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Alice Waters: My startup story

Alice Waters helped change the way America eats with a simple restaurant, a line of cookbooks and a whole lot of chutzpah.

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BERKELEY (Fortune Small Business) -- When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, she wasn't trying to start a food revolution. But long before buzzwords like organic and locavore entered the popular lexicon, she was preaching the gospel of sustainable food to her customers.

The author of nine books, Waters also works to improve the food served in the nation's public schools through her nonprofit Chez Panisse Foundation. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse (along with its more casual sister, Chez Panisse Café, upstairs), is now a global foodie destination, and Waters, 65, has become one of the world's best-known chefs. She recently sat down with Fortune Small Business to talk about her nearly 40 years as a restaurateur.

Some of my earliest memories are of food. My parents planted a victory garden during World War II, and I remember eating the tomatoes and corn we grew in it. I also remember the smells when my mother, who was not a particularly good cook, canned rhubarb and apples.

My family never dined at restaurants. I didn't know anything about them until I traveled to France in 1964 in my junior year of college. That's when my whole world opened up. Everything was so beautiful there. I even remember my first French meal: a brothy root-vegetable soup with lots of parsley and garlic. It was amazing.

In France, life and food were seamlessly woven together. Aesthetics, including the way the table was set, mattered. I loved how French waiters always sat down to share a civilized meal before the lunch rush, and I started to respect the mealtime experience. When I was growing up in New Jersey, we always ate dinner together at home, but it was chaotic and not much fun. The children -- four girls -- all spoke at once. My mother tried to do everything herself, and my father was always tired. Gathering around the table was almost a forced ritual.

When I came back to America in 1965, I started cooking, just for my friends. I cooked all the dishes in Elizabeth David's cookbooks, which are written like essays, with few measurements. So I started to figure it out on my own and gained a lot of confidence that way. I made chocolate mousse every day, trying to perfect it.

Upon graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, I became a teacher at a local Montessori school. I loved the Montessori philosophy, which is all about educating the senses and learning by doing. While I was teaching, I kept learning about food by eating. I was always shopping, cooking and asking friends for recipes. For example, someone gave me a recipe for borscht, which I didn't know how to make. I practiced until I got very good at it. I spent a lot of time looking things up in the Larousse Gastronomique.

After about three years at Montessori, I realized I wasn't a very good teacher. My students -- four-year-olds -- wanted to know everything, and I felt I didn't have the answers. So I quit and opened a restaurant, borrowing cash from my father, who mortgaged his house.

Chez Panisse opened in 1971. [Waters named her restaurant after Honoré Panisse, a character in French director Marcel Pagnol's film trilogy Marius, Fanny and César.] In no time I had 50 employees, and I didn't know how to manage any of them. I lost $40,000 in the first three months. We were open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was too much. We were hemorrhaging money. I had to lay off half of my staff, and we stopped serving breakfast and closed on Sundays.

I didn't pay any attention to money. For years I took no salary and lived with friends. For me it's never been about the money. But obviously I had to make some.

At one point I was so desperate that I reached out to the only businessperson I knew: a friend named Gene Opton, who owned a cookware store in Berkeley. She was my guardian angel and began paying the bills. Eventually she became an investor in the restaurant.

In 1975 we got a glowing review in Gourmet magazine. Suddenly people were coming to the restaurant, but for the wrong reason: They wanted to be seen here. It wasn't about the food anymore. The restaurant became so busy that my friends couldn't get in! It was moving away from what I had wanted Chez Panisse to be: a simple, homey place where people could eat wonderful food. Getting back to that took years of personnel changes and menu simplifications.

After about eight years the restaurant was in the black. I always said that if we survived the first five years, we'd be here forever.

Eventually I formed a corporation with several key employees and, in an effort to keep burned-out staffers, gave key workers shares in the company. Today I own only an eighth of the business.

Part of my philosophy is to try to give employees a great quality of life. My guiding principle is to put myself in their place and ask what I would find desirable in a job. That's why the waiters' changing room is just as beautiful as the Chez Panisse kitchen and bathrooms. I also feel that it's impossible for a chef to work productively six days a week. Chez Panisse chefs work three and are paid for five. This way they have a day to go to the market and get inspired to cook. It also gives them time to have dinners at home with their families.

I never tell the chefs what to cook. That's up to them. I'm here to taste. I love walking into the restaurant and being surprised. They work within certain parameters, of course. For example, we're driven by fresh, seasonal food that we buy at farmers' markets. From the very beginning we have worked to develop relationships with farmers. And we're Mediterranean in spirit in that Chez Panisse was inspired by my travels throughout that region. But you will also find Indian and Middle Eastern dishes on our menu because we love those cuisines as well.

When I started out, the Chez Panisse philosophy contrasted sharply with conventional restaurant wisdom in America. Back then French restaurants were fancy and expensive. The waiters wore white jackets and ties. I wanted wonderful service that wasn't intimidating. I've always placed my customers' needs first. I wanted to demystify the cooking process for them and make them comfortable.

The people who eat here and the people who cook here need to be connected. That's why we have an open kitchen. Customers can walk into the kitchen and ask for seconds.

Learning about food and where it comes from has also always been important to me. It goes beyond the restaurant. I have a vision of what must happen for the good of the planet. I truly believe we need to turn our food system upside down and get back to the way food has traditionally been produced. It's about growing food locally, eating it in season, producing it without pesticides and preserving it for the winter months by canning.

Since I opened Chez Panisse, I have noticed a movement toward small, local restaurants that help feed and financially support communities. It's less about big chains, celebrity and making a million bucks, which is consistent with our philosophy. That's why there's no Chez Panisse East or Chez Panisse Las Vegas. Besides, I couldn't imagine trying to operate another restaurant!

I have never felt that we've arrived. There is always something more to do. Running a restaurant is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: As soon as you're done, you've got to start over again. To top of page

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