That’s the question the Los Angeles Times poses in a lengthy article today, written to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Chez Panisse.

The answers are varied:

“There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters,” said Anthony Bourdain, a chef as well known for his theatricality as his food. “I’m suspicious of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth.”

The New York Post called her “a patron saint of the “holier-than-thou food police” and champion of “a chiding and bourgeois brand of junk food prohibitionism.”

“She’s an absolutist, which is a great strength,” Michael Pollan to the Times. “But changing hearts and minds sometimes requires compromise. “That’s something we argue about from time to time, until I realize it’s a waste of breath,” he added. “She’s staking out a pure position, and every movement needs that.”

She’s “a kind of lightning rod for Berkeley liberal elitism,” said the San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson. “There’s a tone of certainty, of almost religious fervor, that puts a lot of people off. It’s unfortunate, because the core of her message is important.”

This critical look at Waters comes just a day after a local group capitalized on her name and fame to draw attention to the cause of toxic sludge. The Organic Consumers Association picketed Chez Panisse on April 1, charging Waters with not speaking out against putting the sludge on organic gardens. Waters completely denied the accusation, and said the OCA was misrepresenting her position.

Of course there is much much more to Alice Waters then the animosity she inspires. Read here to find out more.

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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13 Comments

  1. Farm Fresh Choice is a subsidized program selling produce at a discount and paying students of color to work at the stands. Does this type of incentive work? Hard to know since the public health dept does not produce reports.
    Based on the traffic the stands attract, it is questionable. Though folks in the know now buy the reduced priced produce at the Spiral Gardens stand on Sacramento St rather than support the farmers up at the Derby St market.

    The school garden idea is also not that all that practical, since school is out for summer when a garden needs the most intensive maintenance. Do we pay people to weed the MLK school garden throughout the summer?
    Longfellow school garden outside of the science classroom resembles neglect and blight more than a school garden, each year lately it is getting worse.

  2. 60 Minutes covered the question of animosity towards Ms. Waters. Here is a video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1hU2w0a0HQ

    The good stuff starts at around 6:30 minutes into it. Run down:

    They contemplate buying $4/lb grapes.

    Ms. Waters suggests that people who can’t afford them buy too many Nike shoes.

    In her kitchen, she makes a “fast and easy” breakfast to demonstrate with the interviewer remarking about how Ms. Waters lives in another world, that doesn’t resemble what typical working families could achieve.

    Shortly thereafter, the edible schoolyard stuff is illustrated and Ms. Waters evades the question of how to pay for it saying, roughly, “Can’t afford it? We can’t afford *not* to pay for it!” Perhaps she’s right but she hasn’t answered the question.

    The interview wraps up with her spending some political capital to push the then un-announced white-house garden project. You know, because it would be a great “symbol”.

    Those kinds of appearances and pronouncements undermine her good works. She breathlessly and in sing-songing voice insults the very base whose support she ought to most want. She is far too focused on symbols and, worse, a bit tone deaf about how here iconography is likely to play out with broad swaths of the US.

    Those bullet holes in her feet, like the saying goes, came from a gun held squarely in her own hand.

  3. Wow. It is interesting to read the comments section of “Why does Alice Waters inspire such animosity?” and encounter such…animosity. I hope those who spent so many paragraphs on this topic look beneath their own surfaces and ask this question.

    What I note is an interesting juncture of two Berkeleyside articles, this one and the tragic story of the two young men who died in the car accident last Wednesday, Kyle and Prentice. Apparently Prentice worked for Farm Fresh Choice, http://www.ecologycenter.org/ffc/ and you can read a tribute to Prentice on their Myspace page here: http://www.myspace.com/farmfreshchoice

