One week after Alice Waters returned to California from the inauguration of Barack Obama she got the news: The Obamas had installed a chef at the White House who subscribes to the tenets of the revolution she started: Food should not only taste good, it should also be local, sustainable, and healthful.
Sam Kass, a 28-year-old Chicagoan, who had cooked for the Obamas before they moved to Washington, D.C., is described by the White House as having a particular interest in “healthy food and local food.” And he has spoken passionately about the need to improve school lunches.
At last, after 40 years of working to change the way Americans think about food, Waters appears to have the powerful ally for whom she had been searching.
“I’m delighted,” she says, “but I am not surprised.”
Waters’s contacts with both Obamas during the campaign, for which she raised considerable sums of money, convinced her that she knew something about their values. “I’ve had a feeling all along that they really care,” she says.
During one campaign event in Oakland, California, for which Chez Panisse provided the food, Waters shouted a question at Barack Obama across the swimming pool: “What’s your position on food and agriculture?”
He came around the other side of the pool, Waters remembers, and “he held my hand while he talked to me. He was so interested in the Edible Schoolyard,” a reference to her project in Berkeley that teaches children how to grow and cook healthy food.
“He told me he had read about it and that he had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s book, but that he didn’t know as much as he should. He did know about the childhood obesity crisis, and he began to cite statistics.”
Waters recalls his exact words: “I’m ready to be educated.” She went back to the restaurant, gathered every book about food she had, and sent them to him.
Waters got equally good vibes from Michelle Obama at a “Women for Obama” fund-raiser in Chicago last summer. “You can’t just make a dinner,” Mrs. Obama told the crowd. “It’s got to be a nutritious dinner, grown with good, fresh, clean food.”
Mrs. Obama said that if they won the election, she would push for healthier food: “It is a message that we have talked about more and more in our household. The food that we put into our children’s bodies—we have seen the impact of it over the course of even a short period of time where we’ve changed how we’ve eaten”— a likely reference to the meals Kass prepared for the family.
With local and sustainable food for the first family and the possibility the Obamas will plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, as Waters suggested to them in a letter after the election, she is hopeful that Americans who have not yet gotten the message will follow their new leader and change their eating habits. That, she says, would help fulfill two critical goals: to reduce childhood obesity and to save the environment.
Waters has always been involved in political activities. But by the 1990s, she had learned that if she was ever going to have a real impact, it was not enough to work from the bottom up, converting one person at a time; she needed to work from the top down, too. This realization marked the beginning of an intense, and sometimes disappointing, learning period about the politics of food.
“I wanted a president to acknowledge the need to change the way Americans eat by setting an example, planting a White House vegetable garden. From that point on, I was focused on President Clinton. I talked to everyone who knew him, like Susie and Mark,” she said, referring to her friends the Buells, a well-connected, philanthropic San Francisco couple.
Susie Tompkins Buell, an entrepreneur turned political activist, says she taught Waters “how to network up.” She and her husband, who is chairman of the board of the Chez Panisse Foundation, brought the Clintons to the restaurant.
“I took every opportunity I could get to feed him this idea,” Waters says, “and Susie would invite me to cook for them. But even people who are brilliant don’t really understand the relationship between food and health.”
At President Clinton’s first Chez Panisse meal, in 1993, they talked about a vegetable garden at the White House. Two years later, she wrote to him about a garden and copied the first lady.
Mrs. Clinton replied and said a vegetable and herb garden had been established on the White House roof, big enough for the first family and a friend or two, but not at all visible to the public. It was not what Waters had in mind.
Waters tried again, after President Clinton was elected to a second term, and then again in his last year in office, in a far more forceful letter.
“Mr. President, plant that garden on the White House grounds! ...
“I can think of no more powerful way to ground your legacy than to leave behind you a kitchen garden and the compost pile to nourish it. …”
In his reply, President Clinton mentioned the garden on the roof and said: “We decided that an informal kitchen garden would not be in keeping with the formal gardens of the White House.”
That was more than Waters could take, and she fired off another letter. Apologizing for “being so insistent,” she begged to differ, reminding him that “L’Enfant’s original plan for the capital city was inspired by the layout of Versailles, and at Versailles the royal kitchen garden is itself a national monument: historically accurate, productive, and breathtakingly beautiful throughout the year.”
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.”