Chatting with Alice Waters: French Food Culture, Cooking for Kids and a Dressed-Up Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Long credited with launching the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table effort, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, and it’s been a landmark fixture of American cuisine ever since. But despite owning a restaurant with deep roots in Berkeley, Calif., Waters has spent a significant amount of time in France, and it’s her time abroad that influenced her style of cooking with local, market-driven ingredients.
“I went to France when I was 19, and I came from a basically fast-food culture in America, and I arrived in the early ’60s in France when it was still a slow-food culture,” she told us when we chatted recently. “The kids came home and had lunch with their parents for two hours every day from school. You know, they went to the market twice a day just so that everything could be fresh and ripe, and people always ate with their family. I think these values are terribly, terribly relevant, because they are values that are universal and have been around since the beginning of civilization, really.”
Waters’ time in France was indeed formative for her, but it turns out that it made a lasting impact on her daughter, Fanny, too — so much so that she became the subject of Waters’ latest book, Fanny in France: Travel Adventures of a Chef’s Daughter, with Recipes. “I wanted to tell a story that children were amused by,” Waters told us.
Told from Fanny’s point of view, Waters’ part storybook, part cookbook recounts Fanny’s bike ride with friends on Ile de Bendor, her time snacking on strawberries at the market in Nice and moments with her mom as they traveled throughout France. There are also more than 40 of “Fanny’s French Recipes” included, from kid-friendly picks like Pizza with Quick Tomato Sauce to more dressed-up dishes like Roasted Herbed Rack of Lamb and Chocolate Soufflé.
In chatting with Waters, we talked more about cooking with and for kids, both her own daughter and children who may be picky eaters. She offered advice to parents and stories of serving vegetables to Fanny, as well as her thoughts on a typically kid-approved dish, Croque-Monsieur (Grilled Cheese Sandwich), the recipe for which you can get below. Read on to hear from Waters, then learn how to make that craveable sandwich.
I’m curious about how your real-life daughter Fanny influenced the voice of Franny the character and in what ways, if at all, she dictated the stories that Fanny the character told in her voice.
Alice Waters: Well, fortunately, Bob Carrau, who help me write it, has been a lifelong friend of Fanny. He’s known her since she was a 1-year-old, and he was like a second father to her and came on many, many of our trips to France. So he embroidered, needless to say, on stories that are real and tried to bring out the humor. But I had the intention of talking about the things that I really learned from the French.
The values that I really digested and brought back and have been part of Chez Panisse and my philosophy for the Edible Schoolyard … I mean, it’s a set of values that I really learned from the French, and I wanted to give a tribute to that, to the friends that I met and to the idea that I completely took from the ways that they lived their lives.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the list of “My Mom’s Special ‘French’ Rules.” Some may seem straightforward, like “plant a garden” and “balance your menu,” but many still struggle with those concepts. What did the food culture and even day-to-day lifestyle in France teach you, and how are they still relevant today?
AW: Well, I went to France when I was 19, and I came from a basically a fast-food culture in America. And I arrived in the early '60s in France when it was still a slow-food culture, and the kids came home and had lunch with their parents for two hours every day from school. You know, they went to the market twice a day just so that everything could be fresh and ripe, and people always ate with their family. I think these values are terribly, terribly relevant because they are values that are universal and have been around since the beginning of civilization. Really. You know: buy food locally, eat it in season, take care of the land because that’s the land that feeds us, treasure the harvest, gather with family and friends, and sit at the table — that’s where our culture is passed on. Many, many others.
I mean, just the frugality used — food is precious; you don’t want to waste anything. I think that it wasn’t really particular. I mean, obviously there are things that were particular to France. But these are universal values that every culture has at its core, and I think that when I brought them home with me and started using them at restaurants that it resonated with people, because we miss that in a fast-food culture that is trying to go ever faster and is trying to really just have a whole different set of values.
Similarly, for one reason or another, some people have the incorrect assumption that French food can be difficult to prepare, especially with children by their side. But you included some approachable recipes for kids as well as adults — the Pizza with Quick Tomato Sauce and the Croque-Monsieur, for example. Can you talk a little bit about those recipes and how they are in fact very doable for families?
AW: I wanted things that were very, very simple to make. I mean, probably the Bouillabaisse is not simple to make. I’m trying to talk in the book about portion size. I’m talking about something where you’re caring about where the cheese comes from, where the bread comes from. I use olive oil and garlic for my grilled cheese sandwich. I’m always trying to balance it out with the salads.
