Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Alice Waters”

Chez Panisse at 40

They were out in force last weekend, the gourmet gurus from around the world as Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the little restaurant where the organic food revolution began four decades ago, celebrated a well-deserved 40 year anniversary. Waters once called her creation a “simple little place where we could cook and talk politics.”

I have never eaten at the restaurant but Alice Waters is an inspiration to me. When I turned vegetarian in 1978 the only option on my diet was soy protein pieces that looked and smelt terrible. My mother and I bravely experimented with various sauces, but nothing covered that taste. I only stayed veggie because I wanted to date this political 13-year-old who had told me she would never date a guy who murdered and abused animals (or allowed others to). My desire to eat healthy outlasted my teenage crush.

Alice Waters - last weekend

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will hang a photographic portrait of Waters. It is telling that Ms. Waters chose a photo not of the restaurant, but of the Edible Schoolyards in which students create and tend an organic garden as part of their school curriculum, that became her second passion.

My eldest son attends Martin Luther King Jr., Middle School in Berkeley, the scene of Water’s first Edible Schoolyard. I am extremely grateful to her for this initiative and her desire to share her vision with our youth while they are still at an impressionable age.

The weekend’s events  saw intimate dinners cooked in homes around the Bay Area by different chefs — Waters didn’t want a big gala event where she wouldn’t have an opportunity to talk with her guests  — doubled as fund-raisers for the Edible Schoolyard Project.

Thank you Ms. Waters for having a vision that will impact people from all walks of life and all socioeconomic levels.  Berkeley salutes you.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

People Making a Difference – Alice Waters

Alice Waters doesn’t need much introduction around these parts. The owner of Chez Panisse, author of many health/nutrition books and the endorser of a slew of initiatives in the organic, sustainable, local food movement, Waters would be a celebrity if she hadn’t chosen to live in such an anti-establishment community such as Berkeley.

Alice Waters at the King Middle School Edible Schoolyard

Still at least here she can encourage people to spend their money on organic produce rather than fashionable shoes without fear of someone stabbing her with their Women’s Liliana by Adi Croc Print Pointed Toe Stiletto ($36 at Target by the way – I did some research).

One particular initiative has caught my attention. My eldest has begun studying at King Middle School where Ms. Waters helped establish an edible schoolyard. It has now become a growing initiative around the country.

Ms. Waters says: “Students who are given healthy food options at school, along with gardening and culinary curriculum, have a greater knowledge of nutrition and eat more fruits and vegetables than children who don’t.”

Students shuck corn at the Edible Schoolyard

She also believes that every child from kindergarten to high school should eat school lunch for free. When you charge for lunch the kids who need it the most won’t buy it.

When asked what gives her hope for the burgeoning food justice movement she replied:

“The next generation of eaters — those under 25. There are some extraordinarily eager and committed young people who really care about food and where it comes from. And they understand why we need to go back to basics like growing our own food and sharing a simple, home-cooked meal.

This age group really gets the importance of nourishing ourselves and the planet.”


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com





Coffee Grounds, Mushrooms, and Student Initiative

Rewind: Spring 2009 and two seniors at Cal were sitting in a lecture for their business ethics course. Both had offers from Corporate America in investment banking and consulting. In this lecture they heard that 7 million tons of coffee are produced around the world. With only 1% ending up in the cup, the rest is destined for the landfill. What a waste.

Somewhere in that lecture Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez also learned that gourmet mushrooms can be grown on recycled coffee grounds. They mused over the possibility of diverting this waste stream into producing gourmet mushrooms, and started to learn how to actually grow mushrooms from coffee grounds. As business majors they wanted to explore if this idea could work as the basis of a full scale social venture.

Arora and Velez cruised the Berkeley coffee store and cafes collecting their used coffee grounds. Out of the first 10 buckets in which they planted, mushrooms only grew in one. They took that batch to the local Berkeley Whole Foods, and received enough positive feedback to create a plan. They submitted their business proposal to “Bears Breaking Boundaries,” an entrepreneurial competition sponsored by the UC Berkeley Chancellor and received $5,000 seed (or should I say plug) money.

The two grow gourmet pearl-oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, and sell kits to consumers who are inspired to try for themselves.

