Food should not be fast, cheap or easy, according to American chef and activist Alice Waters. "Usually cheap food is not nutritious," she told Al Jazeera's David Shuster. "You’re feeding people, but you’re not really feeding people something that is good for them."
For decades, the owner of the world-renowned Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., has been famous for pioneering organic ingredients. “I don’t want food that comes from animals that are caged up and fed antibiotics," she said. "I am really suspicious of that kind of production of meat and poultry."
She also believes that the government ought to provide and pay for school lunch programs across the country. Plus, if you have just five minutes to shop and 10 minutes to cook, Waters shares some ideas for what she would whip up.
David Shuster: You have said that food should cost more. Explain, what did you mean?
Alice Waters: Well I have been running a restaurant for 42 years, and I think that the success of the restaurant is completely dependent on the ingredients that we have. I discovered very early on that these farmers that were local and organic made the restaurant what it is. I wanted to give them the money directly. And so we don’t really have a middleman, we go right to the farmer.
Now, I know that works for Chez Panisse in California, but is it possible to replicate that on a larger scale?
I think it is. When you really cut out the middleman who's taking that cut, because the farmer needs to be paid enough so that he can send his children or her children to school and to college. It’s really hard when someone is asking the farmer to give a wholesale price and to really compete with cheap food that is being produced by the fast-food system. In countries around the world, people spend more money on food because they know how precious it is.
What about the argument that industrial farming and industrial food makes food less expensive and therefore more people can get it? You can deal with issues of malnutrition if you can get more people who are in poverty to afford the food they can buy.
Well, usually cheap food is not nutritious. You are talking about food that is produced with pesticides and herbicides, foods that have antibiotics in them, like the meats and poultry; foods that have a lot of sugar. What you’re doing is you’re feeding people. You’re feeding people, but you’re not really feeding people something that is good for them. At the same time that we may be feeding more people, there is an obesity epidemic. There’s a health issue. So you may not pay up front, but you’re going to pay out back.
But isn’t that better than the alternative of not feeding people? I mean, one out of eight Americans is out of work, out of a job. They’re trying to look to cut back on cost. What is wrong with them saying, "OK, I can pay $2 for this per pound for this beef, or I can go $6 for the organic. For my family, so they can have any meat, we go with the less expensive version."
I think some of that is an issue of not knowing how to cook. There are countries around the world that think of protein as a combination of grains and vegetables. We consider, you know, that meat source as the only source of protein, but it’s not true. We have to learn to cook the foods that are really affordable.
Is nonorganic food bad for you?
I believe it is, because I don’t want food that comes from animals that are caged up and fed antibiotics because they are in confinement, who aren’t eating a natural diet out there in the field. I am really suspicious of that kind of production of meat and poultry.
Would you acknowledge, though, that organic chicken, beef, vegetables, fruit — that that really is a luxury item given the system we have now?
Well, way back when in this country we didn’t eat so much meat, it was a special thing to have a steak, even to have a chicken — it was. We ate other cuts of meat that were more affordable. Now we only want the chicken breast. But if you buy the whole chicken you can have several meals out of that.
But if technology is able to develop and they can grow food synthetically, and they can prove that it’s not bad for you and they can do it inexpensively — would you support it?
Well, they did that, they did that already and we have found that it hasn’t been successful. I think we are part of nature. We are part of nature. We depend on it. It’s really what is giving us our nourishment, and we need to treasure the farmer, we need to take care of the land. That’s a beautiful pleasure of life.
You’ve been talking about changing wholesale, the systemic consumption of food in America as it stands today. How do you do that? Where do you start?
I think you start in kindergarten. I think you start in the public schools. Because that’s the place where you can really educate children when they are very young and bring them into a new relationship to food. They can be engaged with nature and where food comes from, and they can learn how to take care of the land when they are little. They can learn to taste and smell, and they’re open. They’re really open to that.
You have said that the government ought to provide, pay for school lunch programs across the country. They should take it over? What would that look like?
In my plan, it would look like a stimulus plan, actually, that you would put the money to the buying of food and educating children right in the public school system, with the criteria for the buying of food so when you did that you would be giving the money directly to local people that were farming sustainably. That would be the first thing, and then the parents wouldn’t have to worry about what their children were eating at school. Then, of course, the children would grow up with a different set of values.
What do you say to those people who say, well, it sounds great, but it sounds very much like the nanny state, that the government knows best, knows better than individual families, and that it is the family's responsibility to teach kids what to pick and choose from their school lunches.
