When you have 10 minutes with Alice Waters, what do you talk about?
Maybe not the right question.
When you have 10 minutes with Alice Waters, and you're a native New Yorker for whom moving to California completely changed the way you think about food, and you've been to Chez Panisse once and felt like you were entering Valhalla, and you've planted a dozen fruit trees in your backyard because you just can't believe that food actually grows on trees in the place you live, and you walk around the farmers market every week with your mouth hanging open, and thus you think Alice Waters is as close to a deity as you'll ever meet in the flesh...
...what do you talk about?
Thus was my dilemma last Sunday, when Alice Waters did a cooking demonstration at the 2010 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Michael Weisberg, who runs the Cooking Stage every year, brought a few of us into the "green room" (aka "white tent") behind the stage before the presentation. Luckily, one of the other writers who was there was less star-struck than I was, and she carried the conversation. Her angle was more green living, environmental stuff, not really my focus, so I drifted in and out of that exchange. Instead, I was thinking: Ask something smart. Get her to say something original. Engage!
It was harder than it sounds. Because here are the topics Alice Waters is passionate about: fresh ingredients, high-quality produce, simple preparations, get close to your food sources, local organic, visual pleasure equals culinary delight, compost in the kitchen, grow your own, teaching kids about real food. When she was first saying these things 40 years ago (yes, Chez Panisse is coming up on its 40th anniversary next year), they were truly revolutionary. Now they're the lingua franca of the food world. She has won. Her message is the food world's message.
I was having trouble finding an original angle.
When it was my turn, I took a deep breath and decided to go personal. I'll name an ingredient, I said, and you tell me your favorite way to prepare and enjoy it. Culinary 20 (well, 7) questions. Her eyes sparkled. "Let's go," she said.
So here are a few of Alice Waters' favorite ways to enjoy some of my (and her) favorite ingredients - all very simple, which should surprise no one.
- Blood oranges: "Just sliced up, for making a salad or a fruit compote."
- Avocado: "Aaaahhh - I make avocado toasts for breakfast."
- Lemon: "Well, I squeeze the lemon on the avocado toasts!"
- Green garlic: "I make a simple soup, all vegetables, to accentuate that subtle taste of garlic at this moment in time [meaning spring, I assume]."
- Goat cheese: "I bake goat cheese, rolled in breadcrumbs, stick it in the oven, and just when it's soft I serve it with a salad."
- Olives: "I take the pits out of the fruit, chop them up, then make a tapenade, or I scatter them on top of a pizza or pasta with tomatoes."
- Pizza: "Nettles. I love wild nettles on a pizza."
Alice was at the Festival of Books to promote her latest book, In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart. She says there's another book coming up next year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse.
Here are a few images from Alice's presentation, which focused on the beauty of fresh produce. By the way, she and her coauthor Kelsie Kerr apparently stopped at the Hollywood farmers market Sunday morning to collect the produce you see in the photos below. Was anyone there? Was there a stir? Or did she slip by completely incognito?
Alice Waters with coauthor Kelsie Kerr on the Cooking Stage at the LA Times Festival of Books
Fresh fava beans, popped out of their skins, with homemade aioli
Green garlic, young onions and white radishes
A tangle of fresh herbs
Asparagus, avocado, greens and fresh almonds