After graduation, their business, Back to the Roots, was born and their mushrooms are found on the shelves of Whole Foods. But this is not just about business or the initiative of a couple of smart students (though this is pretty awesome) , their business is an example of sustainability and social responsibility. Best of all is their utilization of a large waste stream to produce something nutritional and valuable. Even the rich soil that is a by product of their production line is donated to community gardens, local nurseries and urban farms – a growing phenomenon in Berkeley.

Then they took the principle one step further. “Starting off as purely an urban mushroom farm, Back to the Roots has recently transformed into an organization dedicated to letting everyone grow their own fresh food right at home…as local as it gets! Our vision is to serve as a standard bearer for innovation and responsibility in our community and inspire others to work towards a more sustainable future. We’re doing this first through our Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden.

These mushroom-growing kits that we sell on our website are packaged in post-consumer cardboard and printed with soy ink, an environmentally better alternative. The kits arrive in the mail ready to grow: we wanted to create a sustainable product that is easy and simple, so everyone can enjoy growing and eating fresh mushrooms (including kids…who love watching them grow so fast!). The Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Gardens yield multiple crops, and you get up to one pound of delicious pearl-oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days from your first crop. The soil inside is safe and sustainable too – 100% recycled coffee grounds! And while you may be worrying that the mushrooms taste like coffee, plenty of chefs, like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, can attest to their authentic nutty flavor.”

The box arrives through the post and the mushrooms are ready to grow … right out of the box. They even donate 5% of sales to breast cancer research and a further 5% of all sales to support local breast cancer awareness organizations – co-founder, Alex, fought through cancer in high school – and educating the community on the great health benefits of oyster mushrooms.”

Finally, this is really cool:


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


Black Oak Bookstore

Black Oak was one of the first independent bookstores that I perused when I arrived in Berkeley. I had gone to discover the Gourmet Ghetto, made famous by Alice Waters, discovered a pizza place that only made one type of pizza a day but charged a fortune and still had people lined up outside. I also discovered a Jewish deli, the original Peet’s coffee and, given that I hadn’t found a job yet, that I couldn’t afford to eat until I returned to my friend’s house.

I did discover, within this tasteful enclave of decadence, that I could afford a book or two – used, from the bargain bin of the Black Oak bookstore. Alon means Oak in Hebrew, black has long been my favorite color (and not just because it makes me appear slimmer).

Black Oak Books is no longer situated on Shattuck Ave. They have now moved to 2618 San Pablo Ave., between Parker and Carleton, a precarious five-minute walk from my house. As with all Independent bookstores, these past few years has marked a time of great transition for Black Oak Books.

They streamlined their business focusing on Internet books, buying books, re-pricing books from the old store, and continued looking for a new retail location. T’Hud Weber, the store manager, told me the new premises is still a work in progress, and they plan to begin holding author events and other community events. I found the place just as charming as their former premises. I have to admit: give me the smell of books, a smiling staff, the offer of an author event, and the offer of bargains, and I’m yours!

Here are Ms. Weber’s answers to my questions:

1) What value does your bookstore provide for the local community?
As we are in a very different location in comparison to our previous location, we are still evaluating the community needs/wants. We have had very good feedback from the neighborhood. We’ve been repeatedly thanked for opening a bookstore in this location, and have been told that this is “exactly what the neighborhood needs” which is wonderful to hear. We strive to have the lowest possible prices for used books, we have a large “Bargain Books” section priced at .50-$1.00 per book, and we have special sales for new books every other week. We also buy books from the community.

2) Who is the most inspiring author you have met? Why?
The most inspiring author I’ve met is Neil Gaiman. He’s a great storyteller, and is able to jump and blur boundaries between children’s/adult fiction, genres, characters, and voices. And, hey, he’s kind of a rock star.

3) What community events or campaigns has your bookstore been involved in?
We have not been directly involved in any community events or campaigns as of yet. Again, we’re still trying to gauge what the community needs from us at this point. However, we do put up flyers/postcards/posters from neighborhood vendors upon request.

4) If you were to retire tomorrow what would you most miss from your work?
I would miss my role as the “Book Adoption Manager”: helping unite people with that special, rare, hard to find, odd, or sentimental book. I would also desperately miss the smell and feel of the books, as this has been a particular fetish of mine since early childhood.

With all the challenges facing the independent neighborhood bookstore, I hope Black Oak not just survives, but thrives. They have shown the necessary propensity to adapt. I wish them well.

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

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