The reigning queen of organic cuisine

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Fresh, local, and seasonal. These three words have become almost clich on restaurant menus. One can predict the credits that might follow, listing farmers who supplied baby carrots for the house salad, eggs for a quiche, and fruit for a berry tart.

Back in 1971, such a farm-fresh approach was practically unheard of. But that didn't stop Alice Waters and a group of friends from opening Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., with a $10,000 loan and a pact to cook with the freshest locally grown ingredients they could find.

Now Ms. Waters herself could be credited on those restaurant menus. Without her leadership, American chefs might not even think to shop at farm stands first, to avoid tomatoes in March, or to improvise menus based on what's available that day. And those words - fresh, local, and seasonal might still be a novelty. As food writer Marian Burros wrote at the time of Chez Panisse's 25th anniversary, Waters has "single-handedly changed the American palate."

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Her philosophy of eating, as Waters calls it, is now well documented in seven cookbooks, which she either wrote or co-authored. She has founded gardening projects at the San Francisco jail and a junior high school in Berkeley (see story below), cooked for the president, won numerous awards, including the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year in 1997, and been asked to open a restaurant at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Meanwhile back in Berkeley, Chez Panisse continues to thrive, serving a fixed-price menu every evening that features organic foods grown in the restaurant gardens and purchased from local farmers.

On a recent swing through Boston, one restaurant chef timidly tells Waters she "changed his life." Home cooks, swarming around her at a popular gourmet food store for the signing of her latest cookbook, get a bit tongue-tied as they try to make the most of their moment with her.

Waters, a petite, pretty woman with a soft voice and lively eyes, takes all this adoration in stride. She keeps her focus, speaking with conviction about the social and ecological benefits of eating close to the land, supporting local growers, and preserving the family supper hour. Her intensity is surprising at first. But it makes sense. Only determination, strong opinions, and a focused approach could have gotten her this far.

"It's not only a more delicious way to eat," says Waters, "it's a political imperative." Digging into a grapefruit, which she laments is "not organic," Waters adds, "Our own health and the health of the planet depends on eating this way." Sure, it's easy now to get all kinds of produce at any time of year, she explains, but it requires a lot of energy to transport those foods.

And besides, she adds, "If you dull your palate year round with mediocre vegetables, you can't appreciate the real thing when it comes along."

So how do those of us who must put our gardens to bed in the fall eat only local foods? "You just have to eat differently in the winter," she says, adding that at Chez Panisse they cook with winter greens, make stews, and even top pizza with wild nettles. "It takes extra effort, but it's crucial to resist the temptation to buy produce shipped from other places."

It's a buyers' market, she says, explaining: "Supermarkets will always sell you what you want to buy. If you tell them you only want locally grown foods from sustainable farms, they'll work harder to get that." If you really want them to get the message, she adds, "Ask specifically what day an item comes in. Then tell them you'll be back for it when it's fresh."

If her approach sounds somewhat European, it's no coincidence. It was after a year in France as a college student that she dropped plans to become a Montessori schoolteacher and took up cooking. "There was still something native to the European way of life that attracted me, and that was cooking from the market. This basic attraction towards the very freshest ingredients was our most prominent inspiration [at Chez Panisse]," she explains.

So, of course, she feels honored to have been asked by the French to open a restaurant at the Louvre. "It won't be anything like Chez Panisse," says Waters, referring more to the atmosphere than the philosophy. "It will be an art installation in the form of a restaurant." To achieve this effect, she'll team up with Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka.

Waters is discouraged by lifestyle changes in France that threaten long-held culinary traditions such as daily market shopping. "I thought they understood the relationship of food to agriculture," she says. "The pressures of economics and time are forcing them to compromise.

"It's vital to appreciate local growers, never taking them for granted. As with any relationship, they need to be nurtured."

Making connections with those who provide food to Chez Panisse is one of the most satisfying parts of her job, Waters says. Over the years, she and her staff, including an official "forager," have cultivated a network of about 60 local purveyors - vegetable and animal farmers, goat-cheese makers, bakers, and more. Of one farm in Sonoma, Waters says glowingly, "I always find something new there. It's like winning a prize. I can't wait to get back and cook...."

When Waters isn't cooking at Chez Panisse, signing books, or looking for perfect lettuce, she's at home with her husband, an artist and olive-oil merchant, and her teenaged daughter, Fanny. Family time is dear to her heart, and she is well known for championing the family dinner hour.

"It's so needed today," she says, adding that just sitting down together for an hour a day can have a powerful effect. "Children today feel alienated and uprooted. This time gives them an important connection. It is also where they learn how to use a napkin, and to say, 'Please pass the peas.' "

"Of course, it's also where young palates are educated," Waters adds. "Children, too, should be a part of this delicious revolution."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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