the grub street diet

Alice Waters Knows California Doesn’t Have It All

“The tomatoes are good here but not like Jersey.”

Alice Waters amid the seasonal fruits. Illustration: Margalit Cutler
Alice Waters amid the seasonal fruits. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

Alice Waters’s influence is felt any time chefs talk about seasonal produce, in the proliferation of farmers markets, and whenever people say “California cuisine.” Fifty years after opening her iconic Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, she’s still as excited about peach season as ever. (And she’s now ready to open another restaurant, this one in Los Angeles.) Although the restaurant is currently closed for dine-in service (and she’s not going to the farmers market as often as usual), she hasn’t lost her interest in eating out. “It’s very important that I eat food from other restaurants because I’m trying to learn from my friends,” she says. On Monday, Waters published her latest book, We Are What We Eat, in which she advocates for a slow-food philosophy centered on biodiversity and seasonality. (Along with her restaurant, Waters also founded the Edible Schoolyard Project and is a vice-president of the Slow Food Foundation.) At home in Berkeley, she ate some of her favorite things, including pasta with pesto and prosciutto on pizza bianca, her sandwich bread of choice.

Monday, May 24
I made myself a fried egg in olive oil and toasted the Edible Schoolyard bread for breakfast.

I have to say, I begin every morning with pu-erh tea, which I started drinking about ten years ago when I had very high blood pressure. I asked everybody I knew, “What would you recommend?,” because I’m not going to take any medicine. And the two things everybody said, in general, were to eat whole grains and to drink this Chinese fermented tea, so I changed those two things in my diet and not very much else. I still ate prosciutto, and I didn’t go completely to fish, but I did start eating whole grains, pasta, and bread. Before that point, I just thought some pastas need white-flour noodles — you know, like pasta Alfredo — and then I realized there are so many new, artisanal products that are organic and made out of farro and corn and chickpeas. I was really unaware at the time that so much progress had been made and then, of course, we started integrating them into the restaurant. I’m always thinking about that, and I have to say, it’s a rare day when I don’t eat whole-grain bread or pasta.

For lunch, I had a rocket salad with fennel and some blueberries after that. When it comes to fruit, blueberries aren’t up there for me, but there are some wonderful ones this year. I remember the little tiny blueberries from my childhood on the east coast. I know they’re good for me, but I’m not crazy about them. We’re right in the time for apricots, blueberries, and the beginning of strawberries. So these things are in my diet almost every day, and when they are over, they’re over for a year. I don’t see them, and I don’t even long for them. I’m already looking forward to mulberries and to cherry tomatoes, which we haven’t had yet. The weather is very strange right now. We’re still in spring, in an asparagus place.

What makes me eat what I eat? It’s always a question of what can I have that is absolutely seasonal and regenerative organic and ripe. Really ripe. I’m also always thinking about the balance of the day. What I’m likely to have for dinner really dictates what I might have for lunch and for breakfast. So if I know I’m getting a meal from Chez Panisse that I need to taste, I just sort of scale back and look at that menu. If it doesn’t have a clear salad on it, I want a salad for lunch.

For dinner, I had more salad and dal that they made at Chez Panisse with red lentils, onion, green garlic, tomato, and Indian spices. I find dal completely satisfying in every way. Just a little bit of a drizzle of cumin and hot oil, you know. It’s a beautiful thing to have. The dal is probably the most beloved soup from the restaurant. Especially the way it’s spiced. The drizzled cumin, all of those things, must be in our genes someplace.

During the shutdown, the one thing I felt like I needed to do — maybe for my sanity, too — was to know exactly what was being made at the restaurant. My dinners have been very much made at Chez Panisse, and I am doing that tasting on a regular basis.

I’ve always cooked with my friends on Sunday night, and I try to still do that because they’d go to the farmer’s market or I would. I haven’t been going to the market for a long time, which makes me extremely sad, although we have a little farmers market behind Chez Panisse, and I can get things there. It was a lot easier when my daughter was staying here with me for six months because we loved to cook together. She would make a pot of beans, and I’d cook some greens. That became a kind of ritual of the week.

Tuesday, May 25
Tuesday was my tortilla day. With greens and beans. Heat it up, some hot pepper. That’s it.

After I started eating more whole grains, I started really eating organic corn tortillas, and once I started doing that, I realized I could put together a breakfast very quickly with whatever might be left from the previous night’s dinner. Even a little bit of salad vinaigrette or chicken or beans or whatever. I would make a little taco right there on the stove, and I had breakfast in a couple of minutes.

I didn’t eat a whole lot else. I had pasta pesto for dinner, always with a salad. I went and picked my purple lettuces from my victory garden out front, and I had some fruit. It must’ve been a mixture of apricots and strawberries.

With my pesto, I’m partial to linguine, because it’s from Liguria. I’ve been having it with the fresh elbow noodles we’ve been making at Chez, too.

Pesto is my favorite thing. That is something I actually make. I love to eat it, but I love to make it. It’s the pounding and the aroma. That’s the best. Aroma is a big deal for me. A big, big deal. I just think aroma is very, very important when eating. If Chez doesn’t have a great aroma, I’m always burning rosemary or lighting some kind of fire.

