Also: what they’re doing at Chez Panisse is not sustainable.
2017 Information Architecture Summit Closing Plenary Address
Dan Klyn

The New Normal

I chose not to attend this year’s IA Summit, so consider this my five minute madness.

I want to talk about Alice Waters. Like Christopher Alexander, she was an outsider who valued being good every day over being a star. She wanted everyday food to be good for every meaning of the word good. Good to eat, good for the earth, good for your pocketbook. She didn’t want to impress you, she wanted to care for you. She made a Timeless Way of Cooking. And that is sustainable in the way molecular gastronomy or other sexy trends are not. Chez Panisse was founded in 1971, and it can go forever because of other the great thing she did. She stepped away from being a star chef.

First she hired a replacement chef and moved to overseeing the dining room. She picked great cooks, trained them in her philosophy, gave them room to make it their own. She saw she wasn’t required to make her vision happen.

Her chefs went out to found other restaurants, creating California Cuisine and changing how we eat in America. Alice has gone on to write cookbooks, to speak and to found Edible School yards in order to teach kids where their food really comes from.

Alice’s Chez Panisse played the same role as Starbucks or Julia Child’s books in creating a new normal for how we eat. Before them, we drank Folgers and ate tuna fish casserole. Now we take for granted so many things, from coffee from Kauai to roasting a chicken on a sunday afternoon to ordering baby asparagus grown down the road.

Eating at Chez Panisse is about as impressive as grabbing a coffee at a Starbucks (although quite a bit tastier) — it feels like just another Cal-Ital joint. That is, until you realize that it was the first. Before Alice, healthy food was sprouts and grains (tastes bad=is good for you) and tasty food was steak diane and chicken marsala (heavily sauced previously frozen meats with overcooked veggies. Tastes good=is bad for you.) Alice didn’t want to choose. When she went to Paris as a college student, she saw people eating healthy delicious food every day. After that, she refused to accept anything else.

What has this have to do with us, architects of digital spaces, creators of digital tools? We must remember we can make the new normal. We may be flailing in the second information tsunami, choking on the silt of alternative facts. But we can choose good. Good in every meaning of the word. Delightful and honest. Clear and complex. Usable and understandable.

When we’re ready to scale that, we can choose the way of the entrepreneur, like Starbucks, or the way of the Master/Apprentice like Alice Waters, or the way of the teacher, like Julia Child.

But first we have to choose to make things be good.