Food lovers in Chicago got a treat recently thanks to the Chicago Humanities Festival — an evening with two women who have shaped America’s food culture for more than 40 years. Appearing together at the Art Institute of Chicago, Ruth Reichl — a food writer, critic and chef — and Alice Waters — chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. — discussed the state of food and the ongoing impact of the farm-to-table phenomenon.
Reichl and Waters met in the 1970s when few were concerned about the origins or healthfulness of kitchen ingredients. Embracing the farm-to-table concept, Waters opened the now-iconic Chez Panisse, providing diners with the freshest ingredients possible. Waters’ philosophy helped pave the way for countless chefs who have followed in her footsteps, and she continues that leadership through various projects and programs focused on food.
Here are a few highlights from their conversation:
Waters’ loftiest goal is a doozy — free, healthy school lunches for children across America. In the late ‘90s, Waters started a partnership with a Berkeley school whereby the students would grow food in the gardens and then learn to cook, all as part of a regular school day. The concept developed into the Edible Schoolyard Project, which is now a vast network of farm-to-table programs in schools around the world.
Although Waters still runs Chez Panisse, her plate is full of other endeavors. Most recently, she was in Rome, partnering with the American Academy on the Rome Sustainable Food Project.
Waters has always been, and remains, a huge advocate of responsible farming. She makes it a point to get to know the farmers she purchases from, and will only buy from farmers who take care of their land. Although Waters buys ingredients en masse for Chez Panisse, she encourages home cooks to take more pride in their ingredients by buying at local farmers markets.
Today, Chez Panisse is a four-star restaurant where the prix-fixe menu will run you anywhere from $65 to $100 per person, depending on the night. In the 1970s, a meal only cost $3.75.
If Waters could have one person dine at Chez Panisse, it would be President Obama.