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Alice Waters: American Food with a Japanese Touch

August 4, 2016

Photo by Amanda Marsalis

Alice Waters transformed America's eating habits when she opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley in 1971. She championed "slow-food" to counteract an unhealthy fast food culture and became one of the most influential figures in America's food culture. She talked to us about her relationship to Japanese food.
(interview edited for length and clarity)

First Visit to Japan

I traveled to Japan for the first time in 1983. I went to Japan and to China and actually, it was my first time visiting Asia. I was fascinated. I went with a Chinese woman, Cecilia Chiang, a chef who lived in Japan. She had lived in Japan for many years so she knew Japan really well. She knew exactly where to take me. It was a whole new world to me.

The goal of the trip was to eat. Why else would I go Japan? I've been a very long time admirer of Japanese culture and I feel like I have a very similar aesthetic. We were in Tokyo and we also went to Kyoto. I don't remember exactly what I ate but Cecilia took us to lots of nice restaurants. I have always felt very close to Japanese culture. Always, the architecture, art, clothes design, and fashion.

I went back the second time about seven years later, probably about 1990. I remember I had tempura, where they cooked it right there, put it on your plate piece by piece and you ate it. I had never seen that before. I was used to getting a whole plate of fried food and by the time you got to the last piece it was not hot and a little soggy. This ruins everything. But the tempura experience was different from that.

Locally grown ingredients and vegetables are used at her restaurant and some of them come from a Japanese farm in California.

Inspiration from Japanese Food

I think that Japanese food is so much about the season. It might be a leaf on tray. It might be the plate itself, the color of it. It's trying to remind you of time and place. That's extremely important in the fast food world that we live in where everything is available 24/7. You have no idea what time of year it is. So we need to hold on to that sense of when something was harvested. This is a moment in time. It's about the sun setting. It's about being deeply connected to nature. We understand that we are farming and we value it. That's a big part of the purity of the food. It's extremely important. I think we all have to come back to that place of local food and eating exactly what's in season. This is exactly the way that the Japanese think about food. It's about the season and it's always about trying to touch all the senses. Sense of smell, of the visual, listening, the sense of taste and touch. It's all part of an eating experience.

My visit to Japan reinforced our philosophy of food and because Japan at that time was not quite as advanced in the fast food culture, it was not as corrupted as we were. We are inspired by Japanese food all the time, especially when we do a broth, Carpaccio, and smoking of fish. We work with a farm down in San Diego called the Chino Family Farm, a Japanese family farm. We get beautiful greens from them that you can't find anywhere else. They are Japanese greens. We use those quite often in lots of different ways.

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