Traveling Light Like Alice Waters

The pioneering restauranteur's tips on packing for and creating a meaningful journey.



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ALICE WATERS HOVERS over California cuisine like a benevolent matriarch at her family’s dinner table — she may not be talking the loudest, but make no mistake, nobody would be there without her. Go to any excellent restaurant in the Bay Area and chances are someone on staff trained in Waters’ kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. During the Vietnam War era, Waters tapped into a cultural zeitgeist that rejected overproduced “Big Agriculture” and inspired the slow-food and farm-to-table movements that are now a prerequisite for many fine-dining establishments across the country and, indeed, the world. Every time I go to Chez Panisse, I expect to be disappointed — 50 years and counting, how could it possibly still live up to the hype? And yet, I’m always pleasantly surprised, likely because there is no trickery there. The restaurant isn’t trying to be cool or chase trends. Waters is doing what she has always done: She wants to convince us to savor “real” food and live in harmony with our surroundings. Teaching has always been at the center of her work, either through her efforts at the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit striving to transform public education through organic school gardens and kitchens, or most recently through her interest in regenerative agriculture, an environmentally friendly approach to farming. In conversation, Waters is as lively and refreshingly straightforward as the dishes she creates, proving that her ethos is not just culinary — it’s a way of life and of being in the world, from how she travels to what she treasures.



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Have you been traveling much lately?

I started a project at the American Academy in Rome in Trastevere, so I go there often and am going again in two weeks. All of Southern Italy really appeals to me. I just feel so at home [there], probably because of the slow-food movement. I always thought Rome was this daunting big city. And then I discovered the neighborhoods up in the hillsides. I just love those little pathways. I’m always looking for a place to walk where there’s real food

How do you find real food?

I’m always asking questions. And I can usually tell if they have an artichoke on the plate and it’s Christmas. I know right away from reading the menu.

What won’t you travel without?

Pu-erh tea [a fermented Chinese tea]. It’s changed my life. It’s always in my suitcase. And some granola that my daughter makes. Maybe some dates.

Where do you get your pu-erh tea?

Imperial Tea Court. They have organic tea. And they have a little place in the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, but you can order from their website.

You’re heading to Europe soon. Do you have any travel routines or rituals?

When I’m going to Europe, first I fly to New York City. I spend a few days with my friends to get over the jet lag. Then I fly on an overnight flight to Rome. I get there in time to take a walk and go to dinner, and even though it’s late in Rome, I want to try to get on the time schedule as quickly as I can. Having my tea in the morning always brings me home. I take a walk every morning for half an hour or an hour, no matter where I am. That also grounds me.

What do you bring with you on your travels? Other than the tea, of course.

I never take more than I can carry on the plane — even when I’m going to Italy for two weeks. I don’t want to worry about whether my baggage arrived. If I’m needing something desperately, I borrow it or buy it or send it back home. I feel so self-sufficient.

I learned [another tip] from my friend Jackie West, who was a costume designer in films. She said “Alice, you iron your clothes. And then you fold them in newspaper and you make this package of folded clothes in newspaper so that when you unpack it, you don’t have those big wrinkles in the clothes.” And that’s what I do.


Does a favorite meal from your travels come to mind?

I knew you were going to ask me that. It’s a hard thing to say, because when I’m really enjoying a meal, there are lots of aspects to it that I’m looking for beyond the food. I was just thinking right now about going, in New Jersey, to my friends’ restaurant, Canal House Station.

I’m so excited to see both my friends who work there. Everything about the restaurant is beautiful. There are always fresh flowers, always great dishes. I mean, the food has to be real food for me, of course. And it has to be seasonal — all of that. But the atmosphere of the place and the hospitality and the people are extremely important to me.

I love when you’re given something you don’t expect. And people still, after all these years, come to [Chez Panisse] with that hope — to be delightfully surprised.

I was there just a couple of weeks ago, and I was delightfully surprised. How do you keep doing that after so long?

You have to know and believe in collaboration. I want to know people’s opinions always — cooks, waiters, bussers, dishwashers. I want to know what they liked, what they didn’t like. It’s like regenerative agriculture: You must allow the soil to have all it needs, so it can give health to the food. That means every bug, every bee, every animal, every worm has an important part to play. I think about the kitchen being run that way too.

What’s your favorite place to explore at home?

I took a walk recently with a friend up to Coit Tower [in San Francisco]. It’s filled with paintings and art — it was a public-works art project during World War II that was meant to give artists jobs, and there are these incredible murals of farm workers in California picking oranges. And I like to walk near North Beach. The scenes have not changed there the way they have in the rest of San Francisco. And there is my favorite bookstore: City Lights Books. Right across the street is Tosca Cafe, which has been there for more than a hundred years. It’s still a vibrant political place. And Chinatown is right there too. You can certainly walk from North Beach right down to the bay and end up pretty much at San Francisco Farmers Market, which is my favorite place. One of my favorite places to eat there is Boulettes Larder. You could take a long walk to the Bay Bridge at night. There are lights on the side of the bridge, and you can also take a ferry from there and go to Oakland. I can’t say enough about the experience of being right there by the water and being able to really support those farms.

Our Contributors

Laura Smith Writer

Laura Smith is the deputy editor of Departures. Previously, she was the executive editor of California magazine and has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and many more. Her nonfiction book, The Art of Vanishing, was published by Viking in 2018.

Nishi Patel Illustrator

Nishi Patel is a junior designer at Departures. Being raised in both New York City and India sparked her love of food, which has her constantly looking for new recipes and restaurants.


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