Interview: Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters

The culinary icons, in town this week for a Chicago Humanities event, discuss male-dominated kitchens and the state of American food

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Alice Waters

How would you describe the state of American culinary culture right now? What's the single biggest problem?
I think America's food culture is embedded in fast-food culture. And the real question that we have is: How are we going to teach slow-food values in a fast-food world? Of course, it's very, very difficult to do, especially when children have grown up eating fast food and the values that go with that. We really need to get to children in kindergarten and before and bring them into a new relationship with food and nature. Those slow-food values begin to wash over them and they absorb them through osmosis. That's what we need to have happen to really change the way we live our lives.

I really am at a place where I think we need to feed every child at school for free and feed them a real school lunch that's sustainable and nutritious and delicious. It needs to be part of the curriculum of the school in the same way that physical education was part of the curriculum, and all children participated. 

We need Obama and his wife and the whole government to believe that this is what can really be an amazing preventative health plan that can address issues of the environment and first and foremost address childhood hunger. It can be a place where we learn the values that make a this country a democracy.

How does your new cookbook differ from the first volume? Are you planning future volumes?
I am; I sort of signed up for several. The first book was about how to cook and focused on the basic techniques of cooking, starting at the farmers' market and emphasizing simplicity of techniques, learning them by heart and being able to go from there. This book is definitely trying to get people to go out and put their hands in the earth. To understand that we're part of nature and that we're dependent on it. To see that it's beautiful and wonderful to be self-reliant and see how affordable it is to eat from the garden and how it keeps you connected with the seasons. You can cook something every single day and make it different if you have the herbs and a plot outside that can give you inspiration.

What vegetables do you think we aren't eating enough of?
It's amazing what we've done with kale.

I know, I actually just received a cookbook just for kale.
Who would have ever thought kale would have such a spotlight? I don't think we, as a nation, can eat enough greens and salads. It's just not possible. I'm very much in that phase of putting a salad on every dish as a counterpoint and not only for flavor but for good health. I think we aren't, as a nation, eating enough whole grains. Thank goodness some of the best bakers that I know are exploring that now and really talking about how great it tastes.

Lately there's been greater scrutiny of the number of women in restaurant kitchens and as food critics. What's wrong here? And is there a way to fix this?
From my point of view, it's because of raising a family. Women have been caretakers. There was a women's conference sponsored by Cherry Bombe in New York that I attended and we just touched on that subject, but I wanted to say more about that.

I was very lucky that I owned the restaurant when I had a child. I could do what I wanted to do. I could bring her in there and ask people to take care of her. I could be absent when I needed to be absent. It's very hard to be cooking when other people are at home eating. Until we figure out how to share all the childcare jobs with men and they understand that these are the basic things in life—taking care of children, feeding ourselves—I think there's always going to be fewer women as main chefs. I think they feel terribly responsible for children and their families.

We've been experimenting with a lot of things at the restaurant to address this. Some of them have to do with splitting the job of a main chef, working six months and being off six months. It doesn't exhaust them in the way that being round the clock does, and being a top chef wears you right out—you don't have time for anything else in your life. We also split up the week and two chefs cover the six days of the café, but they're paid for all five. When we pay chefs for a whole year of work even though they work for six months, it brings the goodness right back to the restaurant. They write books or research. I always thought if I could do it, I'd figure out how to have a little commune of friends, and each night you could eat at another person's house and they do the cooking. So the kids could be like a big family and parents could share all the responsibility of dinner. I think it's just too hard for a small family to do all of that, just for themselves.

Where are you eating in Chicago?
I always go to my friends' places. I always go to the Publican. I always do, and I used to make a stop every time I went to go see my sister in Michigan. And I have tacos with Rick Bayless.

  1. Alice Waters
  2. Ruth Reichl

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