Child’s Play In The Kitchen

Revered American chef Alice Waters is determined to get children involved in cooking real food. FIONA BECKETT meets a woman on a mission.

The most memorable meal I have had so far this year was also one of the simplest. It was during the six-day American Food Revolution event staged by Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, a hugely prestigious showcase for American culinary talent that attracted such luminary chefs as Charlie Palmer, Charlie Trotter, Nobu Matsuhisa and – the only woman cook – the legendary Alice Waters.

Unlike her contemporaries, Waters kept her lunch studiously low-key. As you went to the table there was a huge pile of freshly picked radishes lying in the middle, their leafy green tops left on. Sour dough bread and butter were there to accompany them. Deep fried oysters were handed round, a perfect contrast of crispy coating and velvety soft, salty interior. The first course was a feisty salad of leaves from Le Manoir’s garden with gulls’ eggs and wild mushrooms. There was a marvellous ‘Irish Sea, Channel Fish and Shellfish soup’, rooted firmly in the local waters but redolent of saffron and new season’s garlic. It was followed by a generously rustic plateful of Welsh spring lamb – some wood-roasted cutlets, a coil of homemade merguez and a braise served with tiny, sweet new potatoes, broad beans and fried herbs. Finally there were two beautifully sharp scoops of Berkeley Meyer lemon sherbet and ice cream with candied mint leaves (the lemons being the only ingredient Waters had brought across the Atlantic with her).

It was a feast in the best sense of the word – not for its extravagance but for its generosity and the fact that it was put together from the best produce that was available on an early English spring day. It was typical of Waters to make such a statement. She apparently refused to submit a menu beforehand until she knew what ingredients she could source.

Her wines (a Ponzi Arneis 2001 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and a Green and Red Zinfandel 2001 from Chiles Valley Vineyards in the Napa Valley) were personal favourites. Even her menu was printed on a different paper stock from the rest of the chefs, with her own signature woodcut decorating the front.

Waters was born on 28 April 1944 in Chatham, New Jersey. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1967 with a degree in French cultural studies, she spent a year travelling in France which fired her passion for French food. In 1971 she opened the startlingly original Chez Panisse in Berkeley with a menu sourced from seasonal ingredients from local farmers. She hasn’t wavered from that philosophy since.

She was invited to the Manoir event not only to cook but to address a debate on the fast food generation – how to improve the diet of children and fire them up about food. It’s a subject of which Waters has plenty of experience; Chez Panisse is involved with a project called the Edible Schoolyard, an ambitious attempt to farm part of the land belonging to an inner city school in Berkeley and teach the children to cook with the produce.

In today’s fast food culture she admits it’s an uphill struggle. ‘Something like 85% of kids don’t eat a single meal with their family. They’re just going to the mall and picking up fast food values,’ she points out indignantly. ‘The message they’re getting is that food is cheap and abundant and it’s okay to waste it. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or how fresh it is. Eating is about fuelling up in as little time as possible.’

School Dinners

In order to make an impact sufficiently powerful to counter the millions spent on advertising junk food Waters believes that food has to be part of the curriculum. At the Martin Luther King Jr Middle School they are more than halfway towards that goal. The garden has been planted and the pupils help to grow and harvest the produce. There is a kitchen-classroom where cooking lessons are taught. Food is integrated wherever possible with other subjects such as science, maths, history and geography, but there’s fun too with Ready Steady Cook type competitions using produce grown in the garden.

A new cafeteria is being built where lunch will be served on a daily basis, using local, organically grown food. Part of the aim is to get children to sit round the table and communicate, something that Waters believes has a calming influence that will benefit the rest of their academic work. ‘The superintendent of schools wants to extend this to all schools in the area – that would be 10,000 kids in 17 schools,’ she says with no small measure of pride. ‘Imagine what it would mean for agriculture if every school had a lunch programme that only served its students local produce that had been sustainably farmed?’

The response, she says, has been hugely positive, even among the most difficult pupils. ‘We’ve found when working with teenagers that when they are engaged with the growing and cooking of food, they want to eat it and they want people to pay attention to it. They really respond to genuine care and persistence. Learning about food is a great equaliser. Everyone has the same senses – all you need is to learn how to smell, taste and touch.’

It’s not only inner city kids who are deprived, according to Waters. In too many families where both parents are working, food is a low priority, with children served separate, low-grade meals. ‘They’re pushed into a narrow range of taste so they end up only liking pasta, hot dogs and hamburgers. That’s all they get hungry for. I don’t like the idea of kid’s food – it’s imprisoning in terms of experience. It doesn’t have any beauty or diversity of flavour and texture.’

Parents, she says, need to get involved in what their children are eating. They need to go into their school and ask questions about what is going on in the dining room. They should make sure that they don’t fill up on nutritionally empty snacks that will blunt their appetite for proper meals. ‘How can you let your child eat a whole box of cookies? The message you’re giving them is that you just want to keep them quiet. You don’t want to hear from them. They need to know there are limits and rules around food.’

Setting an Example

With her own daughter Fanny, Alice used to go to the farmers’ market every Saturday then come back and prepare lunch. ‘And I used to play around with her school lunches too. Everything was packaged up separately – the dressing, the salad – so that she could put it together herself. I put little notes and pictures in it of what her meal would look like so that she would know I was thinking of her.’

Maybe we can’t all do as good a job as Waters but it is within the capacity of every one of us to help our children appreciate good food. If we can inspire our children as I was inspired by the marvellous meal that Waters cooked last April then we shall have done them the biggest favour imaginable.

Read more about the Edible Schoolyard project on www.edibleschoolyard.org. For more information about Chez Panisse in California, including menus and opening hours, visit the restaurant’s website at www.chezpanisse.com

Written by Fiona Beckett