Alice Waters has been in town promoting her new book, The Art of Simple Food II, and last night she got onstage at the Soho Apple store with friend and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. (Whose tolerance for jet lag is beyond impressive: She’d flown in from Tokyo that morning and seemed fine.) After the event, Grub Street sat down with the duo to talk about how the country’s views on food have changed since Chez Panisse first opened, why newspaper food sections keep disappearing, and the desire to pigeonhole successful women in the food world.
You talk a lot about good food being tied to place — it’s about celebrating what’s around us — but that means accepting that we can’t get what isn’t near us.
Alice Waters: Eating locally is so particular, and it’s particular to what your tastes are, and it’s very particular to what can be grown. And we’ve brought many, many seeds from around the world and put them in the gardens at Chez Panisse. Some of them grow really well … and some of them don’t. You have to accept that fact and celebrate what does really grow.
Isn’t that at odds with the desire to have things replicated for our convenience?
Ruth Reichl: That was Alice’s genius. I grew up in a Julia Child world where the idea was if you know the technique, you can make the food. Alice came along and said, You know, I tried it and I can’t. No matter how good your technique is, you can’t make this food. If you want to make really good food, the kind of food you eat in France and Italy, you have to have those products. That was a huge change. Now it seems obvious, but in the early seventies it did not seem obvious.
So it’s taken, what, 40 years for people to really embrace this notion? Only recently does it feel like no matter whom you talk to, no matter how interested they are in food, they’re thinking about ingredients in this way.
Waters: It’s been a generation, 40 years.
Reichl: But it’s really gained momentum in the last 10 years.
Waters: I think it’s multiplying — there are just hundreds of restaurants opening, it feels like every day. And all of them very dedicated to this proposition.
Do you think it’s a generational thing, that people my age and younger, millennials, are embracing values that our parents’ generation didn’t?
Reichl: The big difference, generationally, is that in our generation food wasn’t part of culture. I went to a restaurant once a year. You can’t imagine any 22-year-old doing that now. People go to restaurants like they go to movies. It’s part of how you spend your money if you’re a young person. Maybe it’s food carts, but food is an important part of pop culture now — it’s what people talk about. It seems ridiculous to say that we couldn’t afford to go to restaurants and went once a year, but it’s true.
You both must feel responsible for that. You’ve been two of the most prominent voices in this shift. Is that something that you think about, that you helped create this world of people in their twenties who love food?
Reichl: It’s kind of hard not to when people say, "I’ve been reading you my whole life." It makes you feel ancient.
Waters: People tell me, "My parents brought me to your restaurant when I was a kid!" The thing about it is, and it’s the most hopeful thing, is that in the 60 or 70 years of fast-food culture, it cannot take away our hard-wiring for the love of nature, the love of the community around the table. Truly, we’re talking about thousands of years, and in 70 years, that doesn’t just disappear. So every person, I believe, has the capability of coming back to their senses — feeling what it’s like to eat something real, to be out in nature, and to be blown away by the beauty of it all and the fact that you’re dependent on it for your well being. And just the kind of joy that comes from friends talking about the table is amazing.
Reichl: [Reichl’s son] Nick’s biggest problem when he went to college wasn’t that the food was bad; it’s that it was food all the time. And he wanted a dinner table to sit around. People had these food carts, and people could eat whenever they wanted, and he missed dinner.
Waters: I think you’re right. Otherwise there’s just no punctuation in the day — you’re a run-on sentence.
Reichl: The thing that it seems to me is missing from this conversation is that everybody talks about, you know, the way things were and how things are changing. But really we went through this very bizarre period. For most of American history, until after World War II, we were a nation of farmers. People grew or knew the people who grew their food. They sat down to eat dinner together. This bizarre food culture that my generation grew up with is weird, and an aberration. So we’re just going back. It’s not like there’s this huge revolution. We’re trying to undo what got done to us and what we now know was a horrible experiment with two generations of people who are paying the price with obesity and illness. That was bizarre. One of the reasons I think the children’s food movement is so important is because people don’t start eating good food, then throw it out and go back to start eating junk. Once you eat a great peach …
Waters: … you’re there.
