Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse — a woman and her restaurant are synonymous with North America’s most important food revolution. Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Clarkson Potter, 2017) is Alice’s memoir that shows how her upbringing, relationships, and travels shaped her into the chef and freethinker that inspired her to open a restaurant that shifted how food was viewed in the industry. The book is structured with the majority of the narrative following a chronological account of Alice’s early life, with more recent interrelated anecdotes from Chez Panisse interspersed throughout. The book covers her formative years in a swath of events with antiwar activists, political orators, hippie artists, free speech advocates, and international film directors, culminating in the opening night of Chez Panisse when she was 27.
Growing up in the 1960s, the hippie vibe at Berkley helped define her just as much as her parents who taught her “morality, empathy, frugality, love of nature … all values adopted by the counterculture — because, sadly, they had been forgotten by the culture at large.” Her parents did not introduce her to the style of improvisational cooking with what is in season that Chez Panisse is famous for; family meals were vintage 1950s fare, with meat loaf and casseroles, along with periodic frozen treats from the Good Humour truck that drove down her street. During World War II, households were encouraged to grow gardens for the war effort and swap vegetables with neighbours to be more economical; her parents continued growing their victory garden well after wartime, which fostered Alice’s interest in fresh produce. She writes: “Some of the fundamental taste memories of my life are from the corn and tomatoes from that garden.” Her parents had been attentive to their own garden, and later that became instrumental in their daughter’s restaurant. As Chez Panisse was defining how it procured its food, their research of organic farms in southern California helped secure Bob Cannard as the source who has been supplying organic produce to the restaurant for 30 years.
On her first trip to Paris, Alice developed a level of sophistication when selecting a restaurant, choosing what to eat based on the menus posted out front. She writes, “I’d never eaten like that before, and to eat with that kind of discernment made it so much more delicious.” She fell so in love with French food that when she got back to the United States, the only way she could enjoy those flavors again was to learn how to make them herself. She was not conscious of being a cook yet, but she forced herself into it out of necessity to please her taste buds. Picking the right food was a strategy she learned in France but “the supermarkets of the mid- to late-1960s were all about frozen foods and canned goods — the exact opposite of the French markets, and I figured out pretty swiftly that they were to be avoided.” Freshness was important to her. She had learned to love salad in France and takes credit for bringing good salad to America, which essentially started with the mesclun mix she grew in her backyard in California with seeds from Nice. Alice tells a great story in Coming to my Senses about being the only woman representing the top twenty-five restaurants in the United States (Chez Panisse was seventh on the list) with each restaurant making extravagant dishes at an exclusive New York fete. Alice presented a simple salad that was the talk of the town the next day.
Attention to detail in menu design was also important to Alice because, “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. It has a presence and reflects on what they’re about to eat.” Her approach to staffing the restaurant was a bit unorthodox, not necessarily looking at skills first. “It was not about a job description,” she writes, “it was about looking for interesting people who could breathe life into the restaurant.”
Alice never had formal training as a chef, but she learned from friends who knew what to do in the kitchen, as she relentlessly pursued flavour above all else. As she writes, “Eating is an everyday experience, and the decisions we make about what we eat have daily consequences. And those daily consequences can change the world.” Chez Panisse introduced a new paradigm in food philosophy and the world was changed when Alice opened her restaurant.