HOTELS Interview: A radical take on kids’ menus

Alice Waters is known around the world for her passionate, often unconventional views about food — ideas brought to life at her iconic restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, as well as through her books and projects such as the Edible Schoolyard, which advocates for school-lunch reform.

It probably surprised some people, then, that the controversial Waters chose to partner with a mainstream company like Hyatt Corp. on its new “For Kids, By Kids” menu. In addition to offering input about the overall initiative, Waters created a three-course, all-organic menu for Hyatt as part of the program.

HOTELS spoke with Waters about her work with Hyatt as well as her thoughts about where kids’ menus — and all menus — are headed.

Alice Waters
Alice Waters

HOTELS: Why did you decide to work with Hyatt?

Alice Waters: It’s my hope that ultimately we’re going to be able to feed all children in school with local, sustainable food. Now, I’ve worked on many small projects for the last 40 years where we’ve been doing this, but I don’t know really what it’s about in terms of bringing wholesome food to an institution. When Hyatt approached me, I had actually been talking with them off and on for quite a long time. They made me believe they would be very serious about the sourcing of all the ingredients for a children’s menu. I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for us. I thought it could provide a roadmap and put out this idea of edible education around the country.

HOTELS: What was your overarching approach in creating the three-course organic kids’ menu for Hyatt, and what stands out about it to you?

Waters: I wanted something I was pretty sure we’d be able to get organically. I didn’t want to do anything too hard. And I wanted to do food that was recognizable, that kids would relate to. Children of all ages, even adults, like food that is not mixed together — you can see what you have there.

That’s what the salad is about — carrot curls and radish roses and hearts of lettuce and cucumbers. Kids can dip that in a vinaigrette as they like, or not. I think they should have the opportunity to dress their salad the way they like.

The main dish is a simple grilled chicken, but we’re kind of pressing it. We’re doing it sort of Italian-style. It doesn’t have skin on it. It is marinated so it can be flavorful, and I think when it’s a little bit pressed, that keeps the moisture in the chicken. I know kids like pesto, so we made a little sauce that’s very much about garlic and basil. There are also some cherry tomatoes on a skewer because they’re very easy to eat and grill. There are some potatoes very simply prepared.

For dessert, again, I was looking for familiar things. Something I gave my kid when she was little was a dish of strawberries and oranges in orange juice. The juice is acidic, and I added a little honey to the juice, which made it sweet. I thought it would be great for Hyatt if we put this in a chilled orange cup that had been scooped out so you know this came from a tree at one time. It’s very important to me that we think about what the whole fruit looks like.

HOTELS: You’ll have to adjust the menu seasonally, of course.

Waters: Oh yes. I always will keep it simple. There will always be a salad and fruit, because I think it’s a beautiful way to eat. Children’s menus are always heavy with desserts and food they think children would like, and I don’t want to try to fool them into eating something that’s good for them. I want them to fall for it.

HOTELS: What are your expectations about how you and Hyatt will be able to work together on the sourcing and distribution challenges that come with an all-organic menu done at this scale?

Waters: I think we’re going to get a lot of help from friends. I’ve already talked to people in the industry, and they want to share their sources, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. We need to collaborate, and Hyatt must be really serious about a willingness to pay more for the food, which will inevitably be more costly because you want to pay the people who are taking care of the land — I think that’s part of this whole philosophy we’re trying to express.

I know Hyatt will also admit when they can’t do it. At that point, maybe we have to rethink how many hotels can do it right. But I’m very optimistic at this point because of the sourcing list and because of the people I know around the country who can validate the sourcing.

HOTELS: What are your thoughts about the broader For Kids, By Kids offerings Hyatt has introduced?

Waters: I think it’s great to have kids involved with this. That’s all part of edible education. They need to taste and discern for themselves. If kids grow and cook food, they all want to eat it, and they come to the most radical things like kale in a very short period of time. It has to do with taste — garlic and olive oil and just real ingredients. The presence of fruits and vegetables is a beautiful thing. I think we deprive children by not offering that possibility.

HOTELS: What other predictions do you have for the direction of kids’ menus overall going forward, and how would you like to see hotel companies adapt?

Waters: I hope both adults’ and children’s menus will change in terms of portion size, number one. We thought about that very carefully [with the new menu for Hyatt], and we’re going to keep an eye on what the kids eat and what they don’t eat. It’s very important that you don’t have just a giant pile of French fries — you have tomatoes there, and a balance.

I think it’s important to have certain ingredients that are absolutely pure. Grass-fed beef is number one. If there were one thing that could change the eating habits of America and the environment, it would be grass-fed beef. Eggs also are very important. We need to change the beef and chicken industry.

HOTELS: What is your assessment of Hyatt’s Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served initiative?

Waters: I think everything should be sourced sustainably. It takes a very big buyer to change those habits — a buyer willing to pay the real price of food. That’s my hope for public education — that we will decide very soon that we need to feed our children real food.

HOTELS: What are your plans for the future of your partnership with Hyatt? Do you have more projects in the works?

Waters: I hope so. I hope we can find a way to collaborate, because they have a lot of hotels and a certain amount of influence on the hotel industry as well as other people. I’d like to get to the point where adults are eating the children’s menu — that idea that we’re all eating the same menu and we’re not having to cook specially for children.