I think I learned the most about salads when I lived in France. I’d never even thought about salads before. And now they’re just part of every menu now that I think about. And I wanted to have the feeling that French cooking, at least what I experienced in the South of France, is very, very straightforward and simply dependent on the goodness of the ingredients, the ripeness and the aliveness of the foodstuffs.
Why was it important to you to write a book [geared] largely toward children, and what do you hope that children in particular will take from the stories?
AW: Well, I hope they take away what they took away from the first book, Fanny at Chez Panisse. I used Eloise at the Plaza as my way of reaching both parents and children. Because you talk about Eloise at the Plaza Hotel, and you tell these amusing stories. But in the process, you learn about how the hotel is run, who comes to the hotel, what is room service, what’s out the windows, the pigeons on the sill. You learn all the details of that place, and I wanted to tell a story that children were amused by and then they learned that this is how oysters are harvested or this is what a sea urchin is, or this is what it is to go to a flea market or to choose cheeses. And I hope it works in the way that Fanny at Chez Panisse did.
What are some of your favorite memories of cooking with Fanny when she was younger, either at Chez Panisse or when you were at home?
AW: Well, she always liked to make things herself, and I think all kids do. They like to be part of it, and she particularly liked to just mix up her own cakes, put in the spices and the things that she liked the taste of. She responded to my cooking in a way that just got me ever more ambitious in terms of what I made for her. Because she would just say, “Oh, I loved that lunch that you made, Mom. Can you do that again?” Or, you know, there’s a story [about how] I used to roast peppers for her lunchbox in the morning and she could smell that in her room. And [it] always woke her up and brought her down to breakfast. I’m trying to appeal to children through their senses. And so I like the fire that’s going, I like the rosemary that’s burning, I like to … sort of unconsciously reach people through bread baking and cooking a chicken stock on the stove. It’s always been something that Fanny loved, and I have a feeling all children loved those aromas in the house.
To the parents who are struggling with picky-eater children and who maybe are looking for some ideas to introduce theses very fresh and wholesome ingredients into their kids’ diets every day, what tips do you have to make that adjustment easier?
AW: We don’t want to trick them. We want to have them, if you can, to go to the place where something is grown and pick it themselves. Bring it back home. The lesson from the Edible Schoolyard Project — and it’s been 20 years — [is] that if children grow it and cook it, they all eat it. They all eat it. If they just participate in the cooking, probably 95 percent do. And the same with gardening. But when they’re involved with the whole process, it’s amazing what can happen. And you know I always say it’s about six weeks to kale at the Edible Schoolyard.
There is a story of the Edible Schoolyard you may know about, but the kids made kale crostini for their parents for an event that we had, and they all made these special crostini themselves. And when we were serving them, the kids weren’t eating them, and I wondered why. And the reason was they were looking for the one that they had made themselves. So, I mean you have to start out with the easy things, like getting an organic tortilla and letting them toast it on the stove themselves. Something very basic … I used to always make a vinaigrette, and Fanny could dip things in the vinaigrette, and just the process of doing that caused her to eat carrots and lettuce leaves and everything else, just because she was dipping it herself.
Croque-Monsieur (Grilled Cheese Sandwich)
Makes 1 serving
I love grilled cheese sandwiches. This is the version my mom makes me. It’s a little less goopy than the French kind. Use good country bread, like a pain au levain or whole wheat. In Alsace, they serve a croque-monsieur with sauerkraut and pickles. I like to serve it with little cornichons and a salad.
2 slices of levain or whole-wheat bread
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) aged cow’s milk cheese (such as Gruyere, Monterey Jack or any other tangy cheese), grated
1 thin slice Black Forest ham (or another good dry-cured smoked ham)
1 garlic clove, peeled
Cut 2 slices of bread no more than 1/3-inch thick. Cover 1 slice of bread with half the grated cheese. Put the slice of ham on top and cover with the remaining cheese. Put the other slice of bread on top and brush both sides of the sandwich with olive oil.
Choose a cast-iron pan that’s just large enough to hold the sandwich and heat it over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes or until it is heated through. When the pan is hot, put the sandwich in it. Put a smaller heavy pan or lid on top of the sandwich to weigh it down so that it will cook evenly. Cook until golden brown. You can peek by lifting the sandwich up with a spatula. If it is browning too quickly and you think it might burn, turn the heat down a little.
When the bottom slice of bread is toasted and golden, flip the sandwich over and weigh it down again with the small pan. Cook until the other side is golden brown and the cheese inside is melted. When the sandwich is cooked and crisp, remove from the pan and rub a clove of garlic on one side. Cut in half and serve.
Recipe reprinted with permission of Penguin Young Readers. Photo copyright Viking Books for Young Readers 2016.