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Alice Waters


n the four decades since Alice Waters opened her now-iconic restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, she has helped expand American palettes and minds and led "a delicious revolution" that's brought sustainably produced, local food to dinner tables, restaurant menus and schools around the country. She has inspired people to plant gardens and kids to enjoy their vegetables, and she's bolstered the fortunes of small farmers and food suppliers around the country.

Waters, who will be presented with an Honorary Alumni Award during an appearance April 27 as the keynote event of the All Gaucho Reunion, spent her freshman year at UC Santa Barbara. These days, she counts the folks at Fairview Gardens as good friends, marvels at the bounty of food nurtured by Santa Barbara's rare microclimate, and when she's in town she likes to stop in at La Super Rica, the Milpas Street taco stand also favored by another culinary icon and Santa Barbara resident, the late Julia Child. Back when Waters was a student at UC Santa Barbara and a member of the Alpha Phi sorority, though, she was yet to discover the joy of food, but indulged her intellectual curiosity by taking an assortment of courses — "always classes that had great teachers," she says. "I'd go into a class and if I liked the teacher I took the class."

In 1964, Waters and several of her Santa Barbara sorority sisters transferred to UC Berkeley, where they joined the Free Speech Movement and quickly felt at home in this new community. Waters then spent a year studying in France, and delighting in the pleasure the French take in great food — an ethos she's fostered at Chez Panisse, which opened its doors in 1971. "It's about enjoying yourself with friends and family," Waters says. "It's not dreaming up anything new. I'm just going back through the history of civilization and finding the threads that bind us together."

Waters believes it’s crucial to educate Americans about their food, about the land that supports it, and about the people who produce and harvest it — “farmers are precious; they're the caretakers," Waters says. “Farmers and teachers are heroes,” she adds. “One feeds the body and the other feeds the mind.”

She also wants to challenge the idea that cooking and gardening are drudgery — a belief that is more common in the United States, she says, than in countries with deeper roots in agriculture and gastronomy.

"We need to know how to take care of the land, and we need to know how to take care of ourselves,” Waters says.

To cultivate that awareness among schoolchildren, she created the Edible Schoolyard, a program that gets kids gardening, cooking and sharing food in an interactive edible education that's "a delicious and fun way to digest all these lessons," she says. "They're sitting eating a raspberry and learning about photosynthesis." From its roots in an acre of neglected land in a Berkeley school in 1996, the program has since spread to more than 2,000 locations around the world — including several in the Santa Barbara area. "When kids grow food and cook it, they want to eat it," Waters says.

Her School Lunch Initiative, launched a decade ago in Berkeley public schools, also aims to nourish kids' bodies and minds by replacing reconstituted and reheated lunches with nutritious and delicious food — "It's really immoral to feed children food that's not good for them," Waters says. "Food affects the way we relate to people in the world, the way we think about life, and our aspirations, and the way we digest education." In Waters’ opinion — and in many of the world’s poorest countries — providing fresh, healthy food free in schools is a no-brainer. "I think it benefits everybody,” she says. “It feeds the children, benefits farmers and green businesses, and it gives money back to the parents."

Waters has taken her culinary philosophy to college, too, helping establish the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University — where Waters' daughter Fanny studied. Colleges, Waters believes, "should support people who take care of the land and feed — really nourish — the population in the university. That will set the example for K-12.

"The bottom line is food," Waters says. "Let's begin there with what we have in common. We depend on the land for eating, we're taught beautiful lessons from nature and, once you fall in love with nature, you get it. You learn about diversity and you learn about everybody else on the planet and you learn how to feed them.”