October 1, 2015 - Litquake Literary Festival (SF)
Thirty Years of Food Revolution
A Historical Overview
California has always been as much of a state of mind as a state of the Union. . . . Other places have decent organic produce, or so they say. But California promises something more: transformation. The state is the repository of America's frontier spirit, the notion that a better life is possible for anyone who wants it regardless of the circumstances of her birth. You can leave your past at the border and reinvent yourself here.
-Peggy Orenstein, "The Coast of Dystopia," New York Times, January 15, 2010
On May 9, 1984, I was waiting for the electrician to turn on the power so we could cook our first dinner at my restaurant, Square One. Although the official opening was not until May 14, we had invited friends to come for a few trial meals to help us get used to the kitchen and refine our timing. Square One's manager, Max Alexander, had hired more waiters than we needed because he knew that not all of them would make the grade. I was still learning their names and their handwriting, because in those days before computer ticketing systems, the orders were handwritten in duplicate.
Sous chef Paul Buscemi and I had been in the kitchen prepping like mad with our staff. Barbara Haimes and Amaryll Schwertner had followed us from Chez Panisse, as had pastry chef Craig Sutter. We had made pea and lettuce soup, a tuna and white bean salad, gorgonzola- and ricotta-stuffed ravioli with sage butter, and saffron fettuccine with clams, onion, and basil. We had grilled halibut with charmoula (a Moroccan sauce made with fresh coriander and spices), lamb chops with mint aioli, ossobuco alla milanese, and pork with housemade mango chutney. The bread baker, Thomas Solis, was making whole-grain loaves. Craig Sutter and Diane Dexter in our pastry department were preparing macadamia cake with crème anglaise and poached kumquats, puff pastry pecan tarts with bourbon whipped cream, and flan with the first of the season's strawberries.
We held our breath as the orders came in. We hadn't slept for days. I had lost fifteen pounds from stress. But our guests were smiling and coming up to the line to thank us and wish us well.
I had come a long way from my childhood in Brooklyn, when I was the problem eater who pushed away food because I didn't like it. We had bad cooks on both sides of the family: the vegetables were overcooked, the lamb stew was gray, the roasts were shriveled-even the brisket was dry! We ate Birds Eye frozen peas and carrots, and yes, even Jell-O. A good night was a rare filet mignon and a baked potato.
With both my parents working, we ate out at least twice a week. Restaurants saved my culinary life and showed me that good food was possible. I realized that to eat well I would have to learn to cook. In graduate school, when I finally had my own kitchen, I taught myself from books and my taste memories. I pored over Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking, Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook, and Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food and French Provincial Cooking. Whenever I tasted a new dish, I would look it up in a few cookbooks and try to reproduce it at home, adjusting the recipe as I went along to match my recollection of the flavor.
But it was in Italy that my taste buds were truly awakened. After a brief visit in 1957, I went to live in Rome with my husband from 1959 to 1960. We had no refrigerator in our rented apartment so I shopped daily. I also ate out as often as possible to learn about Italian cuisine and ingredients. I gained twenty-four pounds in my quest to find the perfect version of spaghetti alla carbonara, which ended euphorically at Pier Luigi's. I compared the bite-sized fresh mozzarella ovolini and all manner of salumi at five neighborhood shops. I tasted how baby goat chops differed from diminutive lamb chops. I learned to love assertive and bitter flavors and began adding radicchio and arugula to my salads. Italy changed the way I cooked forever.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of aspiring cooks like me, tired of the dreary and predictable food landscape in the United States, avidly consumed the food writing of Elizabeth David, M. F. K. Fisher, Waverly Root, Ada Boni, and Julia Child. Along with providing recipes, these writers gave us a sense of place. We dreamed of dining at the French country inn described by Roy Andries De Groot in Auberge of the Flowering Hearth or of eating cacciucco at a seaside restaurant in Livorno, as brought to life by Elizabeth David in her book Italian Food. We were eager to discover new foods and to learn more about the history and culture of the countries where they came from.
Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared on the scene in 1961. By the midsixties I was teaching cooking classes to middle-class housewives, and it was the era of the competitive dinner party. My students were buying Chuck Williams's imported French cookware at the newly opened Williams-Sonoma store and then killing themselves making Julia's Veal Prince Orloff, seafoodquenelles, and cassouletfor eager guests. Long before the movie Julie and Julia appeared, there were women who cooked their way through Julia Child three times. Mastering the Art of French Cooking brought the fundamentals within reach of a generation longing to become more worldly and sophisticated.