    Here is their manifesto, so to speak:
    “WE ARE FARM FRESH CHOICE, AND WE BELIEVE EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT TO EAT NOURISHING FOOD. EVERY WEEK, RAIN OR SHINE, WE PROVIDE OUR COMMUNITY ACCESS TO QUALITY ORGANIC AND PESTICIDE FREE PRODUCE. SINCE WE ALL KNOW THE CHALLENGES OF JUGGLING FAMILY, FINANCES AND CAREER RESPONSIBILITIES, ALL THREE OF OUR PRODUCE STANDS ARE CONVENIENTLY LOCATED AT AFTERSCHOOL AND COMMUNITY CENTERS IN SOUTH AND WEST BERKELEY. BY PURCHASING SEASONAL PRODUCE FROM OUR STANDS, YOUR DOLLARS EMPOWER SMALL, LOCAL ORGANIC FARMERS OF COLOR, COMMUNITY NUTRITION CLASSES, AND EMPLOY OUR LOCAL YOUTH. INCREASING AWARENESS AROUND OUR LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM AND RECLAIMING OUR NATURAL, ANCIENT RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD AND FARMING WILL HELP US BATTLE THE CURRENT EPIDEMICS OF OBESITY, DIABETES, HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE AND HEART DISEASE. COME DOWN AND VISIT FARM FRESH CHOICE, BECAUSE TAKING CARE OF OUR COMMUNITY IS TAKING GOOD CARE OF OURSELVES!

    And then I suggest you connect the dots between the evolving consciousness of the youth who are doing this work, leading healthier lives and trying to create healthier communities one carrot at a time, with the fact that Alice has been putting her own money into the Chez Panisse Foundation to fund the Edible Schoolyard for years now. And yes – putting that huge garden into that particular space was entirely her idea. She worked for a long time to make it happen and helped develop the cooking program and its wonderful teachers that go along with it. Today there are kids and young adults all over Berkeley who eat vegetables and value healthy food for exactly this reason. She has changed lives.

    During Bill Clinton’s first administration, Alice Waters crusaded to have the White House put in a kitchen garden. For 8 years she advocated for that to happen. Then we endured 8 years of Bush. Now, 16 years later, we have a White House kitchen garden.

    Is she an absolutist? Probably. Is she a snob? Maybe. Does she put her money where her mouth is? Absolutely. Our kids are quite possibly going to lead healthier lives because of her; there is now a movement to get healthier food into school cafeterias all over the country now. That is new.

    Alice is a pioneer. Pioneers don’t have an effect overnight. Think about Frank Lloyd Wright, James Madison, Einstein, Luther Burbank, anyone with vision who works like a dog to promote change in HOW we think. Imperfect people? Perhaps. Absolutists? in all likelihood. So what else is new?

    Next time you find yourself getting all excited about the imperfections of Alice Waters, I suggest you think about Iraq, Afghanistan, human trafficking, air pollution or about 2000 other topics and ask yourself, “Why does Alice Waters inspire such animosity?”

    I say you haven’t lived until you have dinner with family friends and your favorite 8th grade boy presents the spinach empanadas that he made at school, liked so much that he brought home the recipe and spent a rainy Sunday afternoon recreating them for you. He hasn’t a clue who Alice Waters is and he had never eaten spinach before in his life, but the empanadas are divine and we gobble them down in delight. The effect of her work is felt all over Berkeley and yes, in the White House too.

    Thank you, Alice.

  4. I am very interested in this topic. Why, indeed, does Alice Waters inspire such animosity?

    I, a bit shame-facedly, admit that I tend to cringe if and when she enters my thoughts. I don’t actually know her and I admire most of what I know about her life and work. Still, the ‘idea’ of her, my ‘idea’ of her tends to grate. I am interested in why and I thank berkeleyside.com for the question.

    Michael Pollan’s suggestion that she is an ‘absolutist’ seems right — to me — and who am I to be sitting in judgment of someone I do not know. Daniel Patterson’s observation that Waters has a gone of ‘certainty’, of Water’s ‘almost religious fervor’ also resonates with me.

    One word coming to mind for me is dogmatic.

    I think, maybe, that I chafe and cringe when Alice Waters’ name comes up for me because her absolutism, her unbending rigidity, suggests that nobody lives up to her standards, that she is, somehow, above everyone else in her unbending, unyielding, dogmatic certainty.

