“To scale something is always going to be a challenge,” said Traci Des Jardins, the San Francisco chef who opened Jardinière in 1998. “How do you keep the integrity? That’s what she always struggled with. You have to make sacrifices along the way to do that, and she has been so principled that she was not willing to make a concession.”
Ms. Waters hates the word “scaling,” calling it a fast-food-culture term.
“I leveraged myself in the best of all possible ways,” she said. “I have given a philosophy of food which I learned from the French to everybody who works at the restaurant, and they take those values and make them their own.”
She remains singularly focused on what seems impossible in the current political climate: giving all American children free organic food at school and tying it into the curriculum. “Feeding children is a moral issue,” she said.
People, she added, should stop expecting the federal government to make it happen; public policy is too compromised by the interests of large food conglomerates. “Any way we do this has to be done outside of the government and outside the pyramid,” she said. “We need to go through the doors that are open, not the doors that are closed.”
To that end, she is pondering new ways to raise money through taxes, or from investors like Jeff Bezos. “We’re working on a letter to him,” she said.
She sees parallels between the state of politics today and the battles of 50 years ago, but her strategy is not to fight directly.
“Now is not the time,” she said over dinner in the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse. “We’re like the French underground. We are passing notes to each other. But soon there will be something, an event, and we will come forward together. No one knows how powerful we are. We are vigilantes.”
Ms. Waters ordered a couple of salads, one built with arugula and prosciutto and another of purslane, cucumbers and Charentais melon. A dish of roasted Monterey Bay squid came to the table, along with a tangle of hand-cut, herbed noodles with chanterelles and thyme.
Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
Dessert was a collection of fruit starring a perfect Flavor King pluot, the kind of dish that critics say is more about shopping than cooking. But it was perfect, as it was in the more formal restaurant downstairs the night before. After 46 years, Chez Panisse is still a great place.
She asked a waiter to fill her glass with rosé and then not bring any more. More than a glass or two makes her too sleepy, she said. Not as in the old days, which she writes about in the book with lighthearted relish.
Ms. Waters describes drunken high school romps in the back seats of cars and subsequent pregnancy scares, a love of men and drink so powerful it got her kicked out of a college sorority on morals charges, and trips across Europe that did as much to provoke her culinary awakening as her sexual one.
She approaches other revelations with more sobriety. There was an attempted rape by a man who sneaked into her bedroom with a knife in the mid-1970s. She survived by jumping out a second-floor window, an incident that helped build a kind of steely resolve and confidence.
Ms. Waters writes with great affection about the men who were her big loves and shaped her views on film, music and politics, as well as the look and feel of the restaurant.
These days, Ms. Waters is more of an executive editor than a chef at Chez Panisse. She eats there every day when she is town, offering many, many suggestions.
“I hope everybody can see that I have a valuable role as a critic, because I’ve been there since the beginning and I’ve seen the restaurant go through lots of changes,” she writes.
Still, she knows people sometimes don’t ask for her opinion because she can be what might charitably be called insistent. To that end, Ms. Waters has worked on becoming more polite, saying please and thank you to the people under her umbrella.
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