The 1960s was a decade of burgeoning affluence, and with the new affordability of jet travel, many more Americans went abroad. Arthur Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars a Day, published in 1957, enabled even frugal families to experience the Old World. Many future California cuisine chefs first learned to appreciate food while vagabonding in Europe after or in place of college. Their ensuing approach to cooking "had so much to do with reading and traveling," said Los Angeles Times restaurant reviewer S. Irene Virbila, known to her friends as Sherry."Once you traveled and tasted better food, you wanted to replicate that. What if Alice Waters hadn't gone to France!"
At the same time that Californians were being exposed to other parts of the world through travel and literature, they were defining their own identity and establishing a distinctively western way of life. Sunset magazine laid the foundation. The quintessential regional lifestyle publication, sold only on the West Coast, Sunset combined articles on cooking with advice on gardening, travel, homes, and do-it-yourself projects. Who didn't dream of building a deck on which to host lavish parties, wowing the guests with the bread you had baked in the adobe oven you had constructed from scratch, accompanied by the vegetables that Sunset had shown you how to select and cultivate? Jerry Di Vecchio, food editor for over forty years, said, "The gardening column helped Californians turn to local because we grew all these foods and told you how to cook them. Everybody had artichokes. We grew fraises des bois, avocados, persimmons, mandarins, Meyer lemons, and so on. California just had different foods to work with than the East Coast." Sunset was a powerful determiner of California cuisine, according to Caroline Bates, restaurant reviewer for Gourmet magazine for thirty years. It "focused on western life and shaped how we all cooked, entertained, and ate on the West Coast. It had a very eclectic approach, because its[definition of] California cuisine embraced [the foods of] Mexico, Asia, the Middle East, and many other cultures." With travel and food literature whetting Californians' appetites for greater variety in what they ate and the restaurants they dined at, change was inevitable.
The Continental Restaurant Scene in the 1960s
These newly educated and passionate food enthusiasts didn't find much excitement in the world of restaurant dining. Sacramento food and wine retailer Darrell Corti has been in the family business for most of his life. Highly respected for his extensive knowledge about food and culinary history, he remembers this era all too well. "In the 1960s, there really wasn't anyone who was interested in food per se. The concept of 'foodie' didn't exist. When you went to a restaurant you wanted to eat something that was relatively familiar. Restaurants in San Francisco in 1960 were either French-named with Italian cooks or French-named with French cooks." For special occasions, diners in the Bay Area patronized one of the elegant upscale restaurants, such as Ernie's, the Blue Fox, La Bourgogne, L'Etoile, the Ritz Old Poodle Dog, or Alexis on Nob Hill. Jack's was the place to go for a veal chop and Celery Victor; Vanessi's and New Joe's served good but not authentic Italian food; Alfred's was known for steaks, and Tadich Grill and Sam's for seafood. These last three restaurants, which specialize in basic meat and seafood preparations without cultural pretensions, are the only ones on this roster still open for business.
Los Angeles had Chasen's, a West Hollywood hangout known for its chili, themed places like Don the Beachcomber and the Brown Derby chain, some formal French establishments, and a few expensive Continental restaurants, such as Perino's and Scandia, where it was important to be recognized and seated at a good table. While the Bay Area prided itself on its fine cuisine, Los Angeles promoted drama and exclusivity.
Writer and editor Colman Andrews was born and raised in Southern California. His parents were avid restaurant-goers, so from an early age, Colman came to know all the better places to eat in the LA area. "When people first started talking about California cuisine, I remember thinking that it didn't have much to do with the food that I'd grown up eating in the very European-oriented restaurants of my youth-Chasen's, the Brown Derby, hotel restaurants, and places like that." But even back then, some places did things differently. Colman described these renegades as the "forgotten ancestors" of today's California cuisine restaurants. "One that I know had influence, because I've talked to chefs who used to love it as much as I did, was Trader Vic's. Vic Bergeron was the first person to popularizekiwifruit and green peppercorns. At the same time that Chez Panisse was serving sweetbreads and cream sauce with mushrooms, poached trout, and old-fashioned French food, there were places like Cafe Four Oaks in Beverly Glen, and Alan Hooker's Ranch House in Ojai, which opened in 1956. They were run mostly by people who had traveled in Europe. The Ranch House wasn't exactly California cuisine as we know it, but this guy used 'extra virgin' olive oil back in the days when that phrase could still provoke titters. He used fresh herbs, and not just the conventional ones, but lemon verbena and salad burnet. They were out of the mainstream of the traditional Italian, French, Middle European cooking that almost all the other good restaurants were serving. I think of these as distant inspirations for what became California cuisine."
