At a public exchange between food journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey earlier this month, Alice Waters was a tiny, quiet figure whose presence roared. Flanked by companions who insulated her like bodyguards, standing in front of her seat in the VIP section at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall before the event began, Waters looked silvery and elegant. The 62-year-old was sheathed in a linen duster the color of black truffles. An oatmeal-colored cashmere scarf framed her dark eyes and delicately attenuated cheekbones, a startlingly familiar face. She greeted people she knew with Parisian air kisses and a poise that suggested an acute awareness of the eyes pressing in on her.
The attention seemed to make Waters excruciatingly uncomfortable. The woman adored around the world by foodies and advocates of sustainable agriculture appeared intensely vulnerable and a bit, well — lost.
That glimpse of Waters jibes with the 350-page portrait that author Thomas McNamee has sketched in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (Penguin, $27.95). The book’s subtitle suggests a whimsy every bit as charming as the Marcel Pagnol films that inspired the name of her flagship eatery. But brush past the cute and the quirky, and McNamee’s book offers a picture of Berkeley’s most famous resident as a woman with a deep ambivalence about being the proprietor of a world-famous restaurant, and a thickly muffled understanding of her own motivations. To hell with romantic: The doting mother of the so-called Delicious Revolution is a lonely, conflicted figure.
Or is it that, despite unprecedented access, McNamee is a flawed reporter?
Based on more than thirty interviews with Waters stretching from 2001 to just last summer, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is as close as any book has yet come to being a bio blessed by Waters, a figure whose public statements have been as controlled as her appearance at the Pollan-Mackey debate. Waters’ assistant, the author explains, “first approached me about writing this book, presumably on her boss’ authority, and in that sense it is ‘authorized.'” That “presumably” irks like a sliver from a wooden packing crate in an arugula salad. I mean, couldn’t he have asked? And wouldn’t such an easily settled question raise some editorial red flag? At times, McNamee seems astonishingly incurious about his subject.
It makes you appreciate what a meticulous journalist Bill Buford was in last year’s Heat. Among other things, his book is a densely rendered portrait of the chef Mario Batali — you get the feeling Buford tracked down any prep cook who’d ever cleaned a squid in one of Batali’s kitchens in his search for insights.
But McNamee seems content with surface narratives. Take his account of a banquet Waters produced in Italy in 2002 as part of Slow Food’s biennial Salone del Gusto. McNamee’s report — first published in 2003 in Saveur magazine, and presented in slightly reworked form here as a kind of main course — has an oddly outside perspective that ends up revealing very little about Waters. With a kitchen crew of Chez Panisse imports (including Chris Lee, who has since moved on to his own Berkeley restaurant, Eccolo), Waters oversees an improvised dinner that ultimately seems rather mediocre. McNamee’s reporting is more lackluster than the food. “As evening came on,” he writes, describing the climactic moment before service begins, “Alice’s posture grew slightly S-shaped; she looked softer, soft-boned, and then, as she seemed to catch herself sagging, she squared her shoulders and stood up straight, as if in resolution.”
Okay, you think, here it comes: McNamee’s money shot, some insight that’ll crack Waters’ famous reserve wide open. But the author is shooting blanks. He’s already moved on to some other surface observation, a quote with the astonishing force of non sequitur. “‘I’m infusing the oil for the crostini with truffles,’ Chris reported.”
The author does manage to sketch a complex picture of Waters’ strained marriage to Stephen Singer, massively dysfunctional at a time when, ironically, she was arguing passionately for a return to the communal values of the shared table. Still, McNamee is much better at chronicling events — like the fecund, messy, coke-and-weed-fueled first decade of Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971. Former chef Jeremiah Tower’s acidly narcissistic account in his 2003 score-settling book, California Dish, is far more fun. It’s tempting to think of this book in part as Waters’ answer to Tower, whom McNamee presents as rather pathetic.
Come to think of it, Waters may have chosen McNamee to tell her story precisely because she sensed he wouldn’t probe too deeply. Better to seem lonely and conflicted — and ultimately noble — than seriously flawed. “Many people who have known Alice through the years still have no idea what Alice’s inner life is like,” McNamee muses. “That is probably because nearly all her life has been lived on the outside, in plain view.” It’s an arrangement the author seemed content to let stand.