Alice Waters wants to take America back in time — to a day when food was fresh, local and enjoyable.
Waters, who founded the California restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971 and continues to serve as its executive chef, spoke Sunday afternoon to a crowded Battell Chapel. In her speech and the discussion that followed, she focused on how American eating habits have deteriorated over the past 50 years and the educational efforts she hopes can correct those changes.
A chef, restaurateur and advocate, Waters created the Chez Panisse Foundation, which has supported the integration of culinary education into public school programs around the country since 1996. Waters has also been active in the political landscape, trying to change agricultural policy so it can be more supportive of small farms.
“In her spare time, she’s trying to change the world,” said Josh Viertel, co-director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, who introduced Waters on Sunday.
The culinary challenges facing America can be divided into three categories, Waters said. But two of the three — food cleanliness and the treatment of farmers and other producers — are areas of large-scale importance, but not her specialty, she said.
Instead, Waters chose to focus her remarks on the third category — the one she said she knows best — good quality food. She said America’s fast-paced culture of today has led to a decrease in the discernment of American eaters. Waters said Americans today too often see food as merely a “particular mix of calories and compounds.”
Bemoaning the commercialization of the food industry, Waters said fast food now pervades American eating.
“Fast food and fast-food values don’t just happen at chain restaurants along highways,” Waters said. “The mentality has infiltrated every grocery store in the country – including health food stores.”
Waters said one of food’s great qualities is its ability to bring people together. But Waters said statistics show that most American families — 85 percent according to one study — do not eat meals together anymore.
The answer to these problems, Waters said, lies in education. By putting gardens in public schools and allowing students to prepare meals for school credit, she said, the next generation of Americans can come to appreciate food as more than just a commodity.
“[Americans] need to have an edible education,” Waters said. “Gardens can teach children what it means to be human and civilized and how to bring joy to their time on this Earth.”
Her foundation has supported the growth of school gardens, including one called the Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif.
“I have seen these kids at school,” Waters said. “When they grow their own food and eat it, they all like it. It’s real pleasure for them.”
Waters, who became interested in food during trips to Europe as a college student, said she never intended to become part of such a large movement and had modest goals when she opened Chez Panisse.
“All I wanted to do was recreate the food and hospitality I had so loved while abroad,” Waters said.
In the restaurant, Waters said she continues to focus on providing locally grown food. The restaurant entirely supports two farms financially and supports 85 other farms to varying degrees, she said.
Though parents outnumbered students at Waters’ talk, the last event of Parents Weekend, audience members of all ages seemed impressed with Waters’ speech.
Ariane Lotti ’06 FES ’07, who said she hopes to pursue a career in agricultural policy, said Waters’ talk raised many relevant issues.
“I thought it was informative for people who don’t know very much about the food movement, inspirational for those who are interested in the movement and great to hear from one of the movement’s starters about her views and her values,” she said.
Dale Peterson ’11 said Waters’ speech made larger points than one would have expected from a chef.
“In general, the theme of the American people wanting everything in hyper-speed was a good message,” he said.
Waters’ address was the third in the “Chewing the Fat” speaker and workshop series, sponsored by the George and Shelly Lazarus Fund for Sustainable Food and Agriculture at Yale.