In the sixties and early seventies the variety of fresh fruit and vegetables available in grocery stores was limited, and most restaurants in both Northern and Southern California used commodity produce from wholesale markets or flew in food from Europe that arrived in less than pristine condition. Chasen's, Perino's, Ernie's, L'Etoile, La Bourgogne, and even the famed Pot Luck in Berkeley, known for its regional French dinners, resorted to serving canned and frozen foods. Fortunately for them, culinary technique and complex sauces concealed a multitude of sins.
The original Pot Luck was opened by Ed Brown in 1954. He gave it that name because diners literally took pot luck-whatever he happened to feel like cooking that day. Wine maven Henry (Hank) Rubin bought the restaurant in 1962 and brought in Narsai David as the kitchen manager. At the time, it was considered the most sophisticated place to dine in the East Bay. Chef Mark Miller was an admirer: "Pot Luck was doing regional French menus on Monday nights way before Jeremiah Tower or Alice Waters did. The food was better, and the menus were more interesting."
People still talk about Pot Luck with reverence, so they may be surprisedto learn the inside scoop from Narsai David. "The soups were made with hundred-pound drums of chicken soup base. We used dehydrated onions and powdered garlic. I could not use raw garlic because customers, particularly the lunchtime customers, were angry the first couple times when they went home and their wives complained about the garlic smell in their breath. The main course was served with rice and a vegetable, using frozen vegetables. We dumped two-and-a-half-pound boxes into a large sauté pan with some Kaola Gold margarine." That Pot Luck was able to draw a devoted following in spite of these shortcuts is evidence of the talent and experience of Narsai's kitchen staff. But by 1972, when Narsai opened his eponymous restaurant, his five-course menu was prepared with fresh ingredients. "There was not an ounce of chicken base in the house, or dried garlic or onions. Absolutely everything fresh," he said. One force behind this growing interest in freshness was a new culinary movement from France.
The Influence of Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s
Nouvelle cuisine freed French chefs from the strictures of classic cuisine, which had been codified by Escoffier in the early 1900s. The fad seems passé today, but it had a revolutionary effect at the time and was an important precursor to California cuisine. It was introduced to the general public in 1973, when French food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau published "Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine" in their publication, Le Nouveau guide. Several practitioners of this new style of cooking-Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Alain Senderens, Alain Chapel, and the brothers Troisgros-became the world's first superstar chefs.
But established French chefs were swept up in the movement as well and began to fundamentally change their approach to cuisine. The commandments urged chefs to be modern and inventive, to not drown the flavor of foods in marinades or heavy sauces, and above all, to begin with fresh, quality products and not overcook them. As a result, cooking times were greatly reduced. À la minute preparations were preferred over long, slow cooking. Vegetables were no longer thoroughly cooked-crisp and crunchy became de rigueur.Recently harvested, premium products replaced canned or frozen ingredients.
Chefs bid adieuto béchamel and sauce espagnole and started to make greater use of broths and vegetable purées. This was not done for dietary reasons, but to make food taste brighter and more vibrant. Sauces were still enriched with copious amounts of butter. More attention was paid to dietetics, meaning that on the whole the food was lighter than that of classic cuisine and portions were smaller. (Because it hit the press at the same time, cuisine minceur, a style of low-calorie cooking created by chef Michel Guérard at his spa in Eugénie-les-Bains, was occasionally confused with nouvelle cuisine.)
Fresh,in the parlance of the time, did not necessarily mean seasonal or local, however. While chefs in some fine-dining restaurants in France shopped at neighborhood markets every day, many did not. And with respect to seasonality, traditional haute cuisine training advised the professional chef that once he had created a dish, he should perfect it by cooking it the same way 365 days a year. Disciples of nouvelle cuisine still followed this principle, so if a chef was making a dish with asparagus, where formerly he might have used the canned version in the winter, now he had it flown in from South America. Fresh, yes; seasonal, no.
