Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Politics of Cooking

A UC Berkeley panel discussion features a lineup of all-star chefs and other heroes of the culinary world.

By Luke Tsai
Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 4:00 AM

If there's such a thing as food-nerd heaven, maybe it's a college course taught by Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma), playing host to a rock-star lineup of speakers that includes farmers, food activists, and some of the Bay Area's most-respected chefs. That's the gist of Edible Education 103: Telling Stories About Food and Agriculture, a sixteen-week class on food politics sponsored by Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project and open to all UC Berkeley students: Yes, the revolution will be brought to you by Chez Panisse, and there will (occasionally) be refreshments.

In short, Cal students have got it good. Luckily, the class is also open to the public — three hundred free seats each week, available by reservation a week in advance. So it was that I found myself in Wheeler Hall last Tuesday night for a cooking talk led by a panel of heavyweights: Jerome Waag (executive chef of Chez Panisse), Charlie Hallowell (chef-owner of Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service), Samin Nosrat (cooking teacher and former Eccolo sous chef), and Harold McGee (probably the most well-known authority on the science of cooking).

The talk began with Pollan making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Roman historian Livy's assertion that when the chefs become celebrities, it's a sure sign that a society is in decline; it ended with a sampling of the sweet Early Girl tomato sauce that the chefs spent an hour and a half lovingly simmering, stirring, and straining. (Needless to say, it was delicious.)

Here are five takeaways from the discussion that took place in between:

1. If you aspire to make a name for yourself in the restaurant world, bus tables at Chez Panisse.

It turns out that the notion of working your way up from the very bottom of the ladder really can happen in the restaurant industry — at least at Chez Panisse, where all three of the featured chefs launched their careers.

Nosrat was a journalism student at UC Berkeley when she ate her first meal at Chez Panisse, after having scrimped and saved for months, and was so inspired that it changed the course of her life; she applied for a job as a busser at the restaurant soon after. For her, Chez Panisse was the ultimate happy place. She was so smitten that she'd think to herself, "I can't believe they're trusting me with vacuuming the downstairs [restaurant]."

Meanwhile, Waag, a native of Provence, France, also started his career, in his early twenties, as a Chez Panisse busboy — one who, by his own account, was so terrible at bussing tables that his employers ended up sending him to the kitchen instead (!).

2. The food biz is where former English majors go to die.

None of the panelists intended to dedicate their lives to cooking: Hallowell was an English lit major and aspiring scholar of Chinese literature who only applied for a cooking job when he suddenly found himself with a young family to support. McGee, holder of the rare Bachelor of Science degree in English, said he got into food science after he wrote a thesis about Keats and, shockingly, couldn't find a job. And Nosrat was planning to become a full-time journalist when she realized that those jobs didn't really exist anymore — so she became a cook instead (a line of reasoning that I, understandably, found both inspiring and depressing).

3. Forget meditation; try cooking.

Several panelists boiled down the politics of cooking to the idea of mindfulness — of being fully engaged and present in the world. Nosrat described cooking as "a form of meditation": the moment you stop paying attention, the dish inevitably gets ruined, no matter how many times you've made it before.

Waag talked about how Chez Panisse has a terrible stove, basically the cheapest kind you can buy (really?), and how most dishes are cooked directly in fire. It's a method that's so fickle, you have no choice but to be completely engaged in what you're doing — unlike the style of cooking "where you put something in a water bath at a certain temperature for a certain time," Waag said.

4. Good food is expensive, except when it isn't.

Near the end of the evening, Pollan brought up the elephant in the room: How would the chefs respond to critics who say their restaurants are too expensive to be accessible to the masses?

Waag's answer — alluding to the cost of supporting small farmers and the fact that similar restaurants charge two or three times as much as Chez Panisse — wasn't altogether satisfying, even if it was accurate. And Hallowell's response, which addressed the expense inherent in training his employees to really know how to cook (not just heat up frozen, pre-assembled dishes), probably won't do much to convince lower-income folks that Pizzaiolo is a great deal.

Nevertheless, one of the evening's most enticing revelations came when Hallowell said he would love to open a restaurant with a menu built around $5 plates of rice and beans. Let it be so!

5. "The world is trying to steal your humanity. Cooks are trying to help you steal it back."

That's Hallowell again, with the applause line that summed up the evening's central theme.

For those interested, upcoming Edible Education class sessions will feature such luminaries as Alice Waters herself and the activist Raj Patel. The class is always on Tuesdays, from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Sign up online at

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