Years ago I attended a gilt-edged potluck supper for which chefs of America's top 25 restaurants brought the food. The buffet, against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, was a stretch of pastry-wrapped pa~te's and mosaics of foie gras with truffles in aspic. Among them was a dish that made every other look pretentious: a large bowl of dewy wild greens. It was Alice Waters' salad, picked just before she boarded her plane from California to representBerkeley's Chez Panisse in the lineup. And it was like a show stopping whisper in a roomful of shouting people.
The next time I met Alice Waters was at Craig Claiborne's 65th birthday party, another potluck gala, and this time the chefs' contributions were even more monumental. Again Waters stole the show with the simplest dish: roasted peppers with anchovies, the peppers garden fresh in several different colors, the anchovies fresh too.
Alice Waters, godmother of California culinary style, is not famous just for her cooking, she's famous for her shopping. She concerns herself with the planting, the growing, the cultivating -- of the farmer who grows miracles for her. She doesn't get much into the storing, because she hardly believes in storing anything. From field to mouth as directly as possible is her goal.
Now Alice Waters is playing out her dream with a market of "small growers and producers who are interested in growing and raising animals in the right way, as naturally as possible and as organically as possible." There will be fish sellers, and the very best of bread baked there (by Berkeley's revered Acme bakery, she hopes). "At least four or five of all the major food groups" will be represented, at their best. "I would like it to be irresistible food that just happens to be good for you and nourishing in every way," summed up Waters.
Alice Waters' market -- officially known as Central Market -- is a project with a group of developers, who expect it to open as early as spring 1988. In a rundown section of Oakland that is being regentrified, it is on the site of the old Free Market, built in 1917. Scoffers say the neighborhood is still run-down, crime- and drug-ridden, and that it is too inconvenient. Then again, when Chez Panisse opened 16 years ago, said Waters, "The banks scoffed at it ... they thought it was a joke." And that joke has become probably the most influential restaurant in America.
She has in mind "a smallish kind of market," one that becomes a gathering place for "a culturally diverse group." She intends a market where the Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese who live nearby in Oakland's Chinatown will feel as comfortable shopping as the chefs of San Francisco's celebrated restaurants.
Will chefs drive 20 minutes over bridge and highway to personally shop there? "I hope it is going to bring all the restaurant community from the Bay area over every morning so we can get together," Waters spun out her image. It will need a cafe, perhaps stand-up. And ideally other cafes will spring up around the market. Probably some of the market stands will be open around the clock so that people with odd hours -- bakers, fish dealers -- can stop by.
Maybe chefs will want their food delivered from the market; but, said Waters, "I think there is more to getting the food than getting on the telephone. You get ideas from the market." She likes to choose the exact ripeness of every fruit and vegetable, and compose the colors of the tomato assortment for her devastatingly beautiful tomato croutons.
What's more, such a market can strengthen the leverage of restaurants to get the products they want. It might allow them to buy only what they need -- for example, the legs of lamb without the whole carcass -- since the butcher will have a retail clientele to buy the less elegant parts. For the public, such a market will tighten the "connection between what we eat and where it comes from," said Waters.
And will she spend time there herself? Not working there, but certainly shopping there, she replied; "If I don't spend time there, it is not what I want it to be."
Tabletalk Several years ago I looked into the popcorn-store trend in Los Angeles, but the trend -- and the lone store -- had died before I got there. Clearly it was ahead of its time. Here is some evidence of the popcorn trend's revival:
Americans consume an average of 2.4 pounds of unpopped pocorn a year, up 5 percent a year since the turn of the century. We spent more than $400 million on unpopped popcorn last year, which is 92-percent growth in the past five years. That's what Fancy Food magazine tells us.
First we had high-tech, multi-colored, multi-flavored popcorn; then stores to sell it. Now we have stores to sell low-tech popcorn, in natural flavors -- in California, of course, at San Francisco Popcorn Works.
Corniest new popcorn ideas: a complete kit of popping corn, oil and salt in a video cassette holder; and single-serving microwave popcorn in its own serving dish.
ALICE WATERS' TOMATO TOAST (Makes 4 sandwiches, can be halved to make 8 pieces)
These open-face sandwiches, which make a nice hors d'oeuvre or summer lunch, are particularly beautiful with a combination of ripe green tomatoes, yellow tomatoes and red tomatoes. You can also play with the different varieties of basil.
FOR THE VINAIGRETTE:
1 small, sweet red onion, minced, or 2 or 3 shallots, minced
Large pinch salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
FOR THE TOAST:
4 slices sourdough or peasant bread
4 teaspoons olive oil, more if necessary
1 clove garlic, halved
4 tomatoes, sliced
8 to 10 big leaves fresh basil, torn or minced, or 10 to 12 small whole leaves
Mix together onion or shallots, salt, pepper and wine vinegar, and let marinate for 10 minutes. Whisk in olive oil. Toast bread or grill on both sides until brown. Drizzle with olive oil and rub with a half clove of garlic.
Place sliced tomatoes overlapping on bread while still warm and spoon vinaigrette over. Garnish with basil.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group