Inspiring Women, no 8: Ruth Rogers salutes the passion of a pioneering chef and restaurateur...
Ruth Rogers is an American-born chef and co-founder—with the late Rose Gray—of the River Café, London's most influential Italian restaurant. Alice Waters (b. 1944) is the chef-founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and is the vice-president of Slow Food International.
Before Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, you had a choice: you could eat really well in a kind of Temple of Food where the atmosphere was hush-hush, the waiter made you feel less than knowledgeable, the sommelier was scary, and the drama of the kitchen was kept behind closed doors. Or else you could eat cheap and cheerful, be noisy and informal, and have fun. What Alice did with Chez Panisse was to say, “We can have both: let’s make a restaurant that is beautiful and dramatic, that has an open kitchen, and where you can eat great food.” She dispelled the myth.
I went to San Francisco, with the sole aim of eating at Chez Panisse, in about 1977 or 1978—long before I became a chef myself. I had dinner, and went again the next day for lunch. There was a unique quality to the cooking. It was partly that it celebrated the freshest and finest ingredients, from farms close to Berkeley. But it was also astonishing to have a restaurant that was so uncompromising, with no choice and a menu that changed every day.
Alice’s roots and inspiration were French, but she transformed tradition when she created what is now called California cuisine. So Rose and I were very excited when she came to eat at the River Café, soon after we’d just opened. Her first Chez Panisse cookbook was an enormous influence on some of our own dishes: we made a version of her lemon tart in 1987, the first day we opened, and it has been on the menu ever since.
When you meet Alice, she infects you with her enthusiasm and passion. Her eyes sparkle, she touches you when she talks, she’s affectionate and she has an energy that is relentless. And her sense of political and social responsibility is unique in my profession. She has a passion to make food better for everyone—a child in school, a consumer in a supermarket, or a young cook going to the farmers’ market. She is pioneering and crusading. Her schools project—the Edible Schoolyard, which cultivates crops at a local school, and provides after-lessons cookery classes—can only have rubbed off on Jamie Oliver during the time he worked for us, as everybody in the kitchen was talking about Alice.
A few years ago Alice took over the catering for the American Academy in Rome, the fine arts and humanities research institute. Imagine: an American coming to the heart of Italy and telling people how to cook. But she did it with intelligence and energy, and has turned it around, sourcing the food from nearby farms. One of my chefs worked there and came back the other day with one of her academy cookbooks. We were all laughing about some biscuits that she describes as “not too sweet, and so small that you don’t have to interrupt a conversation to eat them”. That’s so Alice. I’d much rather eat, and interrupt the conversation.
Read more from the Inspiring Women series: