Flavor First: Alice Waters

Teaching the world what's good: fresh, organic and locally grown

Alice Waters

Chef, author and food activist Alice Waters is a longtime supporter of fresh, local food.

Thomas Heinser

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Visionary restaurateur and author Alice Waters is a food activist who’s taking fresh, organic foods—grown locally and sustainably—to the masses. To accomplish this, she created a national public school curriculum that uses food to educate, nourish and empower our children. What’s next: children who love vegetables? The very idea …  

The Herb Companion: You founded a groundbreaking restaurant, Chez Panisse, and spent decades advocating the use of fresh food produced through humane and environmentally sound methods. It must be gratifying to see growing support for local farmers and green markets. But many people still don’t have access. What will it take to spur a comprehensive, national effort?

Alice Waters: 

We also must teach children how to eat together. The family table now exists only with rare families that make an effort. Most kids today eat on the run, learning the values of a "fast food nation." We need to encourage them to develop a better relationship with food, so they’ll make better choices … so they’ll value a fresh peach more than a pair of Nikes.

We have to bring people back to their senses, back to understanding the meaning and preciousness of food. Then they will demand and seek out [fresh, locally-grown] food. And the only really democratic way we can reach everyone is through the public schools.

HC: Do you have a personal garden?

AW: I have a little garden with hardy herbs like rosemary, thyme and mint, and trees like bay, persimmon and citrus. A friend also plants salad and flowers in my garden.

HC: What role do herbs play in your cooking?

AW:  They are primary. Herbs are the pleasure for me in cooking because they so quickly change the character of the dish. By pairing different herbs with sliced fresh tomatoes, for instance, you get very different dishes. And herbs are such an aromatic influence.

HC: What flavors/herbs do you see on the ascendancy?

AW:  I think mint might be coming back … people seem to be making more fresh mint tea, and it’s omnipresent in Middle Eastern cooking. In Lebanon and many countries, mint is placed on the table to refresh the palate. I also love fennel … I use it as an herb—chopping it up and using the seeds and pollen.

HC: What was your most memorable meal?

AW:  I have many, many memorable ones, but when pressed to the wall, I think of the time I ate with two mentors of mine: Elizabeth David and Richard Olney. I had brought white truffles from Italy to England and they prepared them for me. It was definitely a memorable meal, lasting about eight hours.

I’ve also had beautiful times at Domaine Tempier in southern France. Lulu Peyraud just turned 90-years old and she cooks a bouillabaisse that makes you cry. She gathers all kinds of friends and cooks it over vine branches from her winery. The sea is just five minutes away so they take the fish out of the water and throw it in the pot.

HC: What’s the meal you love to prepare for family and friends?

AW:  There are little variations that I do over and over again, but it always involves grilling something and serving it with sautéed potatoes and a salad. Maybe we’ll have a little crostini beforehand, depending upon the time of year. It might have tomatoes or kale, in season. For dessert? Fruit is so sweet, it serves as dessert, or maybe a little citrus rind and a piece of chocolate with tea. I always serve mint and lemon verbena tea.

Baked Wild Salmon with Herb Butter

Makes 4 servings

Herb Butter:

This butter can be varied easily to suit your taste. Chopped shallots and pounded garlic are delicious additions. For a more lemony flavor, add finely grated lemon zest. For a more pungent butter (perfect with corn on the cob), add dried chile peppers that have been soaked, drained and pounded to a paste.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened

½ cup chopped herbs (such as parsley, chervil and chives)

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Salt

Freshly-ground black pepper

Pinch of cayenne

Stir ingredients together in a small bowl, mixing well. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper and lemon as needed. Refrigerate butter until ready to use.

Salmon:

Salmon fillets have easy-to-spot pin bones—a row of thin white rib-like bones that extends from behind the gills to the fish’s midsection. Rub your fingers over the flesh to locate these bones; use a pair of needle-nosed pliers to pull them out of the flesh.

1 to 1½ pounds wild salmon fillet, cutinto 4- to 6-ounce pieces

Salt

Freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees; remove herb butter from the refrigerator to soften. Remove any pin bones from the salmon. Oil a baking dish or a rimmed baking sheet and place salmon pieces in it, skin side down. Season salmon with salt and pepper, then brush or drizzle with oil. Bake until flesh is just set but still pink in the center, 7 to 12 minutes, depending on thickness of the fillets. Spoon soft herb butter over each piece of fish; pass remaining herb butter at the table.

Variation with fresh fig leaves: If you have access to fresh fig leaves, this is a must. The leaves are not eaten, but suffuse the fish with a delightful coconut aroma. Season and oil salmon fillets, wrap each piece in a clean fig leaf, and bake as above.

Linda Shockley is a writer who takes delight in exploring her hometown—New York City—with her foodie friends.

For more information on Alice:

Stop by Alice Waters’ remarkable Chez Panisse on your next visit to Berkeley, Calif. Visit www.ChezPanisse.com to read more about the Chez Panisse Restaurant and the Café at Chez Panisse.

The Edible Schoolyard – Alice created this program to combat childhood obesity, something she has helped bring into national media attention.

Take a Video Tour with Alice of the garden at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School – Alice takes us on a video tour of the garden at Martin Luther King, Jr. middle school.
Chef Alice Waters' love for good food started a culinary empire. Now her passion is at the heart of a "delicious revolution" for healthier eating. John Blackstone reports. Watch this CBS Feature of her work.

American Masters:  Alice Waters – The companion Web site to the PBS Documentary on her life.

The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2007, $35) is available at your local bookstore or at www.Amazon.com .