Alice in Wonderland

I once worked for a woman who was a whirlwind. Driven, creative, incredibly knowledgeable in her field, kind as can be, she nevertheless drove me and every other person who worked for her right around the bend. She was one of those folks who took on more and more work, spreading herself too thin, ignoring her family and friends. More importantly, she would swoop in, critiquing things that that we thought were fine, rearranging things that didn’t need rearranging, and generally leaving a path of chaos and destruction in her wake. She once pulled me from the sales floor on an excruciatingly busy afternoon so I could do her personal mending, leaving an inexperienced clerk to deal with a Saturday afternoon crowd, and prohibiting me from supplementing my pay with the commission I’d have made on the stuff I’d have sold had I not been hemming her skirt.

This is the impression I have of Alice Waters.

From its humble beginnings, Chez Panisse has been Alice Waters’ restaurant, but by impression only. She has never been the sole owner, and is in fact, one person on a board of directors. She has never been the main chef, although she would fill in when the place was between regular chefs, and she has always had full creative control of the menu. She has never been the manager of the place, leaving that task to a string of people, including her father, who were all faced with the task of forcing a bunch of flaky hippies to adhere to basic accounting systems. Which can’t help but provoke the question – what exactly is it that Alice Waters does at Chez Panisse?

From reading Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, we are to believe that Waters is the very soul of the place; the light in the fire, the scent of the flowers, the sweetness in the tart. Certainly, she has always been in control of the restaurant, despite the fact that she hasn’t actually run it alone.

Because Chez Panisse is its own little community with Waters as both the inspiration and glue that holds it together. It is a place where people are family, and Waters’ original dream was for it to be a place where customers felt as if they just belonged. Popularity may have dampened that dream somewhat – Chez Panisse is often considered the best restaurant in the United States, which of course, draws  the attention of folks who don’t fit into the family model.

The early part of McNamee’s book chronicles the trials and tribulations of the restaurant and the efforts to keep it running. Poor accounting and employee theft, not to mention the freebies staff (including Waters) gave away regularly, kept the place in the red until the mid-80s. As was typical of the era, sex and drugs were plentiful, although McNamee glosses over Waters’ trasgressions as much as possible. A less rosy picture of the ingenue-like restauranteur is painted in The United States of Arugula, which implies that Waters slept with just about every man who worked there.

Where things get interesting is when Waters begins spending less time in the restaurant itself (which, despite her being the soul of the place, seems to manage to do fine without her there) and more time on projects such as the Edible Schoolyard. This advocate for local, sustainable food is the Waters that we are more familiar with; the soft-voiced lady who brought the term “Slow Food” to North America, and who is often pegged as “the Mother of America Cooking”.

McNamee paints his subject in a rosy light, and yes, Waters’ achievements are not only laudable and far reaching, they are, as Chez Panisse was meant to be, inclusive. But I’d have liked a bit more grit, a bit more holding her to the fire for her bad behaviour, for letting other people do her dirty work.

And while Waters’ philosophy has permeated every aspect of the culinary world, from our growing  appreciation of farmer’s markets to the arrival of “California Cuisine” on our plates, her recent appearance on TV show The View shows that she can’t rest on her laurels just yet. Middle America has not yet heard the message Waters is preaching, despite her best efforts. Now in her early 60s, Waters does not yet appear ready to settle down and pass the torch on to someone else.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is McNamee’s homage to a woman who is definitely a trail-blazer, and for anyone interested in Waters’ later work, it’s a great read that many will find inspirational. But it does gloss over many of the interpersonal details of life at Chez Panisse (especially the early years), and can be overly-forgiving of Waters herself.