Alice Waters is well-known as the chef and proprietor of the Berkeley, CA restaurant Chez Panisse. Waters is a pioneer in modern cuisine, bringing local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients to the plate, before “farm-to-table” was ever a catchphrase.
While many know Waters as a chef of French-influenced dishes, Waters has a history with Chinese food. Specifically, one of her longtime friends and mentors is Cecilia Chiang, 95, owner of the former Mandarin Restaurant, which first opened in San Francisco in 1961. Waters met Chiang shortly after opening her own restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971. The two have forged a friendship in the past four decades.
Waters is the author of fourteen books and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, which advocates for healthy school lunches and a sustainable food curriculum in every public school. She is also Vice President of Slow Food International.
Chiang and Waters are subjects in the new documentary by Wayne Wang, Soul of a Banquet, which premieres on PBS stations nationally this May, presented by the Center for Asian American Media.
For the 40th year anniversary of Chez Panisse, Chiang prepared a multi-course Chinese banquet in celebration of Waters and her restaurant, and to raise funds for The Edible Schoolyard Project. Wang filmed the banquet, which kickstarted the documentary about Chiang’s life.
Waters shares how she first met Chiang, reflections on their travels in China, and why she believes her daughter, Fanny, has a passion for Asian food today.
How did you first meet Cecilia?
I met her right at the beginning of Chez Panisse. I’m not quite sure when it was, maybe the first 3 years of Chez Panisse. Our mutual friend, Marion Cunningham, asked me to go to a cooking class that was happening at the Mandarin. So I went there for lunch and I was incredibly impressed and really admired Cecilia as a restaurateur, or I should say, a restauratrice. And we became friends from that point. Very much the three of us—Marion, Cecilia and myself—we spent a lot of time together, going out to restaurants, eating at the Mandarin, and ultimately, traveling together.
What was the cooking class like?
We were in the kitchen. Her chef was cooking and they were making tea-smoked duck. I just had never had duck like that in my life. I was just so knocked out with his doing it, how they were being smoked. It was revelatory to me to watch him cooking with the wok and using all the vegetables that I didn’t know about. It was very impressive. It was a demonstration kind of cooking. I didn’t really take a class—I was there looking in on the class.
So Cecilia was a restaurant owner at the same time as you were. What did it mean to you that she started her restaurant in 1961, and in Japan before then? Did that have any impact on you as a woman chef?
Oh, absolutely. She just took me under her wing, in a way. She taught me everything she knew about taking care of a dining room and what it was to make up a menu. I think that was the part that was particularly impressive to me. Because I was doing single menus at Chez Panisse. She would think about a menu in ways that I’d never imagined before. It was always about what was exactly in season; always ending with fish; and she was always thinking about the textures. I was seated at her side at many banquets so she would be putting things on my plate and showing me how to eat them in sequence. She knew she was passing something on to me, and I was very eager to have it happen.
You, Marion and Cecilia traveled together in Europe and Asia. Can you talk about what that was like?
It was positively eye-opening to go to China in 1983. We stayed at a guesthouse where Nixon had stayed in China. We were supposedly there for a gastronomic and culinary visit. I realized later that Cecilia was really there to see her family. And she used the idea of this culinary adventure to have access to very special places and for us to have dinner. We ate a lunch at the Summer Palace while we were there. Many times, when we were traveling around, people would stop and listen to Cecilia speaking Mandarin and be very impressed by her and thinking that she was a part of the ruling class of China and following her around.
She took us on lots of adventures. One of them was when we went to Hangzhou. There weren’t any restaurants but she saw somebody was getting married at a place she used to like. And she said, “Well, let’s go say hello to these people” and they invited us to have lunch with them. We had this amazing sweet and sour fish with water chestnuts. Cecilia is always ready to eat and drink and walk and talk and meet. She’s a great traveling companion.
I was pregnant during that trip. It’s quite amazing that now my daughter has an absolute passion for Asian food. We had gone to Japan before and then to China. Sometimes I wonder if it had to do with that time I spent there.
She was exposed to it in your belly.
Yes. It was quite something.
That’s fascinating. About Soul of a Banquet—what do you think of the film?
I think it’s so important that her life is recorded because she has influenced and educated a whole generation about Chinese food.
Could you talk a little bit about what your friendship with her has meant to you throughout the years?
Oh, it’s precious to me. I’m just writing a memoir about the people that have influenced my life, the women who have influenced my life, and she’s one of the 10 people who’ve had great influence on me.
She has a beautiful rhythm to her life. It’s about how you stay vital as you grow older, and what keeps you young. Certainly, her relationship with restaurants, her excitement about tasting things that are new. She is as passionate as she was when I first met her.
This is an edited version of the interview.