Legendary Chef Alice Waters Discusses Slow Food, Seasonal Eating and Reawakening Kids’ Senses at Exec Club of Chicago Event

The queen of American Cuisine doesn’t often make it to Chicago, but when she does, she draws a crowd. On February 23, the legendary Alice Waters braved the Midwestern cold to appear at a special lunchtime program, “Slow Down with Slow Food and Alice Waters,” presented by the Exec Club of Chicago at Avec River North. The spacious, light-infused restaurant was filled to capacity with foodies, Exec Club members and industry professionals, all in attendance to see Waters — arguably the most influential person in the culinary world in the last 50 years. 

Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and Slow Food — A Brief History

When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse back in 1971 in Berkeley, California, she started a revolution in American Cuisine and kick-started the careers of various culinary luminaries, including Stephen Sullivan, Samin Nosrat, Jeremiah Tower, David Tanis, Lindsey Shere, Mark Miller, Suzanne Goin, Dan Barber, Deborah Madison, and Jonathan Waxman. Collectively, they have changed the way we eat — how we approach food at home, in markets and in restaurants — forever. And Waters was at the heart of it all with her then-revolutionary approach to cooking only what is fresh and seasonal, knowing and honoring your local farmers and other food purveyors, and treating the ingredients with respect. She championed organic agriculture before it was de rigeur; started the Edible Schoolyard Initiative; and brought the Slow Food movement here to America — she is still VP of Slow Food International. She has authored many books, from cookbooks to memoirs, and is the winner of a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award among other great honors, including a 2014 National Humanities Medal for her dedication to “celebrating the bond between the ethical and the edible.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that Waters inspires a kind of hero worship — and believe me, I count myself among the acolytes.



The Main Event

Attendees sat down to tables laden with family-style platters of vegetarian dishes spotlighting winter vegetables, like a gorgeous radicchio salad with pomelo, grapefruit, olives and Lifeway farmers cheese with preserved cherry vinaigrette, and tartines topped with grilled black oyster mushrooms with burrata and black garlic. Mini desserts like caramel mousse choux puffs with candied kumquat were munched quietly but appreciatively as the program commenced. 

The event was kicked off with opening remarks by Waters superfan Julie Smolyansky, President and Chief Executive Officer of presenting sponsor Lifeway Foods, who introduced James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Kahan as moderator for the program. Kahan, a legend in his own right, is the Executive Chef and Partner of the Chicago-area restaurant group One Off Hospitality — which includes Avec River North as well as The Publican, Big Star, The Violet Hour, and more. A great admirer of Waters — he dined at Chez Panisse on his belated honeymoon — and a chef who has devoted his career to collaboration, food education and farmer’s market-inspired, seasonal cuisine, Kahan was an inspired choice for the program’s moderator.


Waters and Kahan at the Execs Club event

Passion Breeds Success

To Kahan’s first question about turning passion and vision into success, Waters responded, “I’ve always loved doing what I’m doing, but I never did it for the money, and it’s always been 100% on my own terms. No one thought we could succeed with one (prix-fixe) menu, but I was determined to succeed and was proved right.” 

Eating as a Seasonal Experience

On why the Slow Food movement is so vital, Waters shared that she’s always prioritized taste. “Flavor was the most important thing to me, and the Slow Food movement is connecting with these organic farmers that made Chez Panisse what it is. It’s not just about California, but about the local rightness of food. It’s understanding the big picture of farming, and how it addresses climate and health. Eating should be a seasonal experience.”

Prioritizing Education

Kahan, who is one of the founders of Chicago’s Pilot Light — a food education-focused program which helps support students as they make connections between food, wellness, and community — was greatly inspired by Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Initiative, a curriculum-based education that changes how kids think about food and life. “It’s a pedagogy that teaches kids how use their senses as a pathway into the mind,” said Waters. “We live in a sensorially deprived world, where we’re on computers all the time, not fully using our senses, and we’ve tried to bring this back. It’s about building community, and I say definitively that if kids grow it and cook it, they will eat it! It’s not about offering choice — it’s the connection with the food and the people, to see the pride these kids have for what they’ve created.”


Kahan added, “It allows kids to see what kids are doing in other cultures, makes them more accepting.” Waters agreed, saying “It’s the big picture of edible education. It’s what we have in common — and teaching the values of humanity.”

Sharing Food Soothes the Soul

Both chefs agreed that food is about the person sitting across the table from us. “It’s about the love, and the flavor, and the community,” said Kahan. The sharing and savoring of food is what brings us together, and builds community. Food should nourish the body, yes, but also the soul. This is the message that has driven Waters for the last 50-plus years; what drives her still. Seeing her food activist passions on display, undimmed after decades of success and accolades, was truly inspirational.

How to Help:

Donate to support Pilot Light — a food education-focused program in Chicago that helps support students as they make connections between food, wellness, and community, and Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education through the use of organic school gardens, kitchens, and cafeterias to teach academics and community values.

More from Better:

Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.

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