    Alice Waters didn’t invent school gardens. My kid’s Waldorf school was founded in 1981 and it has always had a school garden, with every child working in that garden and eating it foods and enjoying its flowers.

    Alice Waters didn’t invent eating local. I have not researched this but, just off the top of my head, I think humans have been laboring to grow food and then selling it to their neighbors on market day for at least a couple thousand years.

    I have not researched my next observation either . . . but as I sit here, and I have been cogitating about Ms. Waters for an hour (which is a lot of time for me to spend thinking about a blog post!), I can’t recall her ever making a comment that includes anyone else as doing good. She always seems to be speaking negatively, telling all the rest of us what we need to be doing more of . . . or doing better than we are . . . . pushing and prodding. She can tend to sound like she believes she is the only one who gets it.

    I don’t recall reading stories in which she acknowledges all the amazing shifts that have happened in Americans’ food habits in the past forty years. If I just listened to her, I could easily conclude that everyone screws up food but for her. In a way, if I just listened to her, I could conclude that she is really motivated to promote herself, to grow her own prosperity. She’s like a harshly disciplinarian parent who constantly criticizes her children for not getting straight A’s instead of investing a lot of her time in her bully pulpit validating and affirming that, gee, you know what, lots of good stuff is happening. It can feel like she wants to be the center of attention and be sure she gets credit for all her ideas, like she invented them.

    I remember reading accounts of her prodding Michelle Obama to start a kitchen garden at the White House. I don’t recall any accounts of Ms Waters making admiring statements about what Michelle Obama has done. It can seem to me — and what the heck do I know and, yes, I am aware that Ms. Waters might have made complimentary statements about Michelle Obama’s garden and the media chose not to cover it — or maybe Waters made such statements and the media covered it and I didn’t see them. .. . but, overall, the main comments I read that are attributed to Ms. Waters are always tinged in negativity, railing against people for never doing enough. I get the sense that since Ms. Obama did not invite Ms. Waters to the White House to give Ms Waters credit for the White House vegetable garden, that in Ms. Waters’ world, the White House garden doesn’t ‘count’. Things only ‘count’ if Ms. Waters gets the credit.

    Look at what I am saying. I reiterate that I don’t know her.

    I started paying a premium to buy organic food from the first instant I heard about organic food, which was in 1976 when I moved to St. Paul MN to go to law school. Near my apartment was a food co-op, that sold food in bulk and offered alternatives to chain grocery stores. I went to that food co-op to save money but I immediately recognized the value of eating food grown organically, esp. free of pesticides. By the time my child was born in 1982, I bought as much organic food as I could — and we upper Midwesterns, in the heartland of this country, always had local food and farmers markets.

    Ms. Waters has played an important role in how food is seen and experienced since she founded her restaurant but she tends to make it sound like she invented the impulse within humans to care about good food and to evolve one’s relationship to food, how it is grown and processed, where it comes from.

    We humans often lose sight of the fact that ‘movements’ within human culture rise up because the impulse to make things better has been planted within the ‘whole’ of humanity. We credit Albert Einstein with coming up with the theory of relativity but Einstein was the first to acknowledge that his insights were built upon the work, the impulses, the insights of many.

    Ms. Waters has a way of making it sound like she is ahead of absolutely everyone else . . . she also sounds like the brown-noser kid in junior high who gets appointed hall monitor because she is the teacher’s pet and she is the teacher’s pet because she sucked up to the teacher with her brown nosing. . . but then that hall monitor-teacher-pet starts thinking she is better than the rest of us.

    Again, I have not researched this . . . but I believe that our school system was initially designed to revolve around farming. Children were needed to help in the work of growing food . . . that’s what farming is, right? Connecting kids with the work of growing food is as old as human culture. I think food, the humans neverending need for it, is the central nexus that constitutes human culture. All humans have to have a relationship to food and doing one’s best to have the best possible relationship to food is, I think, at the core of what it means to be human. What a glorious thing, food, feeding beings so they may continue to be.

