Alice Waters exudes a very unique sense of ease when she discusses any part of her wonderfully fleshed-out biography. Take, for instance, her anecdote about then-President Bill Clinton’s visit to Chez Panisse, her famed Berkeley restaurant. Waters had wanted nothing more than to give Clinton a beautifully ripe, juicy peach. Unfortunately, there were no peaches to be found that night.
“If I could just have fed him that perfect peach,” Waters sighed.
A delicate story to be sure — one that it would have been all too easy to tell as an unnuanced testament to personal success. Coming from her, it was equal parts impressive, lighthearted and captivating.
Perhaps Waters’ perfect blend of triumph, serenity and humor regarding her own life ripened over the course of her 46 years as one of the best-known restaurateurs in America or over the course of the many years she’s spent as an activist. Perhaps it was born from the fact that she was at UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement Café on Thursday evening specifically to celebrate the publication of her memoir “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.” In either case, Waters’ gently vivacious wisdom permeated through the crowded cafe, firmly holding the attention of the dozens of guests gathered to hear her speak.
Waters sat in conversation with publisher Steve Wasserman, her lifelong friend and a fellow activist from the time of the Free Speech Movement. Given this connection and free speech’s recent reincarnation as a national political buzzword, it’s no surprise that a large portion of the evening was dedicated to discussing Waters’ experience with the movement.
Wasserman opened the conversation by asking Waters about the memoir’s dedication to Mario Savio. Waters’ voice glowed with reverence as she answered. Her first encounter with Savio, she said, came on her very first day at UC Berkeley as she was standing in the margins of a throng of students gathered on Sproul Plaza.
“I just heard Mario speak, and there was something about his ideal big vision which said we could change the world,” Waters said.
Unlike the majority of contemporary allusions to the Free Speech Movement, Waters’ invocation of it made no attempt to depoliticize the movement to render it a lifeless rhetorical tool that can be recontextualized at will. She spoke proudly of her lived experience with the movement and of its role in awakening her to become a self-proclaimed counterculture cook — a title she continues to occupy through her persistent advocacy for edible education and sustainable agriculture.
“You have people who aestheticize the world and then the dogmatists who politicize everything,” Wasserman quipped.
Waters found herself inhabiting an unusually perfect medium between the two extremes, one from which she can speak just as eloquently about the overtly political as she can about her theories on the nature of beauty. It was only natural, then, that as the evening went on, she shifted quite breezily from reminiscing on her formative experiences in the Free Speech Movement to reminiscing on her formative experiences in France, from which her appreciation for beauty and for cuisine began to blossom.
It was during Waters’ study abroad experience in Paris that she developed a deep admiration for what she calls Parisians’ “slow food culture” and attention to the most minute distinctions in cuisine. On her return to Berkeley, she became obsessed with replicating her experience in Paris.
“I just wanted to eat something that tasted like it had in France,” she said.
Yet, more than anything, she became obsessed with the commonplace meticulousness that she had observed in France that highlighted beauty in simplicity.
Following Waters and Wasserman’s conversation, the gentle hum of spirited discourse continued to reverberate throughout the patio of the Free Speech Movement Café, occupying the space between the cozy grey of the sky and the jewel tones of heirloom tomatoes, red wine and halved mission figs being prepared and served to guests. If there was ever a perfect illustration of Waters’ belief that beauty is the language of care, it would be found here among the guests finding joy in one another’s company and, of course, in the alluring simplicity of Waters’ menu.