In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart
by Alice Waters

Clarkson Potter, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-33680-4.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 08/25/2010

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

"At home in their own kitchens, even the most renowned chefs do not consider themselves to be chefs; there, they are simply cooks, preparing the simple, uncomplicated food they like best. Preparing food like that does not have to be hard work," writes acclaimed chef and local-food pioneer Alice Waters in the introduction to In the Green Kitchen. That philosophy—preparing great food does not have to be hard work—is a major theme of this book, which is as much instruction in the art—and heart—of cooking as it is a compilation of recipes and technique, though it is the latter as well.

The inspiration and material for this course in cooking simple, delicious, local and seasonally appropriate food came from Slow Food Nation, a gathering in San Francisco in 2009 of "thousands of cooks and eaters, farmers and ranchers, cheese makers and winemakers, bakers and beekeepers, fisherman and foragers" with a passion for food and for a sustainable future. Waters and the other organizers included a demonstration kitchen as part of the gathering to offer "a set of basic techniques that are universal to all cuisines."

Those techniques, introduced by the chefs who demonstrated them, and elaborated with Waters' own commentary and recipes, comprise this book. "Once learned by heart," Waters writes, "these are the techniques that free cooks from an overdependence on recipes and a fear of improvisation."

This is a simple book in the sense that it can be used by any cook, from the rawest of beginners to those with years of experience and culinary training, and it is written in a straightforward, accessible way. Browsing it is like listening to an articulate and passionate cook teach her craft. It begins with a look at what spices, herbs, oils and other basics Waters considers essential to the "green" pantry—and she's not a snob here, just a friendly and knowledgeable guide. The first technique presented, which might seem obvious until you read the explanation, is washing lettuce. I've been cooking improvisationally and locally for decades, inspired by my mother's California childhood of eating fresh and local food, and by Waters' work at her Berkeley, California, restaurant, Chez Panisse. So I wasn't expecting to learn much. I've washed a lot of lettuce, from markets and my own gardens, and didn't think I had a lot to learn on the topic. Until I read Fanny Singer's take on this most basic of cooking techniques: wrapping lettuce in cloth dish towels, preventing each leaf from getting crushed and preserving its crisp flavor. That hooked me as soon as I tried it!

From there, this approachable course in cooking by heart, with love, progresses logically to how to dress a salad, flavor a sauce, make bread, poach an egg, boil pasta, cook rice, steam vegetables, shuck corn, fillet a fish, and so on, ending with baking fruit, plus a section on seasonings and essential kitchen tools (a very sensible assortment, by the way, which will not break your budget).

Waters is a pioneer: Chez Panisse was probably the first restaurant in America to grow its own kitchen garden (back in the 1970s!) and to work with local farmers to develop sources of local, seasonal food. I've followed her work with schoolyard gardens as well, where she was one of the first to show teachers and parents how gardens can improve kids' learning and their health. (Profits from In the Green Kitchen go to the Chez Panisse Foundation in support of Waters' schoolyard garden initiative, and the book is dedicated to the students at Martin Luther Middle School in Berkeley, where she pioneered the Edible Schoolyard curriculum.) So I'm biased.

But who isn't, after reading passages like this: "Cooking creates a sense of well-being for yourself and the people you love and brings beauty and meaning to everyday life. And all it requires is common sense—the common sense to eat seasonally, to know where your food comes from, to support and buy from local farmers and producers who are good stewards of our natural resources, and to apply the same principles of conservation to your own home kitchen."

The book is lovely to look at, with clean, readable design, great photography, and a wonderfully diverse assemblage of chefs demonstrating the techniques, many well-known, some not yet. The prose invites you in, takes your hand and welcomes you to the kitchen. My only quibble: the binding doesn't open flat. For a book intended to lie open on the kitchen counter while you use it, that's a flaw. But not enough of one to keep me from recommending it to every cook I know, and more.

Thanks, Alice! I'm inspired all over again, and in fact, I'm heading to the garden to pick some fresh lettuce for this evening's salad...

Alice Waters, chef, author, and the proprietor of Chez Panisse, is an American pioneer of a culinary philosophy that maintains that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. She is a passionate advocate for a food economy that is "good, clean, and fair." Over the course of nearly forty years, Chez Panisse has helped create a community of scores of local farmers and ranchers whose dedication to sustainable agriculture assures the restaurant a steady supply of fresh and pure ingredients. Waters is Vice President of Slow Food International, a nonprofit organization that promotes and celebrates local artisanal food traditions and has 100,000 members in over 130 countries. She is the author of nine books, including In the Green Kitchen and The Art of Simple Food: Notes and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. Visit her website and the Edible Schoolyard Project website.

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