    Ms. Waters tends to make it sound like she believes she cares more than the rest of us, like we are all a bunch of dummies who forgot our hall passes.

    Also, another way in which she is unbending. .. . I have never seen her make a comment that makes allowances for something that is central to my understanding of what it means to be human: I don’t know what is right for others.

    I think the abortion war illustrates a stream within humanity in which humans want to impose their rigid certainty of what is ‘right’ on others. Just like Michael Pollan says it is not possible to reason with Ms. Waters, that she will never compromise, I believe humanity’s salvation might rest in an unwillingness to compromise.

    There is no one right answer for everyone.

    There is no one right answer for everyone.

    Ms. Waters can come across as believing she knows the one right answer for everyone. And she can’t know it. No one can.

    I think she irritates people because deep down, humans know that there is no one right answer.

    And another thing about Ms. Waters that grates on me . . .I would like to hear her thoughts regarding how to feed the masses, particularly the poor masses. I have recoiled at comments made by her about how she is willing to pay a premium for the upper-middle-class hipster farmers’ markets here in Berkeley. That sounds a bit like that French queen who said if the peasants can’t afford bread, let them eat cake instead.

    I think I understand that her work at Chez Panisse and the edible schoolyard uplifts culture and changes culture. No one human can design and implement a perfect food system that would meet the needs of all humans.

    But geez, just once in awhile, I’d like to hear her use her bully pulpit to acknowledge that not everyone can eat the way she does and that implementing her ideas is expensive. I wish she would display empathy for the fact that all humans are works in progress.

    And I wish she would be quoted by the media affirming Michelle Obama’s White House garden.

    In that LATimes story, Ms. Waters is quoted as making some comments that really bug the heck out of me. As another comment has noted, that thing she said about preferring to eat from an Italian street vendor than to eat at In-and-Out. What does an Italian street vendor have to do with In-and-Out? She brings up mass-produced food . . . and then compares it, inanely, to an Italian street vendor?! She isn’t really saying anything meaningful with such a comment. She is being a braggart, that’s all. Why pick on In-and-Out? Who would ever imagine that Alice Waters would eat there? And don’t get me started on the Italian street vendor: what’s he selling? and how is the street vendor’s food sourced and prepped?! And what does it have to do with anything? It’s like she can never pass up a chance to be smugly elitist.

    The LATimes tells us that Waters asked a CA egg producer to sell her local chickens. . . now Chez Panisse buys 80 chickens a week from CA based Soul Food Farms. .. but the baby chicks are shipped from Pennsylvania . . . how can Ms. Waters count those as local chickens when they were born in Pennsylvania? Can you spell hypocite? I don’t think it is hypocritical to buy baby chicks from PA and ship them to CA . . it is an example of how hard it is to perfectly align with Ms. WAters views. She never cuts anyone slack . . . unless her profit-center (aka her business, her restaurant) needs to compromise. Those PA chicks are a perfect example of the kind of slack Ms.Waters never cuts others. Not in the press, anyway.

    And. . . finally. . . how come Chez Panisse chef Moulle, who prepared a fundraiser dinner in D.C. had to use only local ingredients . . . but he was allowd to fly in Ms. Waters’ favorite pixie Kishu tangerines from Ojai?!!

    Ms. Waters bends for herself but she seems always to be unbending about others. Ack!!!

  5. Alice Waters grates, but her accomplishments far outshine the idiosyncrasies. It infuriates me to see her reputation slimed by such scurrilous, lowlifes – Ronnie Cummins, yes OCA members, he is running a game on you but he does exist, he’s got about as much integrity as the wizard behind the curtain; John Stauber, what the freak did his parents do to him, he’s so insecure he doesn’t even trust his own reflection in a mirror, that man is shattered; and Hugh Kaufman. Yo, Hugh, they say it’s been years since the EPA took away your bully pulpit but you’re still referring to yourself as a sr. policy analyst. Get with it and go somewhere and take your meds and a nap. What a bunch of freaking losers!!! Alice Waters please take the issue of sewage sludge away from these parasites. We have no need of them in SF.