Highly stylized plate presentations showed off the new dishes. Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros had taught at the École Technique Hôtelière Tsuji in Osaka and drew inspiration from Japanese aesthetics. Large white plates displayed small, dramatic food vignettes, and creative food combinations were encouraged. Yet one of the downsides of nouvelle cuisine was that for a while portions were absurdly small and the food was overly arranged. Dishes such as fanned duck breast with three raspberries and three snow peas artistically arrayed on an oversized plate became a target for parody and complaints.
The era was also infamous for producing some bizarre and unfortunate food combinations in the name of creativity, and ingredients such as kiwifruit and raspberry vinegar overstayed their welcome and became culinary clichés. However, regardless of its sins, the movement was liberating for French chefs, enabling them to break away from the constraints of French haute cuisine.
Nouvelle cuisine entered restaurant kitchens in California via French-trained chefs and restaurateurs based here. In Los Angeles, many followed the movement's doctrine to a T, but others created their own interpretations, such as Michel Blanchet at Jean Bertranou's L'Ermitage, Gerard and Virginie Ferry at L'Orangerie, Bernard Jacoupy at Bernard's, and Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison. Given LA's interest in style and presentation, nouvelle cuisine met with warm reception there, and by the early 1980s, its precepts had become associated with California cuisine.
In a 1982 article in the New York Times, food columnistMarian Burros wrote that Wolfgang Puck might be "the link between nouvelle cuisine and this new California cooking, between the formal and the informal. The new California food, he says, 'is Schramsberg and pizza with grilled Santa Barbara shrimp instead of caviar.'"
Spago, Beverly Hills; Chinois on Main, Los Angeles; Postrio, San Francisco
Wolfgang Puck was born in Austria, apprenticed in France, and worked at the three-star restaurants L'Hôtel de Paris in Monaco, Maxim's in Paris, and Raymond Thuilier's L'Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. In 1973, he emigrated to the United States. After two years at La Tour in Indianapolis, he moved toLos Angeles to become chef at Patrick Terrail's nouvelle cuisine restaurant Ma Maison. The rest is history with a capital H. "For the first six months at Ma Maison we were so poor, I used to buy lobster shells to make lobster soup base," said Wolfgang, but once the restaurant started attracting the who's who of the entertainment industry, he could afford to buy whole crustaceans and began turning out warm lobster salads topped with caviar along with other luxury dishes, such as salmon soufflés with mustard sauce, trout fillets in puff pastry with beurre blanc, and veal medallions with onion marmalade.
After a few years in Los Angeles, Wolfgang became fascinated by the city's ethnic enclaves. "I got very excited. This is such an interesting city with so many different cultures, so many different cooking styles. You could eat at a lot of restaurants. And I was thinking, 'You know, our food should reflect a little bit the cultures we have.'" At Ma Maison, the salade niçoise was made with canned tuna, which Wolfgang thought was crazy. He bought fresh tuna at the Japanese fish market, marinated it, and served it rare, either grilled or poached in olive oil. People would eat the vegetables but skip the tuna because they thought it was not cooked. They told him he didn't know how to prepare fish. Of course, "now you cannot go to a restaurant where they don't serve some kind of raw tuna," he added.
In 1981, Wolfgang left Ma Maison and opened Spago on the Sunset Strip. It was an instant sensation and a magnet for celebrities, who came to have Wolfgang cook something special for them. Spago did things differently. The cooks wore baseball hats instead of chefs' toques. You could see them because Spago had one of LA's first open kitchens, and its giant grill and wood-burning oven were visible the minute you walked in the door. After Ruth Reichl wrote a cover story for the Los Angeles Times about Spago in the early 1980s, every restaurant in town wanted a pizza oven, a grill, and its own version of California pasta, where angel-hair noodles were tossed with goat cheese and broccoli or used as a bed for squab or trout, combinations that no Italian would consider.
Wolfgang followed his growing culinary curiosity, taking traditional recipes and tweaking them to suit his palate. "What is great about California is that it's newand there's not much tradition, so if I'm going to make pizza, I can give it my own twist that reflects what I like. Instead of having pepperoni we made duck sausage and put it on. And we put goat cheese on pizza, which at that time was completely new. Even sun-dried tomatoes were new. It's crazy to think how many things have become everyday staples that were completely out of this world at that time."
