When a social activist who enjoys throwing dinner parties becomes an influential restaurateur without formal culinary training or business experience, there’s bound to be a good backstory, and this one goes way back.
Alice Waters’ new memoir recounts the rebellious youth (not unlike that of her male counterparts), college activism and exploration of the arts that evolved into her “counterculture” restaurant, Chez Panisse, which would so unexpectedly shape today’s dining culture.
Of course, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Clarkson Potter, 292 pp., ***½ out of four stars) also follows her parents’ inevitable influence and credits ex-boyfriends, their eventual spouses and ultimately an entire Berkeley, Calif., community that contributed to Waters’ success.
The chef and restaurateur begins her story in childhood, from a middle-class life in the New Jersey suburbs, complete with casseroles and frozen peas, to her high school years in the Midwest, and her formative college experiences in California.
Waters, inspired by the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, has a way of portraying her misadventures — from a sorority kicking her out to a Montessori school firing her — in an endearing enough light to grab the reader’s support, even if she did wear see-through shirts while teaching.
The home cook finds herself enamored with flowers, education, art and film before fully developing her passion for ingredients, sourcing and cooking for dinner parties, all of which comprise the recipe for Chez Panisse.
Yes, her love for food begins in France, but not at Le Cordon Bleu or a coveted apprenticeship. Reckless collegiate travel abroad broadens Waters’ dining discernment and, frankly, knowledge of salad. And a simple, locally sourced meal in Brittany serves as her first “blueprint” for the restaurant a decade before its realization.
The chef is not shy about sharing memories of the mistakes and embarrassments that preceded her fame. Without formal training, Waters eventually works her way into the company of icons like Julia Child and James Beard, who are amused when she uses her hands to toss a salad and mislabels a vegetable on the menu at Chez Panisse.
Many of her sentiments about food demonstrate a similar approachability, such as insisting upon simplicity when planning her restaurant. Thus the idea of one fixed-price menu; but even on the first night, the experience promised every attention to detail. Waters meticulously planned the lighting, aromas, printing and décor as much as the daily changing menu. The wine, on the other hand, was selected for affordability.
In perhaps a brilliant book sales strategy, Chez Panisse doesn’t open until the final chapter, leaving the culinary icon’s dozen other books to answer lingering questions.
After reading this mouthwatering tale of Waters’ intrepid youth, you’ll be hungry for more anyway.