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Top Chef Travels: Alice Waters

Chef Alice WatersIt would be an understatement to call Alice Waters influential; more apt would be food revolutionary, or America’s premier culinary icon. Indeed, no one has moved more earth in America’s locally grown, organic food movement than the 63-year-old chef, author, and restaurateur. In 1971, decades before the local food movement took hold, she opened the now-legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, serving exclusively organic and seasonal cuisine.

As part of her Chez Panisse Foundation, Waters has focused in recent years on initiatives such as The Edible Schoolyard, a non-profit program teaching students about organic and seasonal gardening.

Waters recently talked with Fodor’s about her favorite places near her home in the Bay Area, where she spends most of her time. She reveals the area’s best shops, what she does on a day off, and — as one might expect — her favorite farmers’ markets.

Fodor’s: Tell us about Chez Panisse. What can people expect when dining there?

AW: It’s a house that was converted into a restaurant and it sort of transformed into a spirit of green and green, if you will — sort of California in the 1930s. It’s two stories and we have a fixed-price menu downstairs and a la carte upstairs. It’s never meant to be formal; it’s meant to be really good service and real food. That’s what I’m always looking for — food that is organic, seasonal, and local.

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Fodor’s: Where is your favorite place to have breakfast?

AW: I always have breakfast in the San Francisco Farmers’ Market. I like to have my tea in the Imperial Tea Court and I have my breakfast at Primavera, the little one-day-a-week Mexican restaurant in the market at the Ferry Building. I take whatever their special is, and it’s all real food. They sell tortillas and tamales as well at the stand right next to it.

San Francisco Shopping - BellFodor’s: Do you have any favorite stores in the area?

AW: There’s a little place in the city that I like to go called Bell’occhio, (photo, right) an eccentric little place. It’s on Brady Street right across from Zuni. They sell very strange little things that you don’t see anyplace else — beautiful ribbons, boxes, and linens. It’s mostly antiques from France, but very spare. I go to Tail of the Yak (2632 Ashby Ave.; 510/841-9891) in Berkeley, and I go to The Gardener, which is a favorite store of mine.

There’s another little clothing place in San Francisco that I go to called Workshop (2254 Union St.; 415/561-9551). It’s very contemporary women’s clothing and they carry a line of clothes called Dosa, and the woman who runs that does in clothing what we do in food. You know, she finds all the artisans and producers around the world who are using organic cotton. It’s a great little place.

Fodor’s: What are some of your favorite places to go for lunch?

AW: I stop in at Zuni for lunch. I really like to shop and eat where my friends are, and I end up in the same places very often because of that. I go to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Thursday right down the street from Chez Panisse. I get cheeses at The Cheese Board, right across the street from the restaurant. And of course I eat at my own café, Café Fanny, which is right next to Acme Bread Company (1601 San Pablo Ave.; 510/524-1327) and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. It’s a little stand-up joint and you can get a beautiful organic egg and a beautiful café au lait. It’s for breakfast and lunch. So I always get wine from Kermit and I get bread from Acme Bread Company and I have a caf&eacute au lait at Café Fanny.

San Francisco - What to Do - Ferry Plaza FarmerFodor’s: Are there any hotels in the area that you like?

AW: That’s a difficult question because I like very simple places and they are in short supply. I [often] stay near the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, and there is the Hotel Vitale right across the way from the Ferry Plaza on the Embarcadero. It is a little bit hip for me. I like really quiet places.

Fodor’s: What would you do on your ideal day off?

AW: For me, it is obviously to go to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market (photo, right) on Saturday, and then out to Golden Gate Park and the de Young Museum, and all around there. I’m a film person so I’d go see a movie at The Castro or at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. I’d have lunch or dinner at Chez Panisse.

The thing that is really great is having the University of California near me and having Cal Performances, which is one of the most wonderful curated places for music and also for conversations. It’s just a great organization.

I love to go to walking up in the hills in Berkeley, and [in San Francisco] I sometimes go out to a little place called Pizzetta 211 (211 23rd Ave.; 415/379-9880) and I get a pizza and go out and eat it by the beach. SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum are both very interesting.

Photo credits: (1) courtesy Alice Waters; (2) courtesy Bell’occhio; (3) Photo by Ed Bierman.

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