Legendary chef Alice Waters 'absolutely ready to go electric' on stoves

Alice Waters
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In the wake of the Consumer Product Safety Commission floating, and then disavowing, the possibility of a ban on selling new gas stoves last week, some professional chefs have expressed opposition to giving up gas stoves.

But world-renowned chef Alice Waters told Yahoo News that she will switch to using electric stoves in her trailblazing Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse.

“I have always liked gas because you can get fire very low or very high very quickly, but knowing about climate [change], I’m absolutely ready to go electric,” Waters — who is often credited with having “mothered the farm-to-table movement” — said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Natural gas creates carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming when burned, and unburned natural gas that leaks into the atmosphere contains methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas.

Waters, who has also promoted organic, locally grown produce in books and through advocacy organizations, said that this spring she is opening a bar next door to Chez Panisse that will use an electric stove and that she will also switch to electric in the main restaurant “as soon as we can.”

An electric ceramic stove.
An electric ceramic stove. (Getty Images)

Although Waters has little experience cooking on an electric stove, she thinks it can be mastered with practice.

“It’s a matter of getting used to it,” she said. “You just have to know a little more about cooking with it. It’s not rocket science.”

A study published last year showed that gas stoves leak more than previously thought, even when they’re turned off. Other studies have shown that gas stoves — which emit pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide — are associated with higher childhood asthma rates.

The American Gas Association contests those findings, noting that they are based on rates of asthma in areas with varying gas stove prevalence, not a controlled experiment. “The claims made in [the study] are derived from an advocacy-based mathematical exercise that doesn’t add any new science,” AGA president and CEO Karen Harbert said in a statement to Yahoo News.

Gas leaks can also cause dangerous explosions. A 2022 report from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration documented 2,700 gas leak incidents since 2010 that resulted in deaths, injuries requiring hospitalization or more than $122,000 in property damage. Nearly 700 people were hospitalized with injuries and more than 140 were killed in these incidents.

A person cooking with a gas stove
Getty Images

A majority of U.S. homes have electric stoves, with only 38% using gas. But restaurants are much more likely to have gas stoves: 76% of U.S. restaurants use natural gas, according to the National Restaurant Association. Gas cooks more quickly than conventional electric stoves, and its heat can be calibrated instantly, advantages that some chefs say make gas a necessity in a commercial kitchen.

“There are certain types of food and certain culinary techniques that really require a flame in some way, shape or form to work and also for consistency and quality purposes,” Mike Whatley, vice president of state affairs and grassroots advocacy at the National Restaurant Association, told the Hill. Last week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed banning the sale of new gas-burning appliances, including stoves, in residential buildings beginning in 2030 and in commercial buildings, including restaurants, beginning in 2035.

“The majority of New York City restaurants use gas. It’s the most common stove in a high-volume kitchen,” Peter Petti, executive chef at Sojourn in New York City, told the New York Post. “Gas lets us do our job efficiently.”

However, plenty of professional chefs have successfully used electric stoves even at the highest levels of the culinary profession.

The interior of this modern restaurant kitchen includes an electric stove and oven
This restaurant kitchen includes an electric stove and oven. (Getty Images)

“At Windows on the World, in 1976 and again in 1996, the stoves were electric,” said Rozanne Gold, who served as a consulting chef at the famous restaurant on the 107th floor of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center, where no gas line was available. “So it is possible to make great food for 1,000 people with electric.”

Gold, who is the James Beard Award-winning author of 13 cookbooks, said that while she is used to cooking with gas in her home, she is willing to switch if it is necessary for environmental or public health reasons.

“No two stoves or ovens are alike anyway,” she told Yahoo News. “So there’s always an adjustment that needs to be done.”

But the differences between cooking with electric and gas will necessitate giving different instructions.

“As a cookbook author, I think all authors with this new awareness will have to change the way they write recipes,” Gold said.

Historically, that would have meant allowing for more time to cook on slower-to-heat electric ranges, but technology may solve that problem. A new type of electric stove known as an induction range can be immediately turned up or down and actually cooks faster than gas.

Cooking with a gas stove
Cooking with gas. (Getty Images)

For many chefs, even if induction ranges offer objectively superior performance, there may be a reluctance borne of sheer inertia: Gas stoves are simply more comfortable because it is what they have always used, and changing one's habits in midlife — especially for something as visceral as cooking — is never easy.

“I'm emotionally attached to cooking with gas, because that’s what I've done my whole life,” Gold said. “I'm not opposed [to switching], I'm just sad.”

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that Americans have changed their cooking habits before. The gas industry funded advertising campaigns throughout the mid- to late 20th century — including inventing the catchphrase “cooking with gas” as a metaphor to mean functioning effectively, and producing a corny rap video with that as the tagline — which increased the number of houses with gas stoves.

One drawback to induction ranges is that they are more expensive, and they do not work with all cookware. And retrofitting existing buildings may require expensive electrical upgrades. That’s why the real concern for the restaurant industry is financial, according to one expert.

“I don’t think there’s such a big disconnect between chefs and people in the environmental community when it comes to induction versus gas,” said Katherine Miller, the founding executive director of the Chef Action Network, a nonprofit that organizes chefs for sustainability and social justice activism. “It all comes down to a fear of what it’s going to cost to redo restaurants, in an industry where they don’t make a lot of money.”

Two young cooks preparing food in the kitchen
Two cooks preparing food. (Getty Images)

Miller believes that breaking down resistance in the food industry to going electric will require collaboration with professional cooks and subsidies like those in the Inflation Reduction Act for buying electric vehicles and electric heat pumps.

“Regulation will be difficult without cost assistance,” she said. “It’s a lot easier with a new build-out, but retrofitting restaurants across the country is going to require a partnership between government and private enterprise.”

Of course, some political conservatives believe that no public health, safety or environmental argument can justify regulations that limit consumer choices.

“I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove,” Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, tweeted. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!”

To that, Waters said that if climate change is left unaddressed, it will cause far more dramatic disruptions to Americans’ lives, in the form of extreme weather and rising sea levels, and that no one has the right to desecrate the Earth we all share.

“We can’t make a freedom argument about climate,” Waters said. “There’s no way that we don’t have to change. It’s not a choice for some people to continue to pollute the planet.”