I downloaded Alice Waters’ Coming to My Senses right after I booked the flight to San Francisco. My friend Kerry had elatedly shared the news that the founder of Chez Panisse and founder of the Berkeley food explosion had agreed to be the keynote speaker at Cherry Bombe’s Jubilee, their first San Francisco conference, so I had to cram.
This would be Cherry Bombe’s fourth Jubilee. It’s funny, I always start out feeling like an outsider when I first get to the Jubilee. It’s not that the crowd isn’t the most encouraging, supportive, lively group of women ever, but I’ve only recently dipped my toe into this food world and this reasonably insular blog is really all I’ve got…that, and a dear friend who founded a women’s food magazine. Oh, yeah; there is that. But my food resume is tiny and nascent, and when you’re among superstar chefs like Alice and Gabriela Camara and Traci Des Jardins and food writers like Eater’s Amanda Kludt and Naomi Starkman, you’re really at the grownups table. Fortunately, the magic of conferences is that while you may at first feel as if everyone knows each other except you, by the end, you have a dozen new friends, 20 new contacts and 500 co-sharers of the same magical experience.
I tagged along with Kerry because I could. Being freelance, I chose to take the time and the flight for my friend, who I knew could use my help with whatever, wherever. Also, our mutual friend Janet, a transplanted Berkeley denizen, had been Jubilee’s boots on the ground for months, so I was excited to “work” with her, too. Kerry put the two of us in charge of handling the talent, which is a little like the inmates running the asylum, but we rose to it.
“Let me know when Alice arrives.” was the most repeated sentence heard among the staff at Jubilee. It was a bit nerve-wracking to know that such star power would be there soon, and Janet and I knew how important it was to Kerry that she felt comfortable and had whatever she needed.
When Alice arrived, everyone was aflutter that the eagle had landed. I swiftly ran to the green room to both gawk and to see if Janet had already taken ownership. There she was, petite and serene. Stately beautiful, dressed in a dark charcoal tunic with a pale rusty plum scarf draped around her neck, she does have the warmest smile. Kerry waved me over because she’s that kind of a friend.
“Alice, I want you to meet one of my oldest friends,” she said, announcing my first and last name. “She’s a great writer and she has a food blog.”
Alice smiled and pulled me in for a bear hug. Alice Waters. The Alice Waters had hugged me. But I wanted more. I wanted a photo.
Now, I am of the firm belief that any time you see a friend meeting someone famous, you take their picture, but you do it surreptitiously. It’s better than a posed shot. Capturing you two mid conversation is much more intimate, and makes it appear that you two are longtime friends, even if the celeb might actually be saying at that very moment, “I think you’re standing too close to me. I’m about to call security.” She may be calling security, but I’ve got the shot.
So, when Cherry Bombe’s publisher Kate asked Alice to sign her latest book, I quietly tapped away on my phone, capturing the ask, Alice opening the book, the thank you hug and a hug Kate giving me a thumbs up.
Alice needed to use the ladies room, so I escorted her over to its entrance, then walked back to the green room and approached a fellow staffer.
“In about two minutes, Alice Waters and I are going to be walking back into this room, having a conversation. Would you mind casually taking a few shots of that happening?” I asked. “I don’t want to pose, but I just want some casual shots of us talking.”
“Sure!” she smiled.
Two minutes later, Alice and I walked back into the green room, her answering my lame questions (perhaps she knew my plan). I glanced toward the woman I’d asked to take the shots and her back was to us. Opportunity lost. Alice rejoined her chef friends and I tapped the woman on the shoulder with a “WTF?”. A few hours later, she sent me a text. “I got a shot of you and Alice!” Take a look.
See? That’s Alice, sitting down, speaking with Naomi Starkman. And a few feet behind her, to the right? That’s me, with Liz Pruitt, of the magically delicious Tartine Bakery and Manufactory, who I actually did make friends with, so I suppose I can’t complain.
The Jubilee was full of interesting panels: cultural appropriation, self care and comfort food, sustainability and more. Here’s the lineup:
There were a few who brought the house down. Shakirah Simley’s call to action, perfumer Mandy Aftel’s tasty How to Smell talk, Amanda Kludt’s slide show of statistics proving that men still rule the food world. But Alice really did steal the show. Here are some excerpts from the talk.
What excites you about food? I’m particularly interested in whole grains. People have gotten really good about making pasta that is not made of just white flour.
Who were/are your food heroes? Elizabeth David was my first cookbook. Celia Chang, Diana Kennedy, Madhur Jaffrey.
What has inspired you recently? I’m very inspired by farm to table restaurants. They’re in it for the holiday of life. Because those are the restaurants I went to in France, the ones that were basically run by a family. And they were all taking turns at cooking and were really committed to buying from the farmers who were their friends.
Thoughts on the White House garden? I can’t think about it right now. I’m very grateful that it hasn’t been taken away. Michele Obama inspired gardens in many schools and many backyards, and I hope she’ll be to continue to do that.
We all need to focus on everything we buy and eat every single day and make sure that that money buys with intention. Bring that food home and cook for your friends. We have academies at the edible Schoolyard project. Open your eyes to the excitement of the kids. My constituency age range is 6-26.
You wrote Jeff Bezos an open letter telling him that he had an unprecedented opportunity to change the way we buy food overnight. Did he write back? He never wrote back, but I know he got it. We’re both speaking at a conference in L.A. and there’s going to be a dinner that we’re both going to. So what should I ask him for? The first thing that came to my mind: gut all the food stores and make them into indoor farmers markets. That will probably fall on deaf ears, but if we had farms in cold climates we could eliminate the middle man.
What about the idea of funding start-up restauranteurs? That’s a good one. I’ll ask him that because he’s not likely to do my indoor farm suggestion. He’s changing the way we shop in a very dangerous way. I went to his new thing, 365 in LA. Neon lights and long aisles. At the end were stacks of plastic containers six feet high. The idea was to go along the aisle and put the food in these boxes. Signs said “all natural.” There was so much of it that they couldn’t possibly sell it all in one week. And there was no one to talk to except at the register. It really scared me.
What do you want your legacy to be? A free sustainable school lunch for every child and connecting it to academia. Lunch becomes an academic subject so every kid eats lunch as part of a class. If you’re studying the Silk Road, you might have a carrot and cumin salad and lentil soup. If you’re studying geography of the Middle East, maybe you’re having hummus and carrot soup. And you’re digesting your lessons along with your food.
But, really the thing that would make what I’m doing worth it would be to live in that intergenerational commune and have a community that was inspiring. Because what’s going on now is so deeply sad. Maybe we could be a commune that made tortillas while we rocked kids in the yard.
When Alice was finished and the crowd began to head upstairs to the cocktail hour, we lucky ones who could lingered in the green room. Alice was chatting with Traci, Gabriela and Liz when Kerry walked in with a woman with dark eyes and long wavy hair, holding a book.
“Alice, this is my friend, Kendra Aronson,” she said. “Kendra self-published this Slo Farmers Cookbook and I wanted to introduce you.”
Alice took the book and began to leaf through it as Kendra began to quietly cry and I began to quietly tap away on my phone. Then Alice went in for the hug. Looks like I need to work on my focus more. Then again, I kind of think these shots are just perfect.