Coming to My Senses is extremely easy to digest, even for non-foodies, largely because Waters views her eventful life with a touch of wonderment that is at once wide-eyed and slyly observant. This book is nicely peppered with telling details, wry and often self-deprecating quips, perceptive character sketches of family, friends, mentors, and even an occasional recipe ... Waters comes across as intelligent, creative, intuitive, exacting, brave and, always, learning ... Waters’ story from birth to the opening days of Chez Panisse is presented in roughly chronological order. But peppered throughout are anecdotes and observations that move freely through time and space. These passages are often in italics, and I learned to anticipate them because they were always much fun to read and often delightfully dishy.
Waters’ memoir, as touching as it sometimes is, can be a little helter-skelter: There are italicized inserts that shoulder into the narrative, supplying details of a person’s biography or offering foreshadowing or philosophical asides. And there are plenty of famous names dropped, unavoidably, as Waters’ friends are connected to an impressive array of filmmakers, more experienced chefs, artists and writers. These diary-like passages, and Waters’ almost stream-of-consciousness remarks on the importance of mood, music, visual arts and flowers on the dining experience, come to a head with the hilariously chaotic opening of Chez Panisse in 1971. If the way to counterculture’s heart is through its stomach, Chez Panisse is the start.
Cook, activist and earth mother, Waters is many things. But, based on her pallid memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, a writer is not one of them ... When an author warns in the third paragraph 'I’m not a reflective person by nature,' grab your blankie — you’re in for a soporific ride ... Casual elegance, what she perfected at her restaurant, is missing in prose heavy on hollow bromides and wincing cliches. Berkeley was filled with coffee shops and 'people in heated conversation.' In the 1960s, students had 'a beatnik urban sophistication, carrying big book bags, very somber and intense.' She manages to make a hash-infused trip to Turkey with two Frenchmen seem tedious. Alternately insulting and twee, Senses dulls the reader ... Senses is sloppy, too. It lacks an alert editor or writer (or two) — it regurgitates information and reintroduces walk-on characters brought in only pages earlier. Waters appears to list everyone she has ever met. Is this interesting? No, it is not.
Waters dictated the stories in the book to two friends, Cristina Mueller and Bob Carrau, and the prose feels like it. It’s an approach that might work for a cookbook of 100 recipes that is essentially a series of moments. But a 300-page autobiography is a different beast. The book is at its best, especially for a restaurant geek like me, when exploring the crucible that created Chez Panisse, namely the counterculture movement of Berkeley in the early 1970s. Reading about the first dinner service at Chez Panisse (lovingly described by Waters’ friend as a 'clown show') is a thrill ... the book is more about its surrounding community than the chef, almost as if Waters is a boat, passively whisked away on a roaring river of the revolutionary Berkeley. I found myself wishing that Coming to My Senses delved more deeply into the author herself and the larger themes that made her one of the most influential people of her era.
Although the book examines many of the green shoots that grew into the garden of Chez Panisse (and all that follows), Coming to My Senses should come with a warning label: This volume will bring a reader up to the founding of the restaurant and no further, with only fleeting glimpses into the restaurant’s history … If some of its elements are less appealing, others are very tasty. The insight Waters offers into her New Jersey upbringing seeds the story admirably and engagingly. And while recounting her own childhood and travels, Waters plants many seeds for what is to come … Coming to My Senses is more than the telling of a life story – it’s an argument. However, much of that argument seems to be the following: Waters was really rebellious, wild, and countercultural.
Waters employs an interesting technique for her asides, divergent thoughts, flashbacks, and ruminations: she puts them in italics ... The author does an artful job of showing how even the most apparently unrelated experiences helped lead her to her profession. She is also quite frank about her failures; her relationships with lovers, friends, and colleagues; and her pride in remaining a part of the 1960s counterculture that nourished her. She also writes affectionately about her parents and siblings and her colleagues. An almost charmed restaurant life that exhales the sweet aromas of honesty and self-awareness.
..[an] intimate and colorful memoir ... Readers will be charmed by Waters’s adoration of exquisitely prepared food. Her anecdotes and her descriptions of friends and customers (many of whom were filmmakers, artists, and prominent thinkers of the time) bring the era and the restaurant to the mind’s eye in vibrant detail.