Alice Waters’ new book, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, reads like a roadmap to her success. And what a winding, verdant, inspired road it is.
What begins in a lower middle class New Jersey neighborhood ends on the pulsing streets of Berkeley with the opening of Chez Panisse, the restaurant that garnered Waters international acclaim and launched farm-to-table eating into the zeitgeist. The book charts the formative moments of Waters’ earliest years and how they shaped the restaurant—and cooking philosophy—we so intimately revere. She tells of love and travel, tasting, adventure, experimentation; she pens a narrative catalog of inspirations.
And while Waters’ reverence for France and its countryside cuisine is by all accounts meaningful, we plumbed her memoir for more unexpected fountains of influence, sources from which the chef drew inspiration that left us surprised and excited.
Her interests are manifold and multimedia yet each informs the way she cooks, dines, and entertains the guests that have walked through the doors of Chez Panisse for the past 47 years.
It’s funny that music wasn’t part of the restaurant when it started. It really affected me, music—I spent so much time focusing on it. Half my classes in college were about music: one was entirely about Beethoven’s symphonies, different recordings of all his symphonies. I always tried to find the right music for the right circumstance, and I couldn’t listen to the canned music that was omnipresent in restaurants. The right music could bring everybody together when it reinforced a harmonious gathering, but the wrong music would interfere. And I just couldn’t figure out what to play in the restaurant. I thought about French restaurants that never had music, and about how I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation at the table. I’d rather have no music than the wrong music.
I could never learn in the abstract, and Montessori was all about learning through your senses, learning by doing; when students were doing math for example, they would lay out these beautiful wooden blocks, so the students could see and feel exactly what they were measuring.
One of the first things I responded to about Montessori was the fact that there were lots of games you played that employed food—they had smelling canisters, for example, and you had to match up the scent with the food or herb or spice. Or you would reach your hand into a bag filled with a real fruit or vegetable, and you’d try to guess what it was from the feel of it. They had exercises with taste, too—you’d taste something sour and have to identify it as a lemon. Montessori education felt like a school reform movement—learning through the senses was a countercultural idea, too. It felt like a hopeful way to enact change.
I’d walk through Berkeley noticing typefaces everywhere. How books are printed, how signs are made, and how letters are etched makes what is being read that much more valuable. Things that read well and are well designed have a different feeling. It’s like going into the Lincoln Memorial and seeing those letters carved in stone—you go away awestruck.
Letterpress printing and graphic design have been woven through Chez Panisse in a big, big way. It’s a visual cue, a way of preparing the room to bring people fully into the experience. When something is well printed and well designed, even a menu, people take it more seriously.
I’ve had a connection to Indian food my whole life—and it helps that I’ve had extraordinary teachers like Madhur Jaffrey and Niloufer Ichaporia King to educate and inspire me about it. I love the aromas: the sizzling spices on the stove, the steaming basmati rice, the smell of the fire and the tandoor. I like pairing the spicy with something cool, like raita, and having lots of little courses, where you can taste something sweet like a chutney or something sour like a pickle. You can adjust all the flavors to your own personal taste. There’s a beauty in the way it looks, too, that’s very much in my color palette: maroons, saffrons, earth-bound colors. Indian cooking is a comfort food for me, and I think it all goes back to England and feeling comfortable being by myself. That’s how I feel these days at the Indian restaurant around the corner from me in Berkeley—I’ll go there to eat alone, and they’ll always take care of me and find something I’ll really like: whole wheat puris, tandoori chicken, the tastiest dal.
I really love film festivals. I’ve always thought that maybe in my old age I’ll just wander from one festival to another. (I’m counting on being able to see and hear!) It’s a way I can just drop out—I get so absorbed in the films, they take me out of my life. And they inspire and educate me. Food and film are the two great passions of my life. Especially black-and-white films from the 1930s! I watch Turner Classic Movies every night—three films a day when I’m feeling really bad. If I didn’t have Turner Classics, I don’t know what would happen to me. Watching movies releases my energy, helps me to decompress—it’s like therapy. You’re just in them. I’ve got most of my information in life from movies—really, that’s how I learn.