Berkeley's grande dame of local eating, sustainability and Cal-Med cuisine, Alice Waters, has as of today released her first memoir, titled Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. The book covers her slightly wild teenage years, complete with pregnancy scares, getting kicked out of a sorority on "morals" grounds, backpacking through Europe in the 1960s, her first (and only) acid trip, and her fateful move to Berkeley in 1964, where seven years later she would open her "little French restaurant" Chez Panisse. It would be another decade or so before Chez Panisse would enter the national conversation and become known as one of the touchstones of "California Cuisine." And Waters's story since that rise to fame is a familiar one complete with letters to our last two Democratic presidents urging them to plant organic gardens at the White House, honors from President Obama, Time Magazine, and countless others, and grand public gestures like her recent open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about doing something more sustainable with the Whole Foods model.
But fans have longed for the intimately personal story she gets to tell now, at age 73, since for many years Waters's story has been told by others and they were mostly men. One-time employee and collaborator Jeremiah Tower, for instance, published a widely read (in the food world) memoir called California Dish in 2003 in which he largely took credit for Chez Panisse's fame and the early innovations in simplicity in the kitchen. He has for years tried to discredit the renown of his old friend Alice by suggesting that she was always more restaurateur than chef, and in his time at the restaurant he says she only ever set foot in the kitchen for some lunch shifts. (Tower subsequently put out a revised edition of the book with a new introduction, the immodestly titled Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution In America, which came out in April of this year.)
"I feel reassured about the content because it is what I experienced,” Waters said in a recent interview with the New York Times. “I couldn’t not be honest."
To that end, Waters recently told Berkeleyside, "I’ve never thought of myself as a chef-chef. I’ve never thought of myself as a really good cook. I’m a taster. I’m engaged. I’m a co-producer with the farmer." But, she sort of corrected herself, "Yes, I’m a chef because I can run a kitchen. But it’s always been a cooperation, [and] we, hopefully, create something that’s better than the sum of the parts."
"No question I’m an activist," she added, noting that by writing the book she "hoped to empower the counterculture of this country."
The book is filled with photographs and recipes as well as stories about her and her restaurant's history. But there have been plenty of lovers to recount as well, including a relationship that just ended a few years ago.
She admitted in that NYT interview, “Younger men are my Achilles’ heel,” and the memoir brings to light some of those stories too.
She's dedicated the book to the Free Speech movement, and, appropriately, she will be making an appearance Thursday night on the UC Berkeley campus at the Free Speech Movement Cafe, in Moffitt Library at 6 p.m. (seating is limited and it's first-come, first-served.)
Related: What's In Alice Waters's Fridge?