But Chez Panisse hasn’t arrived at a place of stale routine yet after nearly 50 years. In that sense it has been and remains a testing ground for the farm-to-table movement. Waters is delighted, she says, when she sees so many other restaurants working with farmers and changing menus seasonally, if not daily, just like Chez Panisse.
“I was just in New York and—again, it’s about that moment in time that you’re eating that asparagus and maybe you had other vegetables prepared in that same manner, but right now it’s about asparagus and you just feel so connected to nature and where you are in time and place,” she says.
Setting the Scene
Time and place are integral to the restaurant template Waters has created. What’s more—texture, smell, sound. All of these, and the connection to nature, seem to stem from the training Waters received as a Montessori teacher. Maria Montessori, who originated the immersive teaching style, believed children learn through their senses. Waters believes restaurants should be sensory experiences, too.
“I always wanted the restaurant to smell good—I would burn rosemary to reach people in that subconscious way. I wanted the restaurant to be beautiful. I wanted flowers to be of the moment. I wanted it to have candlelight. I thought about all those aspects,” Waters says. “I wanted people to be in a full sensorial experience.”
The experience reaches from the dining room into the kitchen, where Waters has always encouraged guests to explore. The open kitchen is on display for view, and she often invites guests in for a chat and to show them how their meal has been prepared.
“I love sitting in the kitchen because it always feels like a ballet to me,” she says of the restaurant’s fluidity. “When someone needs help, the others just come in so graciously to help put a plate together. Whatever it is, if they need help upstairs, one of the people might go up and help on the line. They’re not tied to their position in a way that other restaurants work. And I think that is inspiring for the people that work there.”
The Delicious Revolution
The kitchen is another place where Waters’ revolution has taken place. In a restaurant that innovates throughout, labor practices have not been missed. Chefs at Chez Panisse work three days and are paid for five. No one burns out, and many perspectives are welcomed before decisions are made.
“There isn’t just her way of doing it; there’s his way; there’s that person’s. It’s like colleagues who are really communicating with each other about the way something could or should be done, and I’m part of that conversation, too, so we’re having six chefs instead of three and I’m always helping to pass information from upstairs to downstairs,” Waters says. “Now we have a system where we always have one person from the café who works for a period of time in the downstairs kitchen so those ideas are moving around and again, keeping the restaurant alive.”
Aliveness is at the core of the revolution Waters leads. She says when she first tasted wild strawberries in France, she was awakened—she came alive. It’s that transformative moment that delicious food can facilitate, and it’s what she seeks to spark in everyone with the hope that it will drive them to make more sustainable food choices both at home and in business.
When Waters became a mother 35 years ago, she says, the reality of the food system’s challenges became apparent to her. Everything seemed connected.
“We couldn’t be an island unto ourselves in Berkeley,” she says. “What was happening upstream was going to come downstream—what was going to happen in [my daughter’s] lifetime.”
Back to the Start
It was then that Waters began working on her educational projects, Edible Schoolyard and the Chez Panisse Foundation. The Edible Schoolyard program brings gardens to schools. In that way it replicates what Waters calls restaurant-supported agriculture—a riff on community-supported agriculture that Chez Panisse embodies—in the education system.
The gardens provide the school with food for the cafeterias and to fuel cooking classes. She calls it school-supported agriculture. It cuts out the middleman, she says. Through this program, she brings that awakening she experienced in France to Americans at a very young age. If Chez Panisse was the future of restaurants when she started it in 1971, Waters says she has to believe that the Edible Schoolyard is the future of the food system from here.
“I have to believe this is the future,” she says. “I think we can start in kindergarten. If they grow it and they cook it and they eat it, it doesn’t matter what it is. They’re opening their senses and learning about food and nature.”