Wolfgang bought a smoker to air-dry his version of Peking duck but wound up using it to make cold-smoked salmon. "I put it on a pizza and sent it out to Joan Collins. She said, 'Oh, that's my pizza!' Robin Lynch, who at the time had the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous show, said Spago and Le Cirque were the two most important restaurants in America. We made the smoked salmon pizza and he called it the 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Pizza.' The funniest thing is that I went to Lyon to hang out with Paul Bocuse and went to one of his restaurants, his brasserie. He had a partly open kitchen, and I saw a smoked salmon pizza. I said, 'Paul, what is that?' He got the menu and it said, 'Spago's smoked salmon pizza.'"
When Wolfgang opened Chinois in 1983, it was the first fusion restaurant in the country. He wanted to bring Asian influences into his cooking, but as he had done with pizza, he created his own interpretations. "To me, cooking is an evolution, and as I grow, my cooking style changes. I am bored very easily, and I don't want to be boxed in with one thing."
Michael McCarty was another important restaurateur whose culinary foundation and technique were French. At his namesake restaurant, which he opened in Santa Monica in 1979, he presented dishes inspired by those he had eaten at his favorite places in France. His early cooking was based on nouvelle cuisine, with its emphasis on freshness, simplicity, and lightness. "Almost all of my recipes are prepared quickly," he wrote in his 1989 Michael's Cookbook, "showcasing the natural quality of the ingredients I use, many of which come from or have been popularized by the innovative food suppliers and cooks of California." The cookbook is illustrated with nouvelle cuisine-inspired plate presentations: elaborately fanned vegetableswith slices of grilled meat, and pasta topped with hieratically arranged strips of seafood and geometrically placed dollops of caviar. The nouvelle look to the food eventually evolved into simpler plating.
Self-taught chef Bruce LeFavour was originally influenced by the French three-star chefs who popularized nouvelle cuisine, according to an interview he gave Marian Burros in 1986. But when he moved to the Napa Valley to open Rose et LeFavour, he became "bored with France" and more taken with California. "There are more exciting things going on here, more ferment, more eclectic cooking," he said. Rose et LeFavour was a jewel of a restaurant that opened its doors in 1980 in St. Helena. There Bruce offered a single five-course menu each evening that was French in conception but Californian in its incorporation of fresh, local ingredients and ethnic touches. On the entry hall table there might be a basket of fraises des bois from Napa farmer Lynn Brown, a hint of the deliciousness that was to come inside. On April 24, 1985, guests dined on Muscovy duck breast in a salad of local greens, a Thai-style soup with Monterey squid, gray sole with spinach, chives, and basil, steamed New Zealand venison with morels and wood ear mushrooms, a cheese tray, and a sweet from the dessert cart.
Rose et LeFavour, St. Helena
I still miss chef Bruce LeFavour's tiny, personal, and idiosyncratic restaurant in the Napa Valley. Bruce opened Rose et LeFavour in 1980 with the charming Carolyn Rose at the front of the house.Cindy Pawlcyn, who later opened Mustards Grill, was his first sous chef. The French-inspired California food was so wonderful that we would drive all the way from San Francisco to St. Helena just for dinner.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bruce worked in American Army counterintelligence, stationed in eastern France. On weekends he would go down to Burgundy or Alsace or into Paris to see the sights and, of course, sample the regional cuisine. In 1961, he came back to the States and got married. Three years later, he opened a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, called the Paragon. "I had never really worked in a restaurant before. But our rent was $300 a month, so we could afford to make mistakes." Bruce served his interpretation of nouvelle cuisine in a series of private rooms, where guests could sit in their own little dining room with a curtain. The restaurant was very successful. "We got a pretty good reputation, but as Aspen started to grow, it wasn't a place I wanted to bring up my two kids by the time they were eight and nine."
He sold the Paragon and moved his family to an isolated two-hundred-acre ranch on the Salmon River in central Idaho. They were fairly self-sufficient. The growing season was short, but they were able to cultivate lettuce, broccoli, and other cold-weather crops. In addition, they had about a hundred chickens, eighty ducks, some lambs, and two Jersey cows. They made their own butter and had wonderful heavy cream. Bruce said he'd probably still be there if he and his wife hadn't gotten divorced and been obliged to sell the ranch.
