Interview with chef, author and slow food advocate Alice Waters

Alice Waters sitting at table outdoors with fresh food and flowers

Interview by Kayla Frost

Alice Waters — who will deliver a free, public Wrigley Lecture on March 27 — is a world-famous chef who founded and owns the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Waters has written 16 books, including two New York Times bestsellers “The Art of Simple Food I & II” and, most recently, a critically acclaimed memoir “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.” Waters also founded the Edible Schoolyard Project with the goal of establishing teaching gardens in schools and connecting them with sustainable food curriculum (“edible education”) for pre-kindergarten through high school students.

In anticipation for her Wrigley Lecture, titled “We Are What We Eat: Teaching Slow Food Values in a Fast Food Culture,” we asked Waters a few questions including how food can be a conduit for solving major issues in society and what advice she has for anybody who wants to discover the joy of seasonal, local, delicious food. Read the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity. And in case you’re wondering where Waters loves to eat when she visits Phoenix, it’s Pizzeria Bianco, a slow food mecca helmed by revered chef Chris Bianco. (If you’ve ever had his pizza, this is not surprising in the least!)

Question: Can you give a brief preview of what you'll be talking about during your Wrigley Lecture on March 27?

Alice Waters (AW): I'm going to talk about how we can teach slow food values in our public school system. I want to really explore the ways that our schools have been industrialized, and how the way we eat in this country has changed our values. Ultimately, I want to present a hopeful scenario about how the buying practices of an institution can support the farmers who are taking care of the land for the future.

This is what I've been doing at Chez Panisse for a very long time, and this is what I've been attempting to do through the Edible Schoolyard Project. I think it is an incredibly hopeful scenario for addressing childhood hunger, for addressing the way people eat in public institutions and schools, and for how we can teach children effortlessly to embrace the human values that are essential for the future of this planet.

I love speaking at universities, and to young people, because you all are the ones who are going to make this change. And I feel like you have a lot of power to do that and a lot of influence on the administration.

Q: As you may know, ASU has a new Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems directed by Kathleen Merrigan, and ASU will begin offering courses in sustainable food systems this fall. What is something you wish more students would learn about our food system?

AW: Well, I think it's incredibly important to know the enemy, in the sense of: What is fast food doing to us? It's not just about giving up food that's unhealthy, but it’s also feeding us the values that come with the food.

When we're eating in a fast food way, we're learning that it's okay to eat in your car. We're learning that more is better. We're learning that time is money, that everything should be available 24/7, that everything should be uniform. We're learning that cooking is drudgery — and so is farming. And we really have to know that this is changing the way people think about the world. It's changing everything.

You are a very key university that has a department of sustainability. And I'm hoping that every student takes these courses, because they are invaluable. We need to know how we can really make change.

Q: Related to what you said about how people think “cooking is drudgery”: A lot of people in our modern culture think they either don't want to cook or say they don't have time to cook. What would say to try to encourage them to get reconnected with their food?

AW: I think one thing is to know what it's doing to you personally — how it's following the values of fast, cheap and easy. And you have to know that you're contributing to industries that are really destroying the planet — whether it's the way that the food is packaged, or where it comes from on the planet, or how it’s farmed. And then there’s thinking about what kind of slavery is going on in the meatpacking industry.

Taking time to cook can be incredibly rewarding. I mean, you have to know how to make something simply — but it's not difficult. And it is the whole intention of the food industry to make it seem hard and time consuming.

Because, of course, time is money. And our society’s whole goal is to make money and spend money. We've forgotten about the great pleasure of the table, and meeting and cooking with our friends. Now that doesn't take time at all when you have a group of friends to cook together.

You know, that's what I do every Sunday: I invite my friends over. I have food I got from the farmer's market. We don't know what we're going to cook, and we just figure it out. Then we all set the table and all clean up. It's really a moment in my week that I always look forward to.

And we need that part. Our lives, particularly at the university, are like a run-on sentence. You never look up, never put your phone down. And it's doing something very serious to our sense of ourselves and our pleasure. Life moves so quickly, and if you let it, it's over before you can experience it.

Let me tell you: Cooking has been the great pleasure of my life. It's so relaxing. It's so deliciously rewarding. And it can be so unbelievably simple. You just get that ripe tomato and slice it and eat it. A little salt maybe. That's it.

Q: You’ve said in other interviews that food can be a conduit for solving major issues in society. Can you explain what you mean by that?

