A few minutes with Alice Waters

by Matt on April 16, 2010

Alice Waters needs no introduction. And I’m not sure I could even put the words together to describe her even if I tried. She’s a force, a pioneer, a woman so essential to conscious eating and good food that anything I say will only fall short. When my friends at Random House asked if I’d like to spend a few minutes interviewing her about her new book In The Green Kitchen: Techniques To Learn By Heart I took about .00928988 seconds to reply. Especially because I am so in love with this book. In The Green Kitchen is a collection of Alice’s essential cooking techniques that I honestly believe should belong in every cook’s library.  It’s not earth-shattering but solid, not revolutionary but complete. And while a book of her techniques alone would make the book worthwhile in every sense, it’s the cast of friends and family members throughout the book that really brings home what she believes in: that good food is a right and not a privilege and that food unites us all.

Our phone conversation was meant to coincide with a web video chat. There were some issues, the video didn’t work, but we forged ahead.

Matt: Hello Alice, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, this is wonderful!

Alice: Well this is a bit disconcerting to me because I thought I would be seeing people as well as talking to them! It feels very strange to all of a sudden just have audio without video. I probably would have spoken differently if I knew I was just having audio.

Matt: Well I even ironed a shirt!

Alice laughs. I made Alice Waters laugh!

Alice: And I have a beautiful bowl of page mandarins right in front of me.

Matt: Oh! Well once again we’re foiled by technology! Hey, at least we’re speaking so that’s great! First, I just wanted to say congratulations on such a beautiful book.

Alice: Oh thank you!

Matt: The book, the techniques, the stories, it’s just something that I think everyone will want to keep close to them. And I’m a breadcrumb freak so I’m so happy to see that!

Alice: Oh you like that tray of breadcrumbs then!

Matt: Indeed I do. I love that tray of breadcrumbs. Those things have opened so many possibilities in my world, the ability to add them to simple things like tomatoes, pasta, I could go on and on, trust me.

I wanted to ask you about working on this book and your writing process. Do you write when you are in the kitchen? Or do you find that you need to shut out the world and sit down with a pen and paper?

Alice: No. We work in a very collaborative way. There are a lot of different voices in this book although the book itself has become my own voice. But I’m kind of looking for people’s techniques and their little ways of talking about things and I wanted to incorporate that when I could. And with this particular book of there are a lot of different people it in. It’s rich from that point of view because you associate certain people with a way of cooking and here they’re talking about the simplicity of a particular dish or a little thing that they use to make it special. I wanted to make that happen for people in this book.

Matt: Speaking of a lot of different people, you share so many personal insights of people throughout the book that we’ve all known and admired over the years. Drake, a chef from Santa Barbara, wanted me to ask you if there are any up and coming chefs or foodmakers that you really respect and admire these days?

Alice: I love these young cooks who are such purists about where they get their ingredients. They go to the farmers’ market rain or shine, they go out to the farm, they’re ready to forage with their friends on the weekend, they are dedicated in a way that my generation certainly wasn’t. And it’s very inspiring. And it’s very political. Like Bryant Terry and Anna Lappé. But we have a whole group at Chez Panisse that is sort of inventing and working on the way of small rather than big, family run restaurants rather than a corporate one and finding that food is part of a wonderful way to love.

Matt: Well, I think we have you to thank for a lot of that, so thank you!

Alice: Thank you.

Matt: Your green kitchen manifesto includes “cooking and shopping for food brings rhythm and meaning to our lives.”  I think that’s one of the most profound things I’ve read in a long time. Could you elaborate on that?

Alice: Well I can only think about my own life, and what it meant to me to go to France when I was 19 and find a way that people lived their lives.  It just seemed so naturally woven into the culture of that place. And everybody seemed to have access to the rituals of the table, the farmers’ market, the seasonality of food, it wasn’t anything rarified. It was something that they were grateful for and took care with and appreciated. So it was a very real awaking for me and I wanted to live like that. I learned that food is a way to build a community in a real everyday way.

Matt: Amen to that.  As a blogger and food photographer I’m just captivated by the creative process and so in love with Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton’s work. What was it like working with them as a team on this book?

Alice: Oh, it was just kind of my dream. To be in my own kitchen, a beautiful day in September and to be able to go over to Chez Panisse, to find the ingredients that we wanted to have photographed, bring them back, put them in the natural light, use the bowls and dishes from my kitchen, and then eat the food! It’s the way that I wish I could really do every book–to be a part of the whole process, not just the conceptual part, the writing part, but really sort of engaged in it all. And the beautiful picture of the beans in the book and the ones of fruit? They were in no way contrived, they were just what was happening here in Northern California at that moment in time. It was a harvest moment and we had something that was just exquisite from my point of view. And I hope it feels that way, that it entices people so that they investigate the fruits and vegetables that we mention in the book and plant them in their own gardens.

Matt: Well it definitely comes through the printed page. It’s just incredibly beautiful. Thank you for your time, Alice!

Alice: And thank you.

In The Green Kitchen: Techniques To Learn By Heart by Alice Waters is available now from Clarkson Potter.  Don’t miss the online video component to the book here, it’s fantastic. A very special thanks to Allison at Clarkson Potter.

Update! There will be a webinar with Alice Waters next Wednesday, April 21st. Chat with her live, ask questions, hear her tips, and interact with this amazing culinary treasure. Click on over to Webex for more information.