Page One

Waters talk features seasonal fruit, other savory topics

By Ian M. Stewart, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday June 01, 2002

xYou may expect that a new book called “Chez Panisse Fruit” by Alice Waters, the world-famous chef and owner of Berkeley's own Chez Panisse restaurant, is all about fruit. Well, you'd be half-right. Waters will be the first to tell you that it's really about “how to think about food put in the context of fruit.” 

Waters, who spoke about her new book at Cody's Books on Fourth Street on May 29, said that her book is more about how to get connected with food and the people who grow it. 

“I support the people at the farmer's markets — I go rain or shine,” she said. “Their produce and fruit makes what the restaurant is today. It's a great feeling to have this support, care and community with them.” 

“Chez Panisse Fruit,” which is Waters' eighth book and was written in conjunction with the cooks from the restaurant, has more than 300 pages featuring more than 200 recipes. Those recipes cover the gamut on every imaginable dish, from waffles to salads and from stews to pork loin, all with fruit as the centerpiece. But one of the main accents are the desserts, which range from tarts and jams to crisps and ice cream — including a recipe for huckleberry ice cream. Different fruits break down the sections. With each new fruit comes a note about when it's in season along with an essay about the origins of that particular fruit, how to select it store and of course prepare it. 

“Eighty-five percent of cooking is finding the right ingredient,” said Waters to crowd of more than 50 people. “The focus has to be on the farmer and that farmer is taking care of the fruit and produce.” 

Waters, who said she deals with about 75 producers of fruit and vegetables year round, said that the book could be a great companion on trips to local farmer's markets. She said that all of the fruit on the menu at Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971, is only fruit that's in season. Currently, it's strawberry season she said, so if you go to a local farmer's market or into Chez Panisse, those are going to be the main ingredients that you see. 

“Our restaurant is not run in the usual way-in the pyramid way with the cook on top looking down,” she said. “We're more like an improvisational music group. We follow the person's lead who is most enthusiastic. They decide what to cook based on what was brought in that day.” 

Food changes as soon as it's picked, said Waters, who also said that she and her chefs travel to a local farmer in Sonoma five days a week to get fresh fruits and vegetables, many times bringing the compost from the restaurant to give back to the farmer. It's understanding what the fruit looks like and tastes like, along with the ability to make changes on the fly that make great dishes. 

A graduate from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in French cultural studies, Waters said that when she travels and goes to restaurants, she always wants to eat what's grown locally. 

“But it's very difficult to do this because of global trade,” she said. “We must insist on getting fresh, local produce.” 

A good tip to try and figure out what's in season when eating out, is to go to the marketplace and see what's in season there, then go the restaurant and ask for that. 

“It's all about supporting the people who grow and giving money directly to the people involved with growing. It's about making choices like this which is going to change the world,” she said. 

During a question and answer period at the end of her discussion, Waters also gave insight on her views about her philosophy of being committed to organic, locally grown food and how that could be taught in schools. 

“We need to educate through the public school system, around the school lunch program,” she said. “We need to teach students how to feed themselves and about where food comes from. It's about getting kids involved in the process of picking the fruit and vegetables.” 

Waters, who started the Chez Panisse Foundation to underwrite culture and education programs, currently helps children maintain a garden at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. One of her other suggestions involves getting the whole school involved in food, from having the biology teacher hold a lab in the garden, to English teachers getting students to write recipes from certain historical periods or try to make food in relation to what they're studying. 

In addition to her discussion, a showcase of local artist Patricia Curtan, whose lithographs and illustrations are featured in the book, were on display. According to literature from Cody's Books, Curtan has a long association with Chez Panisse as a printer, designer, former cook, and is a cookbook co-author and designer. Her collection can be viewed at the location on Fourth Street from May 15 through June 2.