Chef Alice Waters discusses ‘real food’ at Yale freshman seminar

When Alice Waters decides where to eat, she weighs one factor about a restaurant above all others.

“I think the only bottom line I have is the purity of the food,” she said, seated at a table in the Hall of Graduate Studies with Professor Paul Freedman and 15 students in his “History of Food and Cuisine” freshman seminar. 

The renowned chef, author, and food activist stressed the importance of “real food” — cuisine made from seasonal ingredients produced sustainably and locally.

Waters was on campus as the Benjamin and Barbara Zucker Fellow for Spring 2016. She gave a lecture on Feb. 2 at the Yale University Art Gallery titled “Slow Food Values in a Fast Food Culture.” On Feb. 3, she was the guest at a Berkeley College master’s tea. Between those events, she joined Freedman and his students to discuss her career and point of view. She also offered advice on good eating.

“I’ve always thought that bread from a wood oven is the way to begin,” she said. “It brings people together, then you want the jam, and the cheese, and the wine.”

Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, asked Waters about America’s restaurant culture.

“I’m actually incredibly hopeful because I’ve seen farmers’ markets growing,” she said. “I’m looking to the production of food. I’m not really looking to the restaurants because they will be the consequence of the production of food — real food.”

She said people are opening restaurants for the right reasons.

“They’re not trying to make a lot of money. They’re trying to make a place where they like to work, where they hire their friends,” she said. “They become little neighborhood places. Pretty much every place I go there’s at least one or two great places that serve real food — in season and from the farm.” 

At Chez Panisse, the restaurant that she opened in Berkeley, California in 1971, Waters pioneered a culinary approach that emphasizes locally produced seasonal ingredients.

Chez Panisse is profiled in Freedman’s upcoming book, “Ten Restaurants that Changed America.”

“Of all the 10 restaurants, the one that nobody ever questions is Chez Panisse,” he said. “With Chez Panisse, people just nod their heads and say, ‘Of course.”

Waters, who was named Best Chef in America in 1992 by the James Beard Foundation, became involved in Yale’s food culture in 2001 when her daughter, Fanny Singer, was a freshman at the university. She worked with then-Yale President Richard Levin, students, and faculty to establish an ambitious project to create a sustainable dining program, a college farm, university composting, and increased education around food and agriculture. 

These efforts led to the creation of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, which today manages two teaching farms, one on Central Campus and one on Yale’s West Campus, and runs diverse programs that support the study of food and agriculture.

Students asked Waters about current events affecting the food industry.

 Janine Comrie ’19 asked Waters what she thinks about Whole Foods, the grocery store chain that sells locally sourced organic products alongside products that do not qualify as organic.

Waters said she prefers farmers markets, where you can purchase food straight from those who produced it.

“I just don’t like the middleman getting the money,” she said.

Dan Waskevich ’19 asked Waters about the trend of restaurants instituting “no tip” policies. (Chez Panisse charges customers a 17% service charge in lieu of tips.)

“We were finding that the kitchen staff was making less than the dining room staff, and we wanted to equalize that,” she said, adding that diners still often leave tips despite the surcharge.

Waters was asked to describe her favorite dish.

“I love things that come from a wood oven or off the grill,” she said. “There are certain things that I wait for all year round, like mulberries. I love mulberry ice cream more than anything.”

Following the class, Waters remained behind to speak individually with several students.

“This was a special experience,” said Xander Mitchell ’19. “You don’t get many opportunities like this.”