Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., more than 40 years ago, building relationships with local purveyors to serve some of the country’s most beautiful food. She is a pioneer of California cuisine and the author of 14 books, including “The Art of Simple Food, I & II” (Clarkson Potter 2007, 2013).
She has introduced sustainable agriculture to the next generation through the Edible Schoolyard Project, a national curriculum for kindergarten through high school to educate students on the role of local food and cooking in building healthy bodies and communities.
The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden will celebrate her legacy on Sept. 12 at its annual fundraiser, “From Garden to Table.” It’s a gala tribute dinner to be held at the Ada and George Davidson Event and Culinary Center, the newly restored barn in Oakdale.
“It just seemed to make sense that it’s time to honor Alice,” said Kitty Vagley, director of development for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. “We can finally stage the gala at the Botanic Garden site. The 1870s barn is so rustic and authentic, she was just a natural fit.”
In March, developers completed the first phase of the garden’s master plan. Sixty acres — including three miles of hiking trails — were opened to the public. Eventually, there will be 18 distinct gardens and five types of woodlands, but because the ground under the middle and southern ridges was deep mined and strip mined for coal, it will take some time to reclaim the land.
A team of all-star Pittsburgh chefs will collaborate on the cooking: Derek Stevens of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, Bill Fuller of Big Burrito Restaurant Group, Justin Severino of Cure in Lawrenceville, Trevett Hooper of Legume and Butterjoint in Oakland, Sonja Finn of Dinette in East Liberty and Kate Romane of E2 in Highland Park. They have not yet selected a menu for the event.
When Mr. Hooper started working in restaurants in the late 1990s, “I didn’t think restaurants could really cook the way they did and still do at Chez Panisse,” he said, referring to the array of purveyors and the quality of local, organic foods. “But it’s not a trend, and they’ve been doing it for 40 years.
“She didn’t create something new or invent something,” Mr. Hooper said. “She gave voice to something that’s very natural and very important.”
At Legume and Butterjoint, Mr. Hooper continues to be inspired by Ms. Waters in terms of how to apply her ideas to this region, which is not hospitable to gardening for nearly half the year. It’s one reason he traveled to Eastern Europe and Russia in the winter. He wanted to learn more about their foodways and preservation methods, to learn how to embrace Ms. Waters’ values in climates that mirror Pittsburgh’s.
At Dinette, Ms. Finn and her staff are most influenced by Ms. Waters’ work beyond Chez Panisse. “Alice Waters pushes for a food economy that is good, clean and fair,” Ms. Finn said. “I’m aware that as a chef who is purchasing and cooking for 600 people a week, my responsibility in the food economy is commensurate with my influence. This responsibility — to the farmers, producers, purveyors, environment, community and our customers — is what I try to inspire in my cooks.”
Over at E2, Ms. Romane cited how Ms. Waters has established the baseline for good ingredients, in ways that affect every community in the country.
“Honestly, she is my biggest hero,” said Ms. Romane. “Her politics are in her food, and I really admire that. She started this big movement that we all benefit from.”
Tickets for the events start at $350 for an individual donation and can be purchased at pittsburghbotanicgarden.org.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.