Radical Chef

updated 11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 01:00AM

THE VEGETABLE BINS AT THE BERKELEY farmers' market are overflowing with autumn's bounty, and Alice Waters wants it all. Quickly the diminutive restaurateur grabs a fistful of beans, a sack of persimmons, a pail of fresh strawberries, some of those little green apples (never mind the wormholes) and two bunches of tiny, dedicate carrots (organic, of course)—carefully stowing the lot in two giant straw baskets.

"My problem," confesses Waters, 48, finally lugging off her catch of the day, "is buying so much I can't carry it. I go crazy here. My husband, Stephen, hates to come, because I go into a buying frenzy."

Meanwhile the frenzy about Waters herself—who seems to shop and cook with equal élan—continues unabated. In May, Waters was named Chef of the Year at the annual James Beard Awards in New York City, and her Berkeley, Calif., eatery, Chez Panisse—the hub of haute California cuisine since its inception in 1971—was acclaimed Restaurant of the Year. Indeed the former Montessori schoolteacher, who lapses into raptures over a head of kale, has become one of the seminal figures of the contemporary American kitchen. And all because of her simple bill pioneering credo: Use only absolutely fresh, simply prepared, locally grown vegetables and meats.

"I want to get people into the farmers' market," says Waters, "to taste and to touch and have their senses opened to real food, to support the people Who are taking care of the land so we'll have a pure source of food in the future.

"Actually," she continues with a smile, "until recently, people had been eating like this for centuries. All I've been trying to do is find something that was fresh and serve it simply. But we'd gotten so far away from that idea that it seemed unusual. It seemed special."

A native of Chatham, N.J., Waters learned little about cooking in her own family kitchen. Her mother, she says, prepared "unadventurous food, meat-and-potatoes stuff from the '50s." But Charles and Margaret Waters—he a management consultant, she a housewife—kept a victory garden and assorted fruit trees in the backyard, so there was always fresh, homegrown food. And Margaret did school her daughter in nutrition.

"My mom was interested in health—to an extreme," says Waters. "She served brown bread, and I always wanted white bread like my friends. And she wouldn't allow sweets around the house, which made me unhappy as a kid. But she ultimately had an influence on my life. I came back to her values."

Waters needed the '60s to put those values in a social context. A student at the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in French cultural studies, Waters says she was "swept away by the peace movement." Graduating in 1967, she trained at the Montessori School in London.

"I was trying to decide what direction to go in," she says, "and I liked the Montessori philosophy—all that stuff about opening the senses, sharpening the child's awareness of taste and sound and smell, which is how we get inspiration."

The following year, while traveling in France, Waters experienced her own epiphany. It came during a meal at a little stone restaurant in Brittany featuring trout caught in a nearby stream and freshly picked raspberries. At the end, when the diners applauded, Waters knew she had discovered her calling. "I tasted things I couldn't believe," she says. "I just absorbed everything."

Back in the States, Waters took a teaching position at a Montessori school in Berkeley. Then, in 1971, without any formal training—she had spent a year cooking for activist friends—she borrowed $10,000 and opened Chez Panisse in a small, vine-covered wooden building.

"You had the impression in Berkeley," she says, "that you could do anything you wanted. I always thought my friends would come and eat here, but I never imagined the restaurant would be as successful as it was. I never imagined it would be important as an idea."

Chez Panisse has survived for 21 years in an industry that is so volatile more than half of San Francisco's restaurants go broke within the first two years. Yet Waters's insistence on quality carries a high price tag. The prix fixe meal that once cost $3.95 now costs from $45 to $65 (meals at the Cafe upstairs are cheaper, with entrees in the $12-$15 range).

"It bothers me that Chez Panisse is so expensive," says Waters, frowning. "It's really not, for what we're trying to do. But it is, in terms of what's affordable now. Chez Panisse speaks to the upper-middle class. I'd love to do something that could both speak to children and compete with the last-food restaurants."

Actually, Waters does have a project that speaks to children—her new cookbook, Funny at Chez Panisse (HarperCollins), with husband, painter and fellow restaurateur Stephen Singer, 37, which is inspired by her 9-year-old daughter. Written in the voice of a young girl, the text evokes Fanny's memories of growing up amid an extended restaurant family.

This past summer, Alice took Stephen and Fanny on what was meant to be a sentimental journey back to France. Alter two months, she came home heartsick over the state of French cooking. "We never ate in restaurants," says Alice, "because they aren't any good anymore. They do all the shortcuts. They pour on those |farming] chemicals like there's no tomorrow. And you have to really search for a tasty baguette."

Has the moment arrived for a shift in the balance of cuisines? ' "We need an American chef in the White House," says Waters, noting that most have been French. "I'd like to find someone who can represent food as a way to change society."

The sentiment is quintessential Waters: pushing for change—and making it very, very palatable.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ in San Francisco

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