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Learning Curves: Alice Waters

The restaurateur's education was served at the table, not at a desk.
By Alice Waters
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Alice Waters is the founder and co-owner of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, and has written eight cookbooks. She also formed the Chez Panisse Foundation, which promotes healthy school-lunch programs and runs Edible Schoolyard projects in Berkeley and New Orleans.

Sate your hunger for Alice Waters:


In 1965, when I took my junior year abroad in Paris, my plan was to study French culture, my major at the University of California at Berkeley. This was a sort of self-designed major, because I took a class only when I liked the teacher. I was a radical at the time. The free-speech movement at Berkeley was in full swing when I transferred there from UC Santa Barbara in fall 1964. I was front and center in the movement.

Then, twenty years old and full of ideals, I went to Paris, set to study French culture. Instead, I ate.

I'm a little ashamed to report that I hardly ever attended classes that year. I started my studies in the school cafeteria, where there were things I had never tasted before: wine, yogurt, warm baguettes with real butter, even kidneys with béarnaise sauce. With my French friends as guides, I studied food. The beauty of the French markets, the beauty of the French table, caught my attention. I ate fifty oysters right out of the sea in Brittany. I ate dandelion salad. I had an awakening. I was seduced by French food.

While I was eating, I was studying nature, botany. I learned the names of fruits and vegetables, the fish of the sea, the herbs. I studied the history of French gastronomy.

Spending time with the French, who took a critical approach to food as a matter of course, I discovered how some people saw good food as an indispensable part of their lives. Every day was punctuated by food-related decisions. It went without saying that you had to get to the bakery early so you could get fresh, hot bread. And, naturally, one spent an hour or so in the afternoon at the café with one's friends. Eating together was a ritual that filled life with meaning, a sacred moment of the day, when flavors and smells intermingled with ideas and feelings. But most revealing to me was the fact that you ate food only when it was in season, because that was when it tasted best and cost the least.

I had never thought about food so seriously before. I had never thought of pleasure so seriously before. I was beginning to understand that there is an intimate connection between food and the quality of one's life. I went back to Berkeley a different person.

Nutritious food was not new to me. My mother, Margaret, was a nutrition nut. When I was in elementary school in Chatham, New Jersey, in the 1950s, my three sisters and I walked home for lunch. My mother made us peanut-butter-and-banana or grilled cheese sandwiches -- on brown bread. We took vitamins. We never had a dessert unless it was a fruit cup. We had a vegetable garden in our backyard. I have always thought that the roots of my restaurant, Chez Panisse, were in that garden.

But in Paris it became clear that I had a passion for food. I wasn't sure then how to make a living from it. Then friends suggested I teach, and I ended up at the Berkeley Montessori School for a year. That got me excited about education.

I hadn't been very excited about education before. I still remember Mrs. Mead, my third-grade teacher in Chatham, because she taught us how to carve birds out of wood. I still have one of her carvings she gave me of a ruby-crested kinglet. She made education stand out.

But it wasn't until my senior year in high school, when my father was transferred to Los Angeles, that I saw education could lead somewhere other than down the aisle to marry someone I had met at school. One friend at Van Nuys High School, our class president, was sending books to Kenya as a project. I was fascinated with that project. It woke me up from the deep sleep I had been in since Mrs. Mead's third grade.

After a year at the Montessori school, I decided I wanted to get an international teaching certificate. In 1966, I went to London for a year. I did a lot of cooking, eating, and traveling. I went to Turkey, and to Greece. I came back with an even greater passion for food, but I went back to teaching for four more years. Then, in 1971, I opened Chez Panisse.

Chez Panisse wasn't about organic food at first. I was looking for taste. I wanted food that tasted like the food I'd had in France. I wanted that taste in Berkeley. In order to find it, I ended up at the doorsteps of organic farmers and producers whose fresh, pure food had the taste I was looking for.

Soon, Chez Panisse became a place where I could combine my love for food and my interest in teaching. There, we could connect pleasure and politics -- by delighting our customers, we could teach them about the politics of food. For the last three decades, I've made it my mission to educate people through food, to seduce them to experience the beauty and meaning in the world by eating, the way I learned to in France.

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Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Allison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In our teaching, how can we inspire and nurture these passions in students while still following our given curriculum? Alice Waters became the inspired genius she is by neglecting her classes to follow her passion. How could an educational institution support that without breaking rules? School should support passions and help students achieve their dreams, but so often it forces students to neglect their dreams simply to meet graduation requirements.

Valerie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher in a suburb of Los Angeles, gardening has become a key focus in my curriculum. With the help of my mother, a Master Gardener, and another naive teacher, a school garden was established in 1995. We won awards from the National Garden Association, and big support from parents. Unfortunately, due to an expanding preschool program, our garden was replaced by a playground. The last two years have been spent gardening in large pots outside the classroom. Easier to maintain, but not as enriching as seeing 20 raised beds come to life! The excitement felt by the children when the fruits and vegetables start to form is truly gratifying.

Hopefully we'll be able to find a suitable location to rebuild a true "school garden" soon.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Pam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I taught Kindergarten for 3 years and used our 5 senses, the calendar, the seasons and, yes, food -farm stand visits,cooking, recipes,color, etc. as the foundation for the curriculum. I have applied to teach in New Orleans and would appreciate hearing from anyone lucky enough to be involved in Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard ("Kindergarten")project.

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