Wednesday, May 26
This was my granola day. I get it at this little place, Bartavelle Cafe, where they make it with lots of seeds. I’m not a yogurt-and-granola person in general, but I found somebody who makes a great organic yogurt. And because the fruit is so lovely now, I said, This isn’t bad at all. This is kind of good. I’ve always thought maybe yogurt-and-granola is a little health-foody, like an obligation. But the other day, I just thought I would vary from what is normally an everyday thing for me, which is to eat a tortilla with greens in it.

For lunch, I had a prosciutto-and-rocket sandwich from the restaurant. I really love it because they put aïoli on it, and they make it on a pizza bianca, which is a bread that’s crusty on the outside but when you cut it, it’s only a half-inch at most. I love sandwiches that are three-quarters, maybe even nine-tenths, the filling. This one is just full of the rocket, the prosciutto, sometimes fennel, and aïoli, and I love that.

I always want a thin-crust bread for my sandwiches. I asked Steve Sullivan from Acme Bread if he could experiment making a pizza bianca from whole grains, and he said he’d try. He and I, by the way, have had the best rapport during the pandemic. He will make a loaf of bread and leave it on my front porch. Then I’ll leave him a bottle of wine or a love letter. It’s just so nice to have that connection. We used to be very, very close, from the time he was a busser at Chez Panisse almost 50 years ago.

He has always had bread for Chez, and during the pandemic he’s had a line out the door because people just want to smell the bread. Even though Acme makes a lot of bread and they have two other locations, they have kept this small store that’s right near Kermit Lynch’s wineshop. It feels like the real thing, and I think Steve knows how important that is.

Dinner was the Chez vegetable couscous. It’s one of my favorite things from the restaurant.

Thursday, May 27
It’s the end of avocados for me now — it’s a season in California. When you’re spoiled like I am, you have the ones from right here, but you can get organic ones from Mexico after this moment, too. This is the time when I can really appreciate them, but I can see that they’re over.

I got a whole-wheat pita bread from an organic bakery in Oakland, and I just put it on the fire. I made a little avocado salad that I put on top. That was breakfast.

For lunch, I got some food from my friends who own a place around the corner called Fava. They make spiced yogurt, so I had that, and the best hummus, which we dip all these vegetables into.

Dinner was local salmon, and I could eat it every single day. I had that with boiled new potatoes.

At Chez Panisse, we only have salmon in the spring because we understand that when we get it out of season from some other place — even when it’s pretty pure, up in Alaska — it doesn’t taste like spring salmon. I cooked the salmon on a fig leaf. (I have a fig tree in my big yard. It has no figs! But it’s got leaves.) I did that in a cast-iron pan. I want to keep an eye on how it’s cooked. I can open the leaf, turn it over, brown it. It’s perfect.

I do a lot in cast-iron pans. That’s why I have little ones, medium-size ones, and big ones. I want to be able to really cook the salmon perfectly. I can do it on the grill, and I very often have been comforted by a fire, making the fire and cooking on it. It just makes me feel in time and place and the aroma and all of that. I also had strawberry compote that I made by slicing up the strawberries with orange juice. It’s so good. It’s something I used to make for my daughter, Fanny, for lunch; she’d take it with her to school. It kept them all moist and nice, and she could drink the juice after she ate the strawberries.

Friday, May 28
Just because I knew I was going to tell you that I did, I had an egg that I cooked in my egg spoon over the fire on my kitchen stove. (My daughter’s been selling them.) That is something I love to do. It’s a real fried egg. It’s very easy to do, and it’s so great because the egg puffs up. It’s so beautiful to do a three-minute egg with one of those blue-colored Araucana chicken eggs, and to cut the toast into little fingers for dipping.

I know I had carrot soup, because it came from the restaurant, and a salad for sure.

What I ate for dinner also came from the restaurant: I had grilled quail, which I heated up. That was divine. I had it with peas, favas, spinach, and a potato gratin. I had a little salsa verde with that. Dessert was a panna cotta with blueberries that were cooked down into a sauce. That’s why I had a very simple lunch.

Now that summer is almost here, are there things I’m looking forward to eating? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Tomatoes, for sure. Outside of tomato season, I don’t really eat any tomatoes at all — except when I use an organic canned tomato in pasta during the winter — so when they come, I eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can’t get enough. That said, I grew up in New Jersey. I don’t want to eat second-rate food; I want to eat the real thing. When I think about corn and tomatoes in New Jersey, nothing I’ve ever had in California is better. We don’t have a climate that’s humid enough. The tomatoes are good here but not like Jersey.

I’m looking forward to other summer fruits. We get the best peaches ever, and last year I kind of missed them because of the pandemic. This year I’m going to drive out to David Mas Masumoto’s or Frog Hollow, and I’m going to get them myself. They’re something rare. They have no shelf life. They have to be picked ripe, and they’re glorious. I think of myself as kind of a peach specialist.

I’m also looking for my Bronx grapes, which are the best purple seedless grapes ever. They only have a short life too, toward the end of September.

We always have a garlic festival in July, and I cannot wait because the garlic at that moment in time has just the most glorious strong, but not too strong, flavor. From that point on in harvest, the garlic needs to dry, and it changes. It becomes stronger and gets the little green sprout in it. By Christmas, you’re waiting for the spring garlic again. Garlic is one of those spices, vegetables, I can’t live without. It’s kind of like my best friend. You see it when it’s getting older; you see it when it’s newborn. The varieties and colors are fascinating and so beautiful, the purples ones in particular.

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