  6. This quote from the LA Times story encapsulates it all for me: “… but it’s not real or authentic. I’d rather eat from a street vendor in Sicily.”

    La de frickin’ dah, lady.

  7. Sorry, Tracey, we Aussies are famous for tearing down Tall Poppies, as we call ’em, but maybe we learned how to do it from you Brits;)

    I do think Andy F is onto something. Some find successful, intelligent, visionary females kinda scary.

    Appreciate the point, too, about her crusader-like, lack of compromise but some — such as NYT food writer Kim Severson in her new memoir Spoon Fed — would admire her tenacity.

  8. With a daughter in her Junior year at UC Berkeley and an epicurean bent much to the detriment of my waistline and wallet, I am always amazed that I have not dined at Chez Panisse more often while visiting.

    But then I am reminded of the impenetrable cookbooks and the uncompromising demand for impossible to locate ingredients, the ridiculous wait to be “honored” by an available reservation in the funky mecca, and the hypocrisy of free-range chicken “flown in weekly” from the other coast and matured on ours. Suddenly the simple but perfect fare of the Cheeseboard, uncertain provenance of fragrant University ethnic eateries, or the embarassment of foody riches in The City across the bay, a mere BART ride away, settles the issue: I am reconciled to my failed pilgrimage.

    That our brightest youth are educated at the world’s highest-acclaimed public University a stone’s throw away benefits Ms. Waters’ elitist establishment by association, not vice-versa. If the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls of the university are reflected in her idealistic kitchen, it would be well to remember that such paragons of virtue only exist because we will them into existence at substantial personal and collective cost. We do so from the fastfood and supermarket miasma-infected surrounding wildernesses. Worse, our children must bypass her citadel, skirting the homeless, disenfrachised, and drug-dealers to eat at “inferior” and morally reprehensible establishments more in line with their budgets.

  9. A little self-depreciating humor or sense of irony now and then might go a long way to dispel the aura of sanctimony and pretention which Americans broadly find annoying and off-putting in any self-appointed “crusader.”

    A small anecdote. Chez Panisse serves mainly Acme bread on its tables. The leftover bread is then donated to local soup kitchens. Since this type of bread (which I greatly prefer) tends to go stale much more quickly than packaged, supermarket bread, when it’s served out to the unfortunate, there’s sometimes a collective groan, “Not that homeless bread again!” Yes, for some of those down on their luck and in need of a square meal, a slice of soft, Safeway style per-sliced bread is exactly the treat they look forward to.

    If there is indeed, “No disputing concerning the tastes,” then we should accept a diverse and pluralistic palate which spans the gamut from Chez Panisse to Oscar Burgers without imbuing one or the other with some sort of “moral” superiority.

  10. I thought the British had the monopoly on tearing down successful people. I have noticed much less of this trend in the US than in my home country. There is an element of “worthier than thou” to Waters which doesn’t help, although I think what she espouses, and what she has achieved is remarkable.

  11. Andy, I agree with you, but think the question transcends personality. Americans like to anoint people and then tear them down. We like boot scrappers, do-it-yourselfers, anyone who makes something out of nothing. Then once they accumulate fame, power, or wealth, it’s assumed they have become arrogant so it’s time to criticize.

    But its good spring onions are in season. Maybe Alice needs to start chopping, just as you suggest.

  12. “Though I am old enough to have discovered that
    the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence
    yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed
    to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily
    with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.” –Henry David Thoreau

  13. Maybe because she eerily resembles Hillary Clinton in that photo?
    Seriously, I think there are a lot of parallels: Highly intelligent, successful, women pioneers who find it difficult to make people like them. The humanizing, near Game Changer for Clinton was tearing up before the New Hampshire primary. Maybe Alice should try chopping some Petaluma Farms onions before her next interview.