Sunday, January 25, 2009


To food guru Alice Waters, change tastes something like lamb shoulder braised in white wine and root vegetables with bay leaves, red peas, fried rosemary and garlic.

It’s mouthwatering, to be sure, but also statement-making: All of it was bought at a Washington farmer’s market from local producers in January — a most inhospitable time to stick with the seasonal, local philosophy.

The message: If she can do it, so can you.

“I’m trying to feed people these ideas,” Ms. Waters said before a gathering called Art. Food. Hope. The event occurred on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, intended to bring together scholars and artists, politicians and businessmen for a salon-style meeting of the minds.

Ms. Waters planned a dozen of the dinners to celebrate Mr. Obama’s rise to office, bringing with her a who’s who of chefs including Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber, Lidia Bastianich, Jose Andres and Obama favorite Rick Bayless.

Ms. Waters has been appealing for change through the tastebuds since the 1960s, leading the push for organic and local food from her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse. But for the first time in a long time, she sees an advocate in the White House.

Her dream? A “Victory Garden” on the White House lawn, a gesture both symbolic and practical. She’s talked about it with first lady Michelle Obama, explaining that there was a garden at the executive mansion during World War II.

“At this economic moment, with such difficulty, we should be thinking about how we can feed people,” Ms. Waters said. “And bringing jobs should include green farming.”

Another agenda she’d like to see adopted by the Obama administration is her Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, where the children plant their own produce to eat in the cafeteria. Most public schools are feeding children processed food, which is contributing to the obesity epidemic, she said, so expanding the program is “really a moral issue.”

Finding guests in Washington to pony up $500 for a dinner to benefit food banks was not a problem. The events were so oversubscribed that Ms. Waters had to take over the Phillips Collection museum of modern art and bring in a tented kitchen to cook for a crowd of 175 that included Martha Stewart, writer Calvin Trillin, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker.

Nor was it hard to persuade other chefs to climb on board. Mr. Colicchio, for one, said he would do anything Ms. Waters asked.

“She’s not doing it for press or fame. It’s something she does because she believes in it,” he said. “She’s quirky and she’s wonderful, and it’s hard to say no to her.”

Part of the problem, Ms. Waters said, is that no one knows how to cook anymore. There’s the Food Network, sure, but she thinks “it’s a lot of vicarious experience going on there. You watch Martha Stewart and you don’t have to do it.”

So besides feeding our children, Ms. Waters would like to teach us to cook. She’s started a fledgling effort at to create videos of basic cooking techniques, including cutting up a whole chicken.

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