After the divorce Bruce came to Northern California and looked for a place to open a new restaurant. He settled in the Napa Valley because "all my experience had been that you need a fairly sophisticated audience to do the type of cooking that I was doing at that time." He met Carolyn Rose, and in 1979 they became partners in the intimate Main Street site that they named Rose et LeFavour. Carolyn, known as "C," ran the dining room with warmth and quirky authority. Bruce didn't have enough land to grow anything aside from herbs, but he found that he didn't need to. "I realized that in California you don't need to raise it yourself. You have everything here that you need." He drove an hour to Berkeley to buy seafood from Paul Johnson at Monterey Fish and fruit and vegetables from Bill Fujimoto at Monterey Market. He also had a close relationship with Lynn Brown and Pete Forni of Forni-Brown Farms in Calistoga, and they supplied him with produce a few times a week. They grew what he asked for, so he'd bring seeds to them and patiently await the results: little fraises des bois and unusual varieties of carrots and beans.
"We changed the menu every day and set the menu that day. We just rolled with whatever looked good. Carolyn always handwrote the menu with her elegant script." The menu was terse, and Bruce didn't list most of his sources, since the practice was not yet common. He did mention a certain Mrs. Herb. "Mrs. Herb was a retired detective from Chicago who raised snails. She was a tiny lady, maybe 5 foot 2 inches in sneakers and thin as a rail. She would make her rounds in town. If you didn't use poisons in your garden, she would ask if she could come into your property early in the morning and pick snails. She had a big greenhouse in the back of her house and she'd raise the snails, purge them, and deliver them in strawberry boxes to the restaurant." Bruce had a standing order with her and her name always appeared on the menu.
Bruce bought Carolyn out in 1986 and renamed the restaurant Rose et LeFavour Cafe Oriental. He switched to an à la carte menu that offered light French food with an Asian twist. But he tired of cooking the same things every nightand felt burdened by the paperwork and other responsibilities of sole ownership. In 1987, he sold the lease to a man in town and retired.
As a whole, the new restaurant chefs in Northern California did not embrace nouvelle cuisine. Unlike their counterparts in Los Angeles, most of whom were formally trained, chefs up north were largely self-taught and independent who did not readily buy into any doctrine. There was a period in San Francisco when classically trained French chefs such as Jacky Robert at Ernie's and Hubert Keller at Sutter 500 practiced this new style of cooking, but they were in the minority in a world of traditional French restaurants, old-fashioned Continental and Italian family places, and the budding new California establishments. At this time, cooks at Chez Panisse, Bay Wolf, and Narsai's were still recreating classic French recipes, and their plating style was straightforward, direct, and traditional.
Naming It: California Cuisine in the Early 1980s
According to Victoria Wise, the first chef at Chez Panisse, "The tipping point for California cuisine began in the late 1970s. By the eighties, it was on the road. I had a conversation with a journalist from the London Observer along about 1988 who asked the question, 'Do you think there's such a thing as California cuisine?' I said 'Yes, there certainly is.' He looked a little startled because at the time, many others, including Alice [Waters] and Jeremiah [Tower], were denying this. I guess it was too scary to name yet." Maybe not so much scary as premature. Most chefs were saying it did not exist and did not want to be labeled or pigeonholed. (In fact, until recently,Chez Panisse did not identify itself as a California cuisine restaurant.)
While Sunset was exemplary in depicting how we ate in the West, offering multicultural recipes made with ingredients grown in the region, it did not brand these recipes as California cuisine. Bon Appétit, the only other mainstream food magazine published in the state at the time (though it relocated to New York after the demise of Gourmet in 2009) was the first to raise the topic of California cuisine with chefs when interviewing them for restaurant profiles. Barbara Fairchild, the longtime editor of Bon Appétit, said that around 1980, "We used the term 'California cuisine' in the magazine, and riffed off that as a new way of cooking. I don't remember using it with regard to Wolfgang Puck, but I do distinctly remember talking to Michael Roberts about it when I wrote an article about him at Trumps. And he said 'There's no such thing,' which is, of course, what we all said."
Trumps was an idiosyncratic LA restaurant that occupied a former gas station with concrete floors and polished concrete tables. In keeping with a Southwestern design theme, the waiters wore string ties along with European-style long white aprons. "A formally trained chef with broad-ranging tastes, Michael served dishes such as beet and watermelon soup, sweet pea guacamole, fried plantains garnished with sour cream and caviar, seared tuna with mint, dill, and cilantro pesto, Asian chicken salad with grapefruit, and buckwheat noodles with potatoes and smoked salmon. In other words, his California cuisine menu was all over the culinary map; it was multicultural, eclectic, and personal.
