I was lucky enough to meet one of my all time heroes at Litfest at Ballymaloe last weekend. Alice Waters is owner/chef of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world. Opened in 1971, its founding principles were to use only the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients produced sustainably and locally. Chez Pannise was literally decades ahead of the local food movement, in much the same way that Myrtle Allen was decades ahead when she opened Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry in the 1960’s.
At her Litfest talk, Waters told instructive anecdotes about the early days of the restaurant – how she hired a full time forager before the term forager was commonly used; planting the whole back yard at the restaurant in Mesclun salad to ensure a regular supply; and how her ‘patchwork of suppliers’ included a local couple who would bring in a handful of fingerling potatoes in exchange for lunch. “I had no interest in making money,” she said of that time, “I just wanted the food to be good.”
In later years Alice Waters spread her passion beyond California becoming one of the world’s leading activists for local and seasonal food. The Edible Schoolyard programme, which she started in 1996 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley contained a one-acre garden, adjacent kitchen-classroom, and an “eco-gastronomic” curriculum – helping students to connect with all aspects of food, from growing to cooking to eating. She would later partner with Catherine Sneed’s remarkable garden project at San Francisco County Jail, with Chez Panisse serving food that was grown by the prisoners in their garden. Waters got emotional as she spoke about meeting one prisoner who said his first day working in the prison garden was the best day of his life.
Happily there are restaurants in Ireland following a similar approach to Chez Pannise – restaurants where the head grower is as revered as the head chef – the remarkable Harry’s restaurant in Inishowen, Loam in Galway; Mount Falcon in Sligo; Belleek Castle in Mayo and many more. The idea behind our own GROW HQ, which will open in Waterford next year, is that all of the fruit and vegetables being served in the café will be grown right there on the site. All of these projects turn the standard restaurant modus operandi on its head – seasonal produce driving the day’s menu rather than set menus driving the acquisition of produce. Exciting times indeed.
Give Peas a Chance at Work
With our friends in Cully & Sully, we’re looking for 500 workplaces to take part in our ‘al desko’ food growing challenge by growing peas on their desk at work. Sign up today for a free Give Peas a Chance growing kit for you and up to 5 colleagues. Each week we will be picking our favourite growers to win cool GIY prizes and the top prize is worth €5,000 including a €3,000 garden which you can donate to your local community. Sign up athttp://www.cullyandsully.com/ourgarden