BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — There's something you need to know about Alice Waters, the celebrated chef who changed the way America eats.
She grew up eating frozen peas, frozen fish sticks and canned fruit salad for dinner. To complete this incongruous picture, Waters adds, "I grew up with iceberg lettuce and Wishbone dressing."
Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse are credited with pioneering the farm-to-table movement and introducing mesclun to the masses. But she didn't start out as a revolutionary and wants people to know that. Her journey from a childhood of 1950s convenience cooking to the heights of American gastronomy is the subject of her new memoir, released this week.
In "Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook," Waters tells richly detailed, occasionally spicy tales of her early years, the travels, transformative meals, friendships and love affairs — there were many — that changed the course of her life and led her to open Chez Panisse in 1971, without any formal culinary training.
Seated in a sunlit alcove of her iconic Berkeley restaurant, which is still booked weeks in advance, Waters is animated, engaging and personable. She is also busy, with little sign of slowing down at age 73. She recently returned from a trip to India, then returned home to attend Chez Panisse's 46th birthday celebration, then headed to Telluride for the film festival co-founded by former lover Tom Luddy, who remains a close friend, and she is now preparing for book signings.
The towering culinary figure stands a diminutive 5-foot-2 and boosts herself up on an extra banquette cushion before discussing her life story over a pot of herbal tea. "This is my most favorite recipe," Waters says as she pours the aromatic brew of fresh mint and lemon verbena leaves.
Waters has published over a dozen books over the years, mostly cookbooks, a few about the restaurant and two illustrated children's books. But none had prepared her for writing her memoir.
"This is a very personal book. At first, I didn't know whether I could do it," Waters, said. "But I knew I had to do it honestly, or not do it at all."
The book tells self-deprecating anecdotes of early encounters with culinary greats like Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme, and recollections of her suburban New Jersey childhood. As a teen, she drank too much and stayed out past curfew. Waters was briefly a high school cheerleader and in a college sorority until getting kicked out on "morals charges" — i.e. drinking and staying out late.
She recounts painful memories she had never publicly discussed, including an attempted rape in the mid-70s when a man with a knife broke into her Berkeley apartment. She escaped by jumping head first out a second-story window. It left her terrified but ultimately empowered by her survival instinct.
"A lot of things I never talked about are in this book. It's hard for me. And I have to keep remembering why I'm doing this," she said.