I thought that when I graduated from college I would follow the path of my older sister: get married and have children. It was kind of expected that you would raise a family and then take care of the family and, probably like my mother, have a drink ready for my father when he came home from work. It never occurred to me that I would go down another path.
Then the Free Speech Movement happened in Berkeley, California, in the early 1960s, and I was on the edge of it. There was war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the general idea that the Establishment was doing things that were really immoral … so I adopted a different set of values.
I was very intimidated by cooking when we first started Chez Panisse. We had Victoria Wise in the kitchen, and my partner Lindsey Shere was making pastries. I was in the dining room. We felt very comfortable in those places, in that place. But I was shocked when the French chefs came to the restaurant and said, “That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.” I was aware that perhaps what we were doing was not complicated enough or not interesting enough. I have really come to appreciate that comment, however, because creating a beautiful meal is about finding the right ingredient, knowing when it’s ripe and the exact way to use it. Nine-tenths of cooking is understanding farming and seasonality.
When I was invited to New York to receive an award, out of 25 chefs, I was the only woman. We each presented a dish. All of the men had fancy French dishes—ice carvings, sautéed lobster. I had brought a salad. I will never forget how self-conscious I was. I kept saying, “I borrowed the bowl from James Beard, I made the vinaigrette, and these are the kinds of lettuces.” It was excruciating to think I had been so naive. And yet when they reviewed the dishes, all they talked about was the salad.
Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 and started the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1995.