Alice Waters – Coming To My Senses

25 October, 2017

Coming To My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Alice Waters
Clarkson Potter Publishers,  320pages,  £20

Forty-six years after her groundbreaking restaurant Chez Panisse opened in San Francisco, chef, activist and author Alice Waters remains the doyenne of the sustainable-food movement. Her new memoir, Coming To My Senses, arrived on my desk this week and, even from the first page, the parallels between Water’s philosophy and my own were remarkably clear. Raised in the American suburbs, she moved to Paris with a friend in the 1960s, where she was faced with a host of new, unexpected pleasures. In a world of warm, caramel-coloured baguettes, sweet seasonal strawberries, and cheese unlike any other, where food was fresh, not canned, and rosé with dinner was the norm, Waters was irreversibly awakened to the joys of real food. And those early culinary adventures have followed her like a friendly shadow ever since.

Her style is extraordinarily simple, and it struck me that the pioneering farm-to-fork approach at the heart of Chez Panisse is exactly what chefs and restauranteurs are striving for in 2017. Waters was a trailblazer for ideas that are now standard fare. All the same, her journey was meandering and indirect. Rather than starting with a masterplan, she built on ideas she believed in, and followed her culinary instincts – as any good cook should. Today, those same ideas – seasonal eating, cooking over fire and locally grown food, to name but a few – are part of the mainstream.

I have always believed that food should delight, rather than impress. If I was offered the choice of never having to take another food photo, I might well accept. Unfortunately, we live in a world where visuals are virtual currency, and you can’t thrive as a chef away from Instagram. Social media undoubtedly has its merits, and there is a buzzing community of cooks using online platforms to share ideas and inspiration, but when our first focus is a photo, it can detract from the point. Far too often, we forget that the thrill of good food comes from its taste – the celebration of beautiful ingredients, well balanced and married together on a plate. Really exciting food doesn’t show off, because it doesn’t need to. So, when Waters writes about her cooking as an exercise in collection and experimentation, I find I agree with almost every word. She quotes Alain Ducasse, who says that 85 percent of cooking is shopping for ingredients, which I love. Finding and experiencing food for yourself enables a freedom in the kitchen that many cooks lose when they tie themselves to their cookbooks: ‘Something can be lost in writing down a recipe,’ writes Waters.

‘I’m not necessarily thinking about how the ingredients will go together – I’m just responding to what I’m finding. It’s a lot about aliveness, a lot about colour, the smell of things, the look … I’m listening to what the farmer has to say about what’s going on in the fields. I think we forget sometimes that food is alive and that we have to follow that intuition and treat food as a living thing.’ † 

A belief in organic food, local farms and eating for the senses has stayed with Waters throughout her journey, which started during that first Parisian trip as a student. Later, after a stint as a waitress, then writing, all the while dreaming of eventually running a little French bistro, she trained as a Montessori teacher in London, where she lived in a garret. Her Montessori experience – learning through the senses, making things look and feel beautiful – has shaped her life since, and ultimately led to the conception of Chez Panisse as a restaurant that was sensual as well as ethical.

Put simply, Coming To My Senses celebrates Waters’ philosophy, built on the plain, moral premise that ‘good food – honestly grown…prepared simply, served beautifully, eaten slowly and convivially – should be available to everyone’. It is a partial autobiography that ends on the evening she opened Chez Panisse in 1971. ‘I’ve always felt like opening the restaurant was fated, that I didn’t have a choice about whether to do it – that is was somehow predestined,’ she tells us. The book shows us European food through a revolutionary Californian eye, and reminds us that there is still so much to be learnt from a woman whose ideas were 20 years before her time.

Alice Waters’ Coming To My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, published by Clarkson Potter, is out now, priced £20.

Header image by Amanda Marsalis

† Alice Waters, Coming To My Senses, pp. ix