Reichl: You’re there. It’s in your memory.
I don’t want to rehash the Time all-male-chef controversy, but I do want to ask you both about this gender debate. Until a week ago, I don’t think anyone was saying, "Alice Waters is an extremely influential female chef." You were just an influential chef, period. And Ruth, I don’t think anyone would qualify you as a great "female" writer and editor. You’re both far beyond that, but how do people rise above that kind of gender qualification?
Reichl: I still feel very much like there is a boys’ club in food. I did this Times restaurant-critic panel, and I was up there with a bunch of boys. Even critics now, most of them — the big ones — are guys. Look at magazines like Lucky Peach, which I really admire: It started getting to me after a while because it was such a boys club, and I really do feel that. And I wrote an article in, I think, 1980, in New West, about the fact that the time of the woman chef was coming …
Waters: I’ve had a different experience. I sort of felt like I was invited into the boys club, in a wonderful way. I was naive, and I was interested in what they were doing, and I became friends with so many restaurateurs. They took care of me like I was their little sister. I was coming in at Meals on Wheels and all of the big events, and I was coming in with much older, established chefs. You know, Jacques Pepin, all of those guys. So they took care of me, in a way.
Waters: I liked that, and I needed them. I didn’t feel left out. I always wanted to have a restaurant that had both men and women. I think it’s really a great a combination to have those different perspectives. You know, Lindsey [Shear, who helped open Chez Panisse and served as its pastry chef] was sort of the mother of us all at Chez Panisse and she set the tone in the kitchen, and she was helping me along as well to figure out how it should work. I’ve certainly worked with a lot of men, and very strong men, but we figured out a way. And if they couldn’t deal with me, they’d leave. And some of them came back. I just didn’t want to run the restaurant in that pyramid way. I think that is very, very important. One system builds to the celebrity chef and one diffuses it.
Reichl: I would say the same thing at Gourmet. My management style was very different than the men at Condé Nast. I never cared about hierarchy and who reports to whom. I do think that women tend to have a different management style, but I still don’t see why that would preclude anyone from being considered "influential." It’s a different way. I believe that the thing that makes it harder for women is the child issue.
Reichl: And I don’t think that’s exclusive to restaurants. Every time at Gourmet that some young editor would come to me and say, "I’m pregnant," I’d ask if they were coming back to work and they’d say yes. And I’d tell them, "Now you’re going to understand what true guilt is." No matter what you’re doing, you feel like you’re in the wrong place: If you’re at work, you feel like you should be at home. If you’re at home, you feel like you should be at work. And it doesn’t stop until your kid goes to college.
Waters: But the really interesting thing, from my point of view, is that men are getting involved with raising children and are choosing to raise children so women are working. I just think it has to be jointly understood that we’ll both take care of children in the future. And that’s why the restaurants that are most interesting right now are the mom-and-pop restaurants that are coming back, because they want it as a way of life. So it’s like the restaurants that I first fell in love with in France. And that’s what I wanted.
What do you think of this notion that food coverage is turning into lifestyle coverage, for example, the proposed changes with the Chronicle’s food section.
Reichl: That was shocking!
The paper’s managing editor disputed some parts of the original report, but no matter what happens, it sounds like they’re really trying to brand it as a larger lifestyle section for advertising purposes — and it’s happening in plenty of other places.
Reichl: It’s why the Edible magazines are so brilliant, because they’re local.
Reichl: You’re not after these big national advertisers. They can rely on restaurant advertising and little stores. And newspapers and national magazines can’t do that. Having been the editor of the largest newspaper food section in the country at the L.A. Times, I saw what happened. When I took over that section, it was a cash cow that supported the entire newspaper. Because there were, like, ten supermarket chains in L.A., and they each took six pages, so it was like 60 pages of ads each week. Then there was a consolidation of supermarkets so there were fewer of them, and then they started direct mail, and it was a huge hit when that revenue went away. And suddenly they wondered, Well, what do we need a food section for? And what they discovered is that they needed a food section because people liked their food sections. But now there are so many other places to get food information that that notion of the food section is fading, too.