Barbara Fairchild thought that applying a label got people to talk and think seriously about California cuisine. For her,the term "California cuisine restaurant" conjured up "food with a dreamscape lifestyle behind it." The image was of casualness, ease, warmth, and leisure-attractive people sitting outside, perhaps around a pool, eating something off the grill and sipping California wine. Restaurants such as Michael's, Mustards, and West Beach Caféenabled people to slip into these fantasies.
Clark Wolf is a restaurant consultant now based primarily in New York. I call him "Mr. Soundbite" because he always says something eminently quotable. Clark lived in Northern California during the early years of California cuisine, first owning a pioneering cheese shop and then managing the Oakville Grocery in Napa. For him, California cuisine was best exemplified not downstairs at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, but upstairs at the Café, which opened in 1980. "It was at Chez Panisse Café that California cuisine got a focus in the nomenclature. Downstairs was experimental and emotional and metaphorical; it was too intellectual, it was university. It was based on French structure and codification. At the Café, cooksthought, 'I'm going to make a simple salad but every time I touch these leaves, they will be special.'" Upstairs worked from the produce sheet, whereas downstairs worked from a concept of French food.
"I always say that restaurants are one of two things," added Clark. "They either make you feel very much where you are, or very much someplace else. Downstairs was taking you away to someplace else, a magic France land, and upstairs was so much of where you were in a particular way, and that's what got translated to what people called California cuisine. It came to New York, oddly, as a concept, with quotes around it and capital letters. It sailed instantly and permeated totally.
"When I moved to New York in 1982, if you wanted a great piece of grilled fish and a great salad, the only choice was the Grill Room at the Four Seasons, and lunch was 160 bucks for two. Fresh food was simply not in New York. I used to joke-and it's still very much true in a lot of cases-that things percolate and develop in the Bay Area, and when it's named by New York media, it becomes a trend. Sometimes it goes to LA to become a business."
Indeed, it was the New York Times that applied a label to California cuisine and gave it official status, and Marian Burros gets the credit. She wrote about California cuisine in the Times first in 1982 and then again in 1984. She identified several trends:"grilling, especially with mesquite; combining cuisines that scarcely had a nodding acquaintance before, such as Japanese and French; replacing stock-based sauces with compound butters or no sauce at all; using baby vegetables to garnish almost every plate; serving fish, chicken, squab, and quail rather than red meat; and elevating country food to the status usually reserved for truffles and caviar. Freshness [is] always the cornerstone." Some trends came and went, like the use of baby vegetables and compound butters, while others became lasting characteristics of the cuisine. She noted that in America, "there had been nothing like it before. We finally learned that cooking and eating were important. We did French, then nouvelle cuisine, and then cuisine minceur, but it was still very French-oriented. Here were people taking the ingredients they had, and cooking with those ingredients, and making something that was unique to California. It was something that gave the rest of the country an idea [of] how to make uniquely American food, whether you were using French techniques or not."
In 1983, Marian gave an example in the New York Times thatdemonstrated how things were changing. The president of the United States at the time, Ronald Reagan, had come to California to fete the queen of England. A dinner was held at the St. Francis Hotel, which had a German Swiss chef by the name of Norbert Brandt, who had been hired in 1979 to replace the hotel's ossified Continental cuisine with the new California style of cooking. "The White House social secretary described the dinner as a 'toast to the cuisine of California,' and said that it was 'California nouvelle cuisine internationalized,' using only fresh and local fruits and vegetables. Salmon poached in zinfandel, lamb salad with lentils, radicchio and enoki mushrooms with raspberry vinegar and walnut oil dressings, sweetbreads with hot mustard sabayon, and balsamic vinegar shallot sauce." The dinner featured many ingredients that were so overused in the early days of California cuisine that they became: raspberry vinegar, walnut oil, and the newly available imported balsamic vinegar, which were poured with impunity on everything.
One of the first cookbook authors to make the newly emerging California cuisine accessible to home cooks was Diane Worthington.In her 1983 cookbook, The Cuisine of California, she praised California chefs and their food. "They are youthful, daring and inquisitive in their attitude; they have created a spirit that has resulted in an identifiable cuisine. This movement toward freshness, simplicity, and originality defines itself by the use of the freshest local produce, herbs, fish, and dairy product; lighter marinades and sauces; California wines both as ingredients and accompaniments and an astounding array of ethnic and indigenous ingredients."
