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The Making of a Counterculture Cook

An excerpt from Alice Waters’s new book, ‘Coming to My Senses

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One of the key figures in the food world today, Alice Waters wears many hats: restaurateur, chef, activist, author, and visionary, to name a few. In her new book, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, Waters gets personal, and details the road that led her to open her seminal Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.

“People want to know how I came to open a restaurant at 27 years old,” she writes in the book’s preface. “I never went to culinary school, I never cooked professionally. Why a restaurant? Why this kind of restaurant? How did I have the courage to open it?” Waters says she hadn’t ever really looked back — that she’s not “a reflective person by nature.” Coming to My Senses is that contemplation.

After college in the mid-1960s, with the war in Vietnam raging, a series of chance encounters led to her political awakening. Through it all — relationships, bitter feuds, drugs, and sex — politics was a constant in Waters’ particular coming of age story, a guiding light even when things seemed bleak, and became the raison d'etre for Chez Panisse.

Waters has both been the critic and taken the criticism, but through it all she has remained true to her singular vision. Here now, an excerpt, edited and condensed, from chapter seven of Coming to My Senses. —Daniela Galarza

When I got back from France, I moved into an old Victorian house on Dwight Way. I felt like the most sophisticated person. I just thought I knew everything. I wanted to live like the French. As luck would have it, a Frenchman, Pierre Furlan, lived downstairs from me in the basement apartment, and he would pop into our lives every so often.

Sometimes when we were experimenting with French recipes, Pierre Furlan would call upstairs, ask what we were having for dinner, come up, and cook. He knew how to cook and would make corrections and additions or give bits of advice if we were going off the rails. At the time, I was making a lot of buckwheat crêpes and watching plenty of Julia Child. She was speaking my language. She was very funny and grounded — she’d drop the chicken on the floor, pick it up, and keep right on going — and I wanted to master the art of French cooking, exactly that. I did buy her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but it was more or less incomprehensible to me; it had no pictures, long and detailed recipes, and lots of writing about precision. It was daunting. But luckily there was the TV show — I loved her manner, and she was a Francophile just like I was.

I’ve always said that Julia Child’s show allowed Chez Panisse to flourish. And that’s the truth — if Julia hadn’t prepared people for French cooking, our little French restaurant never would have worked. I got to know her years later, and after the restaurant had been open for a decade or so, I filmed an episode with Julia for one of her shows. We were a funny pair: Julia was over six feet tall and I am five foot two, so she towered over me. I was clearly not preparing food the way a chef was supposed to — and she knew it. I was pitting olives with my fingers, and she’d say, in that fluting voice of hers, “Oh! Is that how you pit an olive, Alice? How fascinating!”

In 1966, I started working for Bob Scheer’s campaign for Congress. Bob would become terribly important in my life. He was a radical journalist for Ramparts and had written a white paper for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara called How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam. I read that paper, a brilliant exposé that outlined the shocking facts about how we had become embroiled there. He opened our eyes to the tragedy of what was happening in Vietnam. The paper became a manifesto for the antiwar movement, being passed around from person to person on campus—a natural extension of the Free Speech Movement.

Scheer was running for Congress as one of the first anti–Vietnam War candidates, and he came to UC Berkeley to give a speech shortly after the paper was written. I felt like he was one of the few people out there in politics who was actually telling the truth. When I heard Bob Scheer speak, that was it: I wanted to work for him. He galvanized people with his words. I told him as much after his talk, and he said, “Well, come on board. You can drive me from place to place.”

Alice Waters
Alice Waters at work in the kitchen of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California, 1982.
Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images

Sometime that year, my friends and I marched to Berkeley’s Herrick Hospital; Sara had announced, “We need to go down there and get the Pill.” I was a little embarrassed and probably wouldn’t have gone if Sara and Eleanor hadn’t been with me. We went to the clinic, had our exams, got our prescriptions, and that was that. In some ways, the 1950s and early ’60s were a horrible time to be a woman.

It was a huge, strange, transitional moment; not five years earlier I had been terrified I might be pregnant, terrified I had ruined my life, barely understanding how the whole process worked. In that way, the Pill changed my life. You didn’t worry about pregnancy ever again — you worried about other things, but not about that. After the Pill, I felt less guilty about having sex; you could meet somebody you liked, and one way to find out whether you wanted to get to know him better was to sleep with him. We joked that it was just like that Rodgers and Hammerstein song “Getting to Know You.” Suddenly, we were all free and easy. After the Pill, this was completely normal — the Pill liberated us, it equalized men and women, and it kept us safe. It was not my mother’s world anymore.

I found my way to David Goines’s print shop in June of 1966 because we were having Bob Scheer’s leaflets printed there — I was the “press liaison,” and I came by every afternoon at 4 p.m. to pick them up.

Meeting David opened my mind to print and showed me a new way of looking at the world. I’d walk through Berkeley noticing typefaces everywhere. How books are printed, how signs are made, and how letters are etched makes what is being read that much more valuable.

Letterpress printing and graphic design have been woven through Chez Panisse in a big, big way. It’s a visual cue, a way of preparing the room to bring people fully into the experience. When something is well printed and well designed, even a menu, people take it more seriously.

In 1967, my older sister Ellen, her husband, Bob Pisor, and their 2-year-old son, David, my little nephew, were all on their way to Vietnam; they came through Los Angeles, and I went down to visit them at my parents’ house. Bob was a journalist for the Detroit News and was being sent to Vietnam to report, so the whole, young family was going to be stationed in Saigon for a while. Ellen had married Bob as soon as she graduated from college, as I had assumed would happen to me. Bob had a great voice — both for singing and for reporting.

Alice Waters
Alice Waters.
Photo courtesy of Clarkson Potter

On that trip to Los Angeles, we were all hanging out together, and Ellen was making a beef Stroganoff with cream sauce and canned mushrooms. I berated her for not using fresh mushrooms. Ellen explained that there were no fresh mushrooms in the Midwest in winter, but I made her go to the market with me to buy fresh ones. And it was an entirely different — and better — dish; Ellen admitted it.

Technically, I was still in school, but I was consumed by Vietnam and Bob Scheer’s campaign for Congress. As Bob’s assistant, I drove him to the houses or meeting halls where he spoke; I’d stand at the back of the room and listen to him. I’m pretty sure all this was volunteer work — no pay involved. At a house in North Berkeley, an old Arts and Crafts home up in the hills, people crowded in to hear him speak about the Vietnam War — he could always electrify a room.

How amazing is it when you’re in sync with someone, and they’re saying everything you want to say but better! Bob Scheer was so brilliant, so articulate — I totally believed him. I knocked on every door in West Oakland with complete guts, giving out “Scheer for Congress” leaflets and buttons. West Oakland had turned into a very poor area after World War II, inhabited by the African American community who had come up from the South to work in the shipyards. I was sure everyone would understand why Bob Scheer should win — I had total confidence in him. And the outcome was very, very close. He won over 45 percent of the vote and even carried Berkeley. But he lost the election. I was profoundly depressed. I still am. I remember abandoning all my faith in the democratic process after that — I didn’t believe change could happen anymore. I mean, I really lost hope.

Excerpted from COMING TO MY SENSES: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. Copyright © 2017 AliceWaters. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


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