Paul Levy

Alice’s restaurant

From counterculture cook to mainstream food guru, Alice Waters's autobiography

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.

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