We were trying to feed them an idea. When it’s really tasty, they pay attention.”
On what a nationwide edible education would look like:
“I’m talking about the idea of food and agriculture being woven into all the different subjects. Take the academic minutes and apply it to the lunch table. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing? If everyone sat at the table and digested the ideas taught in the classroom? Take the sugary sodas, apply a tax and use it to support school lunch. We need to give every child a free, sustainable school lunch.”
On fast food:
“The fast food culture of this country has taken over our schools. I think marketing fast food to children should be criminal.”
On deceptive label buzzwords:
“I’m so worried about the fast food culture hijacking and misusing the terms of the local and organic movement. Words like cage-free. We have to really understand what the terms mean.”
On cheap food:
“We can never think of food as being cheap. It’s precious. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that said, ‘If you are what you eat, then I’m cheap, fast and easy.’ We’ve digested the values of cheap, fast and easy. Once I became friends with farmers, I could never think of food the same way. Food can be affordable, but if it’s cheap, someone’s missing out.”
On how to get started with a university-level commitment to sustainability:
“The most important thing to do is to write a document where you talk about a mission statement. You need something written in stone and a timeline associated with it.”
On big-volume operations:
“I think of Escoffier. For a dinner for 1,000, 10 chefs would each cook for 100.”
And finally, why food?
“Because I think it’s transformative. I think it brings us back to the meaning of life. It has the possibility of bringing us back to our senses and inspiring us.”
Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]