Ms. Waters Goes to Washington

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It was the end of their correspondence.

After George W. Bush was elected, Waters’s efforts to enlist the leader of the free world to her cause took a holiday. But by then, Waters’s fame had spread well beyond this country’s borders, so she set out on another mission: to convert influential people around the world.

She had tea with the Prince of Wales, an advocate of sustainable farming, and he visited the Edible Schoolyard. She persuaded him to address Terra Madre, which brings together thousands of supporters of sustainable agriculture. She talked the president of Yale, which her daughter was attending at the time, into creating the Yale Sustainable Food Project. It has since spawned many imitations.

She attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she cooked a dinner. She talked to Ban Ki-Moon, secretary general of the United Nations; she spoke to his predecessor, Kofi Annan, when they both received an environmental award from Harvard Medical School. She went to Ireland to speak with the Minister of Agriculture.

“If Alice was just interested in knowing celebrities to add to her own luster, it would not be a worthy enterprise,” says Orville Schell, an old friend and now director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “But her efforts to get wealthy, powerful people to support her projects for the way food is grown, sold, and eaten are worthy and have allowed her to have a much greater impact.”

Waters frequently invites marquee names to eat at her restaurant. “I’ll take any opportunity to feed anyone these ideas, to get them talking about food and agriculture,” she says. “I want to feed influential people who are in positions to make decisions.”

Author Michael Pollan says Waters is very good at putting politicians on the spot. “She challenges them, always with a smile. She’s charming and winsome (a mix of flirtation and steel) but very insistent. She is nothing if not stubborn.”

When Barack Obama won the Democratic primary in 2008, Waters was ready to try again, determined to do whatever it would take to get to know him better and to persuade him to become a role model for sustainable, local, healthy food. The atmosphere had changed since the Clinton era, so much so that today the Clinton story might have had a different ending. In an interview last fall, then Senator Hillary Clinton said that if she knew then what she knows now, she would have insisted on not only a big garden but also a greenhouse. So Waters was hopeful.

“I wanted to talk to anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone who knew the Obamas,” she says—and she did, from Penny Pritzker, Obama’s national finance chair in Chicago to Van Jones, a lawyer, social entrepreneur, writer, and environmental advocate in Oakland.

She quickly learned that raising money for the campaign would be the most effective entrée. And one of the most successful events was a combined effort of Waters; Danny Meyer, owner of several New York City restaurants, including Union Square Café; and Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl, who worked with Margo Lion, a Broadway producer, on an art auction and dinner in New York City. It raised $800,000.

There were other fund-raisers as well, including the one in Chicago. “I had told everyone I knew I wanted to cook for everyone in Obama’s offices,” Waters says. “I called everyone I knew, and someone called me out of the blue and asked me to introduce Michelle Obama at the Chicago fund-raiser.”

Waters wanted local food served; the hotel chef balked. She pressed and pressed, as only she can, and finally she won.

Waters was seated with Mrs. Obama and had a chance to talk with her, coming away with the impression that they are on the same wavelength.

Waters also made lunch for Obama’s campaign staff in San Francisco and cooked dinner for the candidate when he dined with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

After the election, Waters sent a letter, once again suggesting a vegetable garden, offering her services as part of a “kitchen cabinet,” and asking the Obamas to hire a chef who was “A person with integrity and devotion to the ideals of environmentalism, health, and conservation.”

Although the Obamas have not accepted her offer of “kitchen cabinet” advisory services and are not getting rid of their current executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, the installation of Kass is an accomplishment. And Waters seems pretty confident there will be a vegetable garden.

Waters seized the Obama inaugural weekend festivities as an opportunity to let the new administration, and Washington’s permanent political class, know that eating healthful food is connected to this country’s well-being. She arranged a series of dinners in private homes, cooked by well-known chefs like Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York City; Rick Bayless, of Topolobampo, in Chicago (a favorite of the Obamas); and her Chez Panisse staff, using local and sustainable food. Every dinner was sold out and the event raised $150,000 for local food charities: It also raised Waters’s profile.

The dinners and the party the night before to honor all the chefs received press coverage most people only dream of: celebrity chefs, celebrity politicians, and celebrity foodies—a new version of Hollywood on the Potomac.

Waters is not ready to rest on her laurels; there is too much left to do. “I’m 64; I’m an elder and feel a responsibility,” she says. “I’ve stepped up my activities.”

Still, as she has raised her profile, she has raised the hackles of more critics, who call her an elitist busybody. Others have deemed her a food terrorist. And Chef Anthony Bourdain even likened her to the Khmer Rouge (though he attempted to retract the comment the day after he made it).

Good food often has an elite connotation, but Waters’s supporters say that putting gardens in schools is just the opposite of elitism.

“When people are way ahead of their time, they are often made fun of,” says Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation. “Then suddenly it turns out they were right.”

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