From our post-gourmet perch in 2017, it’s hard to remember that the Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse was revolutionary when it opened in 1971, in the aftermath of the Free Speech Movement. And it was opened when Alice Waters, now the patron saint of organic and intuitive cooking, was only 27, with no restaurant experience. Waters has many books to her name, but in Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, published last month by Clarkson Potter, she recounts her 1950s youth and influences, alternating family tales with her culinary awakening.
In our excerpt, Waters talks about early restaurant experiences with her family and about her infatuation with garlic.
SOME OF the restaurants we went to weren’t fancy at all. At Yuet Lee in Chinatown, we ordered salt and pepper squid—and at Tommaso’s, I loved the pizzas with garlic. I absolutely fell for that, and those were probably the first times I truly noticed and appreciated garlic. There was some sort of convergence of taste for me—the garlic flavor was associated with that taste of really good food from the wood oven.
As you know by now, garlic became a huge obsession at Chez Panisse after we started doing an annual Bastille Day garlic festival in 1976. We used a lot more garlic at the restaurant after that. More than anything, it was about awareness. We learned that you couldn’t chop all your garlic for the whole night ahead of time—you had to chop it as you went along, so it wouldn’t oxidize. And the stronger the garlic got, the longer you had to cook it—usually it was at its strongest around Christmas, January, and February. You had to take out the little green sprout in the middle of each clove,
because that could be bitter. And we learned that garlic is spoiled when it’s burned or browned in any way. I can tell right away when I go into a restaurant with bad garlic.
We learned, too, that there is more to garlic than the papery white heads; when the garlic is growing and you thin a row so that the heads can mature and grow to full size, the young green garlic shoots you pull up are delicious, too. We experimented with a soup in the springtime made from that green garlic, from what had been thinned. I loved the taste of that soup—it was so pure, a really gentle flavor. We’d make it with potatoes and even stewed some of the green tops for garnish. You always want garlic to taste like that. It’s so rare, though. I think we invented that soup on our own—I don’t remember getting a recipe for it, although various recipes existed out there. I just know we responded to that unique taste. We made that soup for James Beard the first time he came to the restaurant. It was in the early days, and we’d referred to it on the menu as young garlic. James said, very emphatically, “You don’t call it young garlic—it’s green garlic!” He knew all about it.
Excerpted from Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters. Copyright © 2017 by Alice Waters. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.