Well, I think that this fast-food culture is what has been educating everyone. It is very difficult to get out of that prison — if you will — of fast-food culture. I mean, they’ve told us that food should be fast, cheap and easy. That is not the case. Really, we’ve lost the beautiful ritual of sitting at the table. We’ve lost that moment in the day when we can communicate with our family and friends. They say it is OK to eat on the run. I am saying that eating in your car, the idea of eating in your car is something just uncivilized. The idea that food is cheap means that somebody is missing out, somebody is not being paid. I think it can be affordable, but it shouldn’t be cheap.
What drew you to food way back when?
That is a good question. When people ask that, I go way back to the time when I grew up in New Jersey in my parents’ victory garden that they had during the war. And I think I must have fallen in love with the strawberries out in the garden and the applesauce that they made from the tree. But my parents bought the frozen food that was really omnipresent in the '50s in this country.
Did you ever think your career would take off the way it has? You are one of the most influential restaurateurs, chefs that exists out there in the world of organic foods. Did you imagine that you would be in this place?
No, I never imagined. I was definitely a part of the counterculture of the '60s. I was very influenced by the participation and the free speech movement and trying to stop the war in Vietnam — so it came from that place. I was in the counterculture. I thought, well, I can open a restaurant, my friends will come. I want to live like the French. I want to have a little place. I was very serious from the very first day. I will not compromise. I want it to taste like the food in France. I went looking for that and I couldn’t find it. We ended up planting seeds in my backyard garden to have for the restaurant. We looked for farmers that had farmstands. We experimented with trying to get a piece of land and find a farmer, but that didn’t work so well. We didn’t know enough about farming to do that. We ended up looking for farmers all around San Francisco and Berkeley that really had a product that was tasty, and it turned out that these were the organic growers. I wasn’t really looking for organic food at the beginning, although probably, living in Berkeley, you had that in you a little bit.
When you travel now, and you travel a lot, you must certainly see next to you, on an airplane or waiting at an airport, somebody eating a bag of Oreo cookies or processed salty snacks. What goes through your mind? Do you stop them and say, "Hey, there’s an alternative"?
Well, I take my own food on the plane, I always bring my own food, and I’ve taken to bringing some mint with me. I ask for some hot water, and I put the mint in the hot water, and it sends out a kind of perfume into the cabin. And people ask me questions about what I am drinking, and I love that. I love that I can influence, reach people through an aroma.
And that begins the conversation with them?
That begins the conversation with them. I like to feed people ideas. I always bring enough so that I can share it with anybody who is in the seat next to me. I am shocked by what people eat. What they eat in airports. How they, how omnipresent that food is, and how accessible and how it is sold to people. I just, I feel more sorry for the person who is eating it, than to really be angry about it.
Yet the person eating that Oreo, or those Twinkies or those Gummi bears, they may feel sorry for you that you’re not having any or that you haven’t tried. Have you ever just tried them, just to see what they’re like?
Oh, I have tried it. I mean, I certainly tried it as a teenager. I have eaten at McDonald's once.
What was that like? Did you like it?
I was surprised it didn’t have taste from my point of view — and, well, I was in and out in five minutes.
What do you see the world being 50 years from now in terms of food consumption, long after — hopefully not long after — but you and I are no longer here? In an ideal world, what would food consumption look like?
In an ideal world, I would see small communities that are really supporting each other where the food is grown nearby. Where there’s, you know, we’re decentralizing rather than trying to centralize. Right now it’s shocking that six or seven big corporations sort of own the food system. The small farmers are being supported by the people nearby. I mean, this is the way that we have eaten since the beginning of civilization.
So this is a question I know a lot of people want to hear you answer. You have five minutes to go shopping. You have 10 minutes to prepare your meal. You just don’t have time. What do you do?
I love this question. I really love this question, because I can cook a meal in five minutes if I have shopped properly. That’s the truth. When you have tasty ingredients that you’ve bought from the farmers' market and you have things in your pantry that are good. Then it takes no time to cook them. I have greens from the garden and I have, maybe I have chicken breast. I sauté that. I make a little vinaigrette for a salad. Three minutes for that. I put the greens in a bowl. I am washing them while I am cooking the chicken. And then, maybe I boil a little potato. Maybe I have some brown rice. That’s it.
Alice Waters' interview has been condensed and edited.