AW: I think that the very biggest issue, of course, is climate. Every time you take your scraps from the table and you make a compost outside, you are helping to bring carbon back into the ground. If we did this on a massive level in every school on the planet, we could make a major impact. That is the most rewarding and hopeful thing that we can do to address climate change, because it feels so good individually to create your own compost — or to get the university to do that. Everybody can bring scraps to a nature compost keep that's happening. Or to the city. Or wherever it's happening.

But also, the table is the place of equality. To have conversations at the table around good food really brings people together. And when you go to the farmer's market, you are making a contribution to the people who take care of the land for the future. You're meeting your partners. They may be young, they may be old, but there's a great diversity in a farmer's market. And you have that power to put your money in the best possible place.

It's so much more than just the things that are politically important. It is. It just brings a seasonal beauty into your lives, where you're just connected to nature again. She's our mother, and she can really help to counter-balance the problems of this world. She is constantly changing and is nourishing us. You feel that. And we know that making a garden is therapeutic for the homeless, for the people in jail, and certainly for children in school. Everywhere.

It is the magic of planting a seed and seeing it grow, and feeling the pride of that, and cooking it and eating it. What could be better?

Q: How long have you been doing Edible Schoolyard? A couple of decades, is that right?

AW: Just about 25 years now, and the network has 6,500 schools worldwide. Clearly it is something that many, many people are thinking about. Where have our values gone? How can we teach them to the next generation? With the network, we are seeing what the best practices are so that we don't have to invent the wheel.

Q: For a school that wants to get involved and create its own garden and curriculum around that, is there a way they can access these best practices?

AW: Yes. Absolutely. It's at And they should be able to download anything there.

Q: A School of Sustainability PhD student wanted us to ask you a question. She is involved with Slow Food Phoenix, and she's actively working on school garden programs. But she's curious about policy, and she’s wondering what kinds of policies or bills we should be advocating to ensure children have access to food that is nutritious and sustainable?

AW: I'm advocating for the whole thing. I'm going to bring my pledge to ASU. We're going to try and do a free, sustainable school lunch for every single student K through 12 in the state of California. We are advocating to buy food directly from the farmers and the ranchers who take care of the land and their farm workers. We want to teach all children the values of nourishment.

I want school lunch to be part of an academic subject, so that when you're studying geography of the Arabian Peninsula in sixth grade, you're eating in the cafeteria the hummus, you’re eating that spicy carrot soup, you might be eating tabbouleh salad and pita bread. You are sitting down and taking the time as part of your academic minutes every day to explore the cultures of the world, and to really be nourished by the organic food.

You’re going to see this, because I'm going to propose this idea [at the Wrigley Lecture]. I'm going to show you pictures of the food that we serve. I'm going to give you a taste of how this could happen in every state of the country, and how it could really happen school by school, and make a model and then go all the way.

Q: What advice would you give to people who want to start sourcing seasonal, sustainable, local ingredients but feel unsure of how to take the first steps?

AW: I would recommend they choose something very easy that makes a dramatic impression, like going to the farmer's market. Just going is a first step.

But it's also buying something that you're really familiar with, like the eggs. The eggs, from my point of view — from a chicken that's been running around in the yard, a chicken that is wholesome — are such a dramatic taste difference. It's very dramatic to see the colors of the eggs and to cook them.

And fruit is a gateway to taste. If you pick fruit off a tree that's ripe, and you eat it, there's nothing like that. Going out to pick blackberries. There are people that have beautiful fruit in Phoenix, I'm sure.

But, I think, the best thing is to get together a group of friends. And just say, hey, let's all cook from this cookbook. Or let's make a dinner together. I'm going to get stuff from the market and we'll all share in the costs. Let's just see if we can do it.

I mean, just making garlic toast with friends is a good start. And pounding the garlic, or chopping it, or something that's engaging people with all of their senses. Because that's the best — really something we don't do. We watch things on our cell phones being made, but we don't do it ourselves.

That's why my favorite implement of the kitchen is the mortar and the pestle. And then pounding that garlic: you're smelling it, you're watching it change, you’re touching it, you’re tasting it. Is it too strong? You’re putting in the vinegar. This is all deeply about a village kitchen.

It’s almost as if we have this inside of us all — that we want to be sitting around the table. We want to be smelling the fire. We want to be engaged with food in this way. I count on nature really becoming our teacher, too. She's been there since the beginning of civilization. So we have that in us all. And we've got to connect to it.

Top photo: Photographed by Amanda Marsalis