In her 1994 follow-up book, The California Cook, Worthington noted that chefs in both San Francisco and Los Angeles were experimenting with new ethnic ingredients and combinations while continuing to use classical techniques. She also observed that grilling had become prevalent. She mentioned Zuni Café and Chez Panisse in Northern California, and Spago and West Beach Café in Los Angeles. "Although California cuisineis in its formative stages, it rests upon several fundamental principles: First, brief cooking releases fresh flavors while retaining the desired textures. Vegetables are briefly cooked so that they still have some crunch when served. Second, combinations of ingredients are chosen so that natural flavors are heightened and balanced rather than masked. Third, the simple and elegant presentations that began with 'nouvelle cuisine' continue as California chefs bring their varied and eclectic training to bear on interpreting regional ingredients."
In some kitchens, creativity and freedom combined to give rise to a new subset of California cuisine: fusion. A fusion dish results when a chef borrows flavor combinations, signature ingredients, or techniques from one culture's cuisine and applies them to a dish where they are not part of the original flavor profile or even part of the culture from which the dish is derived. Russ Parsons, who has written about food for the Los Angeles Times for many years, said that some people thought that all California cuisine was fusion, and this perception gave the movement negative connotations. He described the fusion cooking of the early 1980s, especially as it was presented at Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main and John Rivera Sedlar's Saint Estèphe, as "the period equivalent of molecular gastronomy today. It fit with the general California reputation for more is more, but also 'the land of fruit and nuts.' You know, we're wacky out here. We can do anything we want, and frequently we shouldn't, but we still do."
Chef Mark Miller, on the other hand, rejoiced in fusion cuisine's inventiveness. According to him, "California cuisine was born when Chinois opened in 1983. It was definitely the keynote speech-times had changed and they were never going back. California cuisine was taking Chinese things, cooking them in an Italian oven, and putting French sauces on them. It was a mastery of multiplicity, fashion, form, design, flavor, everything." Like it or not, fusion in its various forms became part of the movement.
After the cuisine was named, chefs and restaurants would become famous for preparing it. Chefs in the California cuisine movement did not go into cooking to reap fame and never really dreamed of financial reward. Cooking in the United States up to the 1980s was not considered a prestigious profession, and most entered the trade simply because they were passionate about food. Chef Gary Danko, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York in the mid-1970s, said, "It wasn't the most highly revered profession, but a lot of us went because we loved to cook. We loved to eat. We loved the whole feeling about it. It wasn't like we were going to be famous."
But as food became a hot topic in the United States, many chefs did indeed become celebrities. Gradually they and their food became the focus of restaurant dining. There wasn't the full-blown worship of today, but there was a growing spotlight on newly famous California chefs and the restaurant world in general. By the 1980s the names Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Jeremiah Tower were familiar to the dining public.
Chez Panisse and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, Berkeley; Stars, San Francisco
Flamboyant, hedonistic, and blessed with an amazing palate, Jeremiah Tower came to Berkeley in 1972 after graduating from the Harvard School of Architecture. He was born in Connecticut but spent much of his childhood abroad, attending schools in Australia and England. Through dining out with his parents and relatives, he developed a highly refined sense of taste.The timing of his arrival at Chez Panisse in 1973 could not have been better: he was broke and the restaurant was in need of a cook. He read the want ad in the paper and prepared eighteen sample menus, as requested. When he came in to the restaurant, he presented his menus and asked Alice for an immediate interview. She ordered him to taste and adjust the day's soup. He stepped up to the pot, added some wine and cream, and was hired on the spot.
Both Jeremiah and Alice were committed to using the best-quality local ingredients, but stylistically and philosophically their paths diverged. She wanted rustic and simple food, while he wanted boldness and drama. In the battle of egos, only one could be the winner. It was clear to both of them that Chez Panisse would always be "Alice's restaurant." Jeremiah needed his own place, where he could be the star.
He left in 1978 to pursue numerous ventures. He opened Ventana Inn at Big Sur, taught at the California Culinary Academy, and consulted at the San Francisco watering hole Balboa Café. In 1982, he took over the Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley. Then, in 1984, in partnership with moneyman Doyle Moon, he opened Stars, a grand brasserie near the San Francisco Civic Center. Stars was an instant sensation.
"The food was very California-driven