Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Food for Thought

I originally wrote this in 2004. It gives a business perspective on one of my American food heros - Alice Waters. One correction, I don't believe she invented the mesculin mix as I claim in the article, but rather popularized it in America.

Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, is a business visionary that transformed the American restaurant industry and changed our eating experience forever. She pioneered the preparation of cuisines based entirely on local ingredients. She invented a new way of working with suppliers by cultivating collaborative relationships with local organic farmers. Waters is responsible for introducing many of the innovations in restaurant cuisine that we take for granted today. For example, she worked with local farmers to cultivate obscure varieties of lettuce that few if any people had ever heard of or eaten before. Today the “mesculin mix”, which she invented, is served in restaurants everywhere and is widely available in supermarkets.

Alice Waters is now taking on a new challenge. She is raising the $400,000 annual budget for the Edible Schoolyard program ( ). It provides urban public school students with a one-acre organic garden and a kitchen classroom. Here’s how the organization describes its mission, “Using food systems as a unifying concept, students learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare nutritious seasonal produce. Experiences in the kitchen and garden foster a better understanding of how the natural world sustains us, and promote the environmental and social well being of our school community”.

Why is Waters leading such an effort? A piece in the Sunday March 7, 2004, New York Times magazine (see explains that Waters wants to reverse the obesity epidemic among American children that she believes is a symptom of the deeper issue of how fast food and industrial agriculture are destroying the environment and our culture. “The way children are eating now is teaching them about disposability, about sameness, about fast, cheap and easy. They learn that work is to be avoided, that preparation is drudgery”.

One could say the same things about how many corporations operate today. They are built for disposability, dominated by numbing sameness and obsessed with the endless pursuit of the fastest, cheapest and easiest way of doing business. But the success of Alice Waters proves that business doesn’t have to be this way – there is an alternative. It’s possible to improve people’s lives and make a profit. How? Chez Panisse shows the way. It treats suppliers and employees like real partners not adversaries or chumps. Waters has worked in a mode of collaborative interdependence with the same group of local farmers for over thirty years. The farmers grow and supply an ever evolving mix of organic produce for the restaurant. They benefit by having a strong and committed partner that plays a leadership role in the marketplace. Chez Panisse gains by having a loyal supplier network dedicated to providing quality ingredients and changing its product mix to enable Chez Panisse to steadily produce new culinary innovations.

Inside the company, Waters runs her kitchen along the same collaborative principles. Morning menu planning meetings are exercises in group participation and decision making. The day’s deliveries of fresh ingredients are inspected by the entire culinary team. Ideas for dishes are proposed by everyone, test batches are prepared and evaluated, and the group decides the menu through a process of collaborative consensus.

In Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has created a prosperous and self-sustaining business ecosystem held together by a powerful common vision, shared goals and communal values. It exhibits real commitment to its mission and purpose and to all the stakeholders who make the system work. These are Next Generation Company principles in action. And they are just as applicable to a bank or a manufacturer or a professional services organization.

But for this alternative approach to business to work, it takes leaders with the courage and conviction to stick to these principles. When Waters started her restaurant in the 1971 people told her she was crazy. The tables were too close together. The atmosphere was too casual. Finding a reliable network of local farmers who used sustainable methods was inconceivable. And serving just a single fixed price menu for dinner was absurd. But she stuck to her beliefs and swam against the tide. Eventually the rest of the country began to follow. This is the fundamental challenge of Next Generation Leadership. It demands the courage to take an alternative path and to stick to an ennobling vision and core set of principles despite the skepticism and even scorn of others. Creating Next Generation Companies will never be easy – but the rewards are worth it. Think about this the next time you dig into that nice bowl of fresh mesculin salad.


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