I first learned about chef, author, restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters back in the mid 90s, when I read her mouthwatering children’s book, Fanny at Chez Panisse (HarperCollins, 1992).
I’d never encountered anything like it before – wonderful restaurant stories + delectable, doable recipes. It totally charmed my socks off, set me on a quest to read as many food-related children’s books as possible, and most importantly, made me think differently about food.
Thanks to Alice’s dedicated efforts– spanning at least five decades – we’ve become more conscious about what and how we eat. We may be more inclined to choose fresh, healthy foods, as opposed to that which is convenient, processed and mass produced. We’ve also learned that eating with a conscience affects not only our personal well being, but the health of our planet.
In their brand new picture book biography, Alice Waters Cooks Up a Food Revolution (Paula Wiseman Books, 2022), Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland introduce young readers to the culinary visionary who popularized organic foods, local sustainable agriculture, and the slow food and farm-to-table movements. She is often called the Mother of American Food.
But what set Alice on her path to good eating? Why did she open Chez Panisse, and how was it different from other restaurants?
The story begins with four-year-old Alice picking strawberries in her family’s backyard garden in Chatham, New Jersey. They are “fat and sweet, at the very peak of their flavor. The taste thrills her to the bone. She will remember it for the rest of her life.”
Alice and her family thrived on fresh, homegrown produce, and definitely missed it during the winter months, when their meals consisted of packaged, canned, or frozen convenience food. It just didn’t taste the same.
After she grew up, Alice studied abroad in Paris during her junior year in college. Everything she ate there was a revelation. Whether soup, stew, fish, or baguettes with homemade jam – it was THE BEST! EVER! because all of it was made with fresh ingredients.
When Alice returned to UC Berkeley for her senior year, she immersed herself in all things French – movies, cookbooks, even Julia Child’s cooking show. She made fancy French dinners for her friends, and they all sat around the table for hours, enjoying the “food, friendship, and conversation.”
Alice didn’t have a set plan after graduation; she tried a few different things but nothing felt right. She knew she loved French cooking but didn’t have the money or experience to open a restaurant.
Yet one day she saw an old house for sale that seemed just perfect: perhaps it was a sign that her restaurant was meant to be!
Like a French grandmother’s house – warm and comfortable, with flowers on the tables, soft light streaming through the windows, wonderful smells drifting out of the kitchen.
Alice borrowed money from family and friends to purchase the house. Then her friends/business partners helped fix it up. She would manage the restaurant rather than work as a chef.
She decided on a set menu every night, different every day. They would use only the freshest local ingredients, just as Alice did when cooking for her friends. Dining at Chez Panisse would feel like eating at someone’s home.
Though the inexperienced restaurant staff was slow and inefficient at first, they got better in time. They truly loved and believed in what they were doing. As the restaurant became more popular, Alice began to hold special events. For Bastille Day, she hosted a grand banquet consisting of nine courses all made with garlic.
Despite the restaurant’s success, Alice wasn’t totally satisfied. As family farms began to give way to giant “agribusinesses,” it was harder to source the fresh ingredients she needed. She refused to sacrifice quality and flavor in the name of profit and expediency.
So she drove around Northern California, seeking out and finding small farms, ranches, and dairies, arranging to buy products directly from them. By only using local and organic ingredients, picked at the peak of their flavor (just like her family did years ago), she was able to serve the BEST! FOOD! EVER!
As Chez Panisse became world famous and continued to win numerous awards, Alice was able to change how home cooks as well as professional chefs thought about food.
Thanks to her food revolution, small farms and ranches are making a comeback, locally grown organic produce is more readily available in grocery stores, and more people are shopping at farmers markets or planting home gardens.
Rather than depending on fast food eaten on the run, now more families are discovering the benefits of cooking and eating at home, valuing the time spent together around the kitchen table.
Jessie Hartland’s naïve gouache paintings bring Diane Stanley’s engaging, conversational narrative to rollicking life with whimsical details, touches of humor, and a celebratory joie de vivre.
Readers will have a ball pointing to all the delectable food items – fruits, veggies, fish, breads, cheeses, meats, chickens, and eggs – whether they appear on grocery store shelves, dining tables, in gardens or farm market stalls. How wonderful to stroll around Paris with Alice, or hang out with her in the kitchen as she creates mouthwatering dishes for her bohemian friends!
Love all the charming Paris shops selling crêpes, crusty loaves, and pretty gateaux, the sidewalks teeming with interesting people on the move. There are oodles of hand-lettered words (in both English and French) – on everything from seed packets to store signage to food packaging – to keep eager readers busy busy busy.
Chez Panisse’s inaugural Set Menu, consisting of “pâté en croûte, Duck with Olives, and Lindsey’s Plum Tart” will elicit inevitable drools, especially since the price is only $3.95! And what fun to see Chez Panisse’s happy workers (“artists, philosophers, filmmakers, and poets”) singing, dancing and kicking up their heels after hours. One of Alice’s filmmaker friends, who lost a bet, even had to eat his shoe – cooked in duck fat, garlic, and herbs, no less. 😀
Backmatter includes more info about “Alice and Her Delicious Revolution,” a note about her Edible Schoolyard project (which now includes a network of over five thousand school garden projects in the USA and 75 other countries), a Timeline and Bibliography.
Pull up a chair and savor every scrumptious bite of this inspiring, lovingly cooked up tale of one of America’s most notable foodie pioneers. Bon Appétit!
ALICE WATERS COOKS UP A FOOD REVOLUTION
written by Diane Stanley
illustrated by Jessie Hartland
published by Paula Wiseman Books/ Simon and Schuster BFYR, January 2022
Picture Book Biography for ages 4-8, 48 pp.
*Includes Endnotes, Timeline, and Bibliography
**Starred Review** from Booklist
♥️ See also my review of FANNY IN FRANCE by Alice Waters and Ann Arnold (Viking, 2016), which includes a recipe for Almond Brown Butter Cake!
*Interior spreads text copyright © 2022 Diane Stanley, illustrations © 2022 Jessie Hartland, published by Paula Wiseman Books/S&S. All rights reserved.
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