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Educating Fanny

Visionary chef Alice Waters's daughter, Fanny, grew up eating figs and foie gras. Now a junior at Yale, she's cooking for herself and her friends, and becoming part of a culinary youthquake.

There was never any doubt that Fanny Singer would survive the academic challenges of Yale. But when the daughter of legendary chef Alice Waters left Berkeley, California, to start her freshman year in New Haven, Connecticut, her friends and family had one worry: How would she adjust to the food?

Fanny, after all, had an atypical childhood. Growing up at Chez Panisse, her mother's influential Berkeley restaurant, she was weaned on boudin blanc, grilled quail and wild-plum ice cream sandwiches. And once she could climb out of the stockpots that were her playpens, she spent her days running through the lemon verbena in her family's garden—activities that were famously chronicled in the children's book Fanny at Chez Panisse.

"Living with my mother was such an aesthetic experience," Fanny says. "Everything was cooked in the fireplace. My send-off-to-college breakfast was an egg sizzled with olive oil in a long metal spoon held over the coals." Fanny remembers how she'd carry "a 10-pound lunchbox" to school, filled with Alice's big salads topped with prosciutto or fresh mozzarella, macerated fruit for dessert and linen napkins. "I never got teased," Fanny says. "Most of my friends were envious."

As it turned out, Fanny was not as put off by campus cuisine as everyone thought she would be. Though Fanny noticed that when she ate in the dining hall, "my clothes took on a certain aroma," she found a way to make do: "The food is not inedible: There are bagels, quesadillas and a salad bar with iceberg lettuce and cucumbers that can be drowned in bad balsamic." Still, says Fanny, "my mom screamed" that it wasn't good enough.

Alice needn't have worried. As the months went by, Fanny felt a growing desire to cook—and learned she was far from the only teenager on campus with an interest in good food. Indeed, it's something of a national trend. Before Fanny arrived at Yale, some students were already lobbying to bring organic, locally grown foods to the dining halls. When Alice came to visit, she decided to lend her influence to the cause. Yale's Sustainable Food Project, which kicks off this fall, will host tastings with local farmers and let students collaborate on menus. Alice sees efforts like these as essential in shaping the future of food in this country.

Alice took yet another step to safeguard her daughter's eating habits: As a going-away present, she asked 42 friends to contribute to a homespun cookbook. Filled with recipes like Calvin Trillin's scrambled eggs and the buckwheat blinis Fanny's maternal grandparents make, and decorated with photos of the contributors, the book, says Fanny, is "the most special gift I ever got."

But before she could start cooking, Fanny had to solve a few problems. For one thing, as an underclassman, she lived in a dorm and didn't have a kitchen: "I quickly learned that the key to eating well was to date guys off campus—guys with kitchens." By the end of her sophomore year, she was spending most of her time at fellow student David Scanavino's old Victorian-style house on the edge of campus.

Another challenge was finding premium ingredients in New Haven. It helps that Fanny's father, Stephen Singer, is a vinegar and olive oil importer who sends his daughter cases of peppery Tuscan olive oil. And with a little digging, Fanny found some reliable local stores: the 1960's-style Edge of the Woods for organic milk and produce and Italian mom-and-pop shops for pasta. For meat, she goes to the Niman Ranch Web site and orders sustainably produced beef and sausages. "My friends call me Fancy Girl when I do things like that," Fanny says, "but once they taste the difference, they're glad I made the effort." Recently, Fanny treated David and their friends to a delicious Mexican meal of Niman beef grilled on the porch, sliced and stuffed into handmade flour tortillas, with frozen watermelon-lime agua fresca to drink.

Though she considers her mom a powerful influence, Fanny is already forging her own identity in the kitchen. "My sensibility is generally more modern," she says. "My mother wouldn't like the mango I put in one of my salsas." And Fanny loves to cook breakfast, a meal that is not particularly important to her mother. Lately, the effect of Fanny's bacon-filled waffles has not been lost on roommates suffering from Sunday-morning hangovers.

As another sign of her independence, Fanny recently got a tattoo—a stylized Spanish galleon, based on the logo of the Domaine Tempier winery in the south of France, where she spent summer vacations learning to cook from matriarch Lulu Peyraud. "When I sent Lulu a picture of the tattoo," says Fanny, "she replied, 'Jusqu'où va-t-elle emmener ce petit bateau? Je lui souhaite bon vent.'" Wherever will she take this little boat? I wish her a good wind.

As she starts her junior year, Fanny, a fine arts major, is debating what to do after she graduates from college. Some days, she dreams about opening a restaurant. But right now, her biggest fantasy is to open a bath and scent store in Manhattan's East Village with her best friend. "I adore the smell of pure, fresh things—stalks of rhubarb, baby banana leaves, fig leaves and grapefruit," she says. Whatever direction she takes, chances are good that the winds will be favorable.

Peggy Knickerbocker is a longtime resident of San Francisco and the author of Olive Oil: From Tree to Table.

Published September 2003
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