Though Alice Waters is not a household name here, that is precisely what she is in America — the best-known celebrity cook, the person who inspired the planting of Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden, the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Légion d’Honneur, vice-president of Slow Food International, the founding figure of California cuisine. She is the mentor of Sally Clarke and, claims Wikipedia, of René Redzepi and Yotam Ottolenghi.
It all began in 1971 with a simple French restaurant in Berkeley, California, which she called Chez Panisse in homage to the films of Marcel Pagnol. It served a no-choice menu, costing $3.95, consisting of the traditional dishes she’d tasted during her year abroad in France. She quickly learned that it was difficult to find the top-quality ingredients she’d enjoyed in France, and this led her to develop a network of organic farm suppliers.
Disclosure: I know Alice. Indeed, until I read her memoir I thought I’d met her when I was 20 — but I now realise that when I visited Berkeley on a mission of countercultural imperialism (on behalf of a New Left magazine called New University Thought), Alice had not yet come to study at University of California Berkeley and been swept up in (our target) the Free Speech Movement. This formed her outlook and attitudes — she dedicates this volume to the memory of the charismatic Mario Savio (1942–96), who said in a fiery Sproul Hall speech of 1964: ‘There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious… you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.’
This autobiography does something remarkable. About half the text is in roman typeface, and is a chronological account of Waters’s life: one of four daughters, born in suburban New Jersey, to a middle-class family where the father’s job caused them to move often, eventually to California. The other half of the text is in italic, and either comments on the text or looks forward to her life at Chez Panisse and after. To my taste there is a little too much about Alice’s all-American, uneventful childhood; but it is written in a spirit of sheer guilelessness that makes tolerable the total visual recall of dresses, toys and pets. Things begin to heat up when she gets to Berkeley, goes to France, returns to work for Bob Scheer, who stood for Congress as an anti-Vietnam war candidate, and begins cooking for her friends. The narrative accelerates as she goes to London to train at the Montessori school, travels to Turkey, and returns to France and meets the great cook and wine-authority, Richard Olney, who introduces her to the Peyraud family, owners of Domaine Tempier in Provence.
She goes back to Berkeley, only to be sacked from her first job at the Montessori school, not for biting a violent child (which she did), but for wearing a see-through blouse. Alice’s memoir is well-titled, for it is not only her palate that is sensitive; she is frank about her liking for men. Sometimes, though, this is a tell-but-no kiss story, as when she desires filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, whom she marries to allow him to stay in the US, but finds he is not interested.
Alice counts Elizabeth David a major influence, and genuflects frequently to the American food icon, James Beard, though she surely knows he was an old fraud, who rarely credited his several ghost writers, as she has the grace to do with her own collaborators. There are good stories about them, and about M.F.K. Fisher, Jeremiah Tower and Bill Clinton. The best gossip, though, is cinematic: because she had a relationship with Tom Luddy, the American film producer and co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival, she can tell of being ignored by Jean-Luc Godard, of staying with Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, and of entertaining both Gloria Swanson and the 94-year-old Abel Gance.
As the reader progresses through Coming to My Senses, the tone changes from on-purpose lack of sophistication to candour, and the narrative becomes gripping as Chez Panisse gets closer to opening — when Alice was 27. It’s startling to learn that she decided not to cook, and served as a waitress that first night, though she was in the kitchen herself from 1976 to 1983 (which includes the several times I was lucky enough to eat there). ‘I was deeply disillusioned about politics,’ she writes, ‘and by opening the restaurant, I really thought that I was dropping out… But it became political. Because as it turned out, food is the most political thing in all our lives.’ Brexit is, sadly, about to show just how right she is about this. You start this book feeling that Alice is faux-innocent; you finish it thinking she’s heroic.