The Politics of Cooking: A Night of Edible Education at UC Berkeley

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If there’s such a thing as food-nerd heaven, maybe it’s a college course taught by Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, etc.), one of America’s foremost thinkers on the ethics and politics of food, 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 — 300 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 & 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).

After several weeks heavy on food policy issues, the class now turned its attention to cooking: cooking as politics, as a way of life, and — perhaps — as a pathway to nirvana. Last Tuesday’s 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 tending to — that they had lovingly simmered, stirred, and strained. (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.

A bulk of the evening was devoted to hearing the origin stories of these culinary superheroes, so to speak, and it turns out that the notion of working your way up from the bottom of the ladder really can happen in the restaurant industry — at least at Chez Panisse, where all three of the featured chefs had launched their careers (McGee, the non-chef, being the only outlier).

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. So smitten was she 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 (!). Just as incredibly, Waag said that Chez Panisse is the only place he’s ever worked — a statement that seems equivalent to a Silicon Valley bigwig saying Google is the only employer that she’s had.

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

Charlie Hallowell (center) holds court while McGee and Pollan look on.
  • Luke Tsai
  • Charlie Hallowell (center) holds court while McGee and Pollan look on.
None of the panelists intended to dedicate their lives to cooking: Hallowell was an English lit major and aspiring scholar of Chinese literature who applied for his first 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, as noted, 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.

The class was ostensibly structured around the topic of the politics of cooking, and certainly there was talk of sustainability and locavorism and supporting small farmers who are doing things the right way — all key elements of the Chez Panisse legacy. But 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,” wherein the practitioner pays constant attention because she has to — the moment you don’t, the dish is inevitably ruined, no matter how many times you’ve made it before.

In making the same point, Chez Panisse’s Waag made a small swipe at practitioners of so-called molecular gastronomy: He talked about 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. That’s a cooking method that’s so fickle, you have no choice but to be completely engaged in what you’re doing — not like 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.

Class ended with a tasty snack.
Near the end of the evening, Pollan brought up the thousand-pound elephant that’s often in the room during discussions about the food movement: 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 high costs associated with supporting small farmers and the fact that other similarly-high-quality 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 also won’t do much to convince lower-income folks that Pizzaiolo is a great deal.

Hallowell acknowledged, however, that there is plenty of good food that is also inexpensive. One of the evening’s most enticing revelations, then: Hallowell says 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 — that cooking is, at its core, a way of connecting with and caring for other human beings. Maybe that, more than anything, is what makes it a political act.

For those interested, there will be a few more Edible Education class sessions before the semester ends. Tonight’s class, during which Pollan will discuss GMO labeling and the implications of Prop 37’s recent defeat, is all booked. But upcoming sessions will feature such luminaries as Alice Waters herself and the activist Raj Patel.

Class is always on Tuesdays, from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Sign up online via the Edible Schoolyard Project website.

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