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Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters is still stirring up the pot

Scott Kraft

BERKELEY, Calif. Upstairs in the packed cafe of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters is ensconced in a wood-paneled booth, looking at a kumquat soufflé. She studies it solemnly, a judge appraising a defendant.

"Is it really as high as it should be?" she asks. "And why is it on such a big plate?" She pauses. "I wonder whether it needs a sauce. Is it brown enough? And why are these leaves under here?" Frowning, she takes one in her hand. "Are they kumquat leaves?" (They aren't.)

Jean-Pierre Moulle, the head chef, heard about it the next day. "She wasn't happy," he said, sighing. "We spent an hour in her office talking about it."

A restaurant, even one that has played to full houses for nearly four decades, cannot afford to compromise. And when it comes to food, Waters doesn't compromise.

She is known worldwide for her unbending fidelity to locally grown food and organic agriculture. When she championed local farmers and put their names on the menu, restaurants across the country followed. She replaced iceberg lettuce with field greens, and shoppers flocked to farmers markets for arugula and chicory. She insisted on grass-fed beef, and now it's on menus.

"She has fundamentally changed how people in this country understand food," said Daniel Patterson, owner of Coi, one of San Francisco's culinary lights.

Why, then, does she inspire such animosity?

"Alice Waters annoys the living (expletive) out of me," Anthony Bourdain, the chef and television host, told the Washington lifestyle blog DCist.com last year. "There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters. ... I'm suspicious of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth."

Carla Spartos of the New York Post called her a patron saint of the "holier-than-thou food police."

A blistering piece by Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic this year criticized Waters' signature effort to make gardening and cooking part of school curricula and sneered at her "\u2009'let them eat tarte tatin' approach to the world."

The object of this venom is a polite wisp of a woman, charming and gracious, with a disarmingly soft voice. She stands barely 5 feet tall in her brown boots. A small peace sign pendant hangs from her neck, which is wrapped in a Dosa "eco- and human-friendly" scarf.

Waters is a fierce ideologue, a food Calvinist whose commitment to local ingredients, produced without hormones and pesticides, is uncompromising.

"She's an absolutist, which is a great strength," said her friend Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." But changing hearts and minds sometimes requires compromise. "That's something we argue about from time to time, until I realize it's a waste of breath," he added. "She's staking out a pure position, and every movement needs that."

She's "a kind of lightning rod for Berkeley liberal elitism," said Patterson, the San Francisco chef. "There's a tone of certainty, of almost religious fervor, that puts a lot of people off. It's unfortunate because the core of her message is important."

Waters also has drawn brickbats from those who believe technique is at least as important as ingredients. "Going out of your way to buy local stuff is wonderful, but it's a beginning, not an ending," said Todd Kliman, a Washington, D.C., restaurant critic. "You still have to cook, and I think that's lost on some of the new chefs today."

Waters is 65, and for 39 of those years she's been running Chez Panisse, modeled on eateries she encountered while a student at the Sorbonne. She lives about a mile from the restaurant, in a Craftsman home where she tends a garden of salad greens, fruits and vegetables. When she cooks at home, she keeps it simple: organic pasta with garlic, olive oil and parsley from her garden is a favorite. She occasionally eats at other restaurants, but her life revolves around Chez Panisse, where a staff of 117 runs a culinary citadel six days a week.

The sine qua non of Chez Panisse is local ingredients, grown in an environmentally sustainable way and prepared simply. Waters believes that is a code all of America should live by.

"It's a moral issue for me," she said. "Everyone on this planet deserves to eat food that's really nourishing and produced in a way that is fair to the people who produce it."