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SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview with Alice Waters: 'Most of What We Eat Is not Real Food'

Legendary California chef Alice Waters, who is a jury member at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about why we need to change the way we eat, Obama's support for the food movement and how to forage in Switzerland in the winter.

The "eat local" movement has become a force to be reckoned with in the United States in recent years, going from the fringes to the mainstream as more and more people become interested in eating better and minimizing their carbon footprint. The kind of locally grown, sustainable organic food that was once a California phenomenon can now be found at stores and farmers markets across the country.

One of the pioneers of that movement is chef Alice Waters, who transformed her state's cooking in the 1970s into world-renowned "California cuisine" with her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Inspired by her experiences in France, she promoted the use of produce from local farms that is in season and advocated planting vegetable gardens in schools.

More than 30 years later, Waters is promoting sustainable agriculture as tirelessly as ever. She is now vice president of the international Slow Food movement, which promotes regionally grown goods and local culinary traditions. In November, Waters wrote an open letter to then President-elect Barack Obama, offering her services as an adviser and urging him to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn.

This February she enjoys another distinction: The self-confessed movie buff is a member of the jury at the Berlin International Film Festival. This year's festival features a number of films relating to the new food movement, including the documentary "Food, Inc.," which is highly critical of industrial food production, and the Slow Food portrait "Terra Madre."

SPIEGEL ONLINE talked to Alice Waters about the rise of the Slow Food movement and why the fight for real food needs to be taken to Washington.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's wrong with the food we eat today?

Alice Waters: Most of it is not real food, in my opinion. Real food is grown by people who take care of the land, who refrain from herbicides and pesticides and everything that chemical agribusiness is putting into the food. It's food that's grown for taste, and it's grown in a way that pays people a good wage for their work -- it's not grown at somebody else's expense. As the Slow Food folks say, it's good, clean and fair. Generally we're supporting a system that is not.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've been promoting the use of locally grown ingredients since the 1970s. Do you feel things are getting better?

Waters: It's kind of incredible -- the globalization of food is, of course, omnipresent now, but there's also been this counter movement of organic and sustainable food that is rising up in countries around the world. I never knew, way back then, that so many other people in the US were doing the same thing -- we didn't know each other. But now we have met, and we've met globally through Slow Food. And it's very, very good this meeting, because we feel empowered.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In which places is the use of sustainable local food particularly well developed?

Waters: There are a lot of places where things are pretty far along in the US -- Northern California is one of those places, Vermont is another. But I think it's very important that we bring this movement together in a very public way. We need to gather our forces together. And it seems to me right now that Washington, DC is the place we need to go.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you hope Obama will do to promote good food?

Waters: He's already done one remarkable thing in relation to food. He hired as his private chef a young person from Chicago (editor's note: Sam Kass) who is extremely outspoken, both about sustainable food and also about food in schools. He has actually been out talking to people about it and it's all over the newspapers now, which is a really good thing. Plus Obama is sending his children to a school in Washington (editor's note: Sidwell Friends), which I have visited, that is very interested in eco-gastronomy. They're interested in sourcing their food and they have built a green cafeteria.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What should we do as consumers in order to eat better?

Waters: We have to uncover. We have to forage. I talk about foragers -- that's what I call the person who goes out in the woods or out in the neighborhood and starts finding food, like a mushroom forager. The first thing we have to look for is grass-fed beef (Ed's note: Food activists oppose the production of corn-fed beef because it helps to spread E. coli infections and the transport of corn comes with a massive carbon footprint). That alone could change the climate on the planet. The production of beef is one of the biggest problems we have.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Eating local is fine if you live in California or Italy, where there is a large selection of locally grown produce. But what happens if you live in a region like northern Europe, with its long, cold winters and short growing seasons?

Waters: That's what everyone always says. But no matter where you are, you can find things. Every region has its own products. For example, I went to Davos in Switzerland and I cooked a dinner in the mountains in the snow on Jan. 20, using only things from that region. We just don't think that there is anything there, but we eat differently in the winter than in the summer -- it's just different food. We had a forager out there in Davos. First of all, he found this beautiful red polenta that's only from that place, ground from a special red corn. Then we had cured meats that were exceptional -- little dried sausages unusually spiced with herbs from the mountains. We had lovely cheeses. We toasted nuts and seasoned them with spices. We found wholegrain bread cooked in a wood oven. We found kale down in the valley. We found baby mountain goat and we braised it. We found the best apples I've ever tasted and we made an apple tart. It's just endless.

Interview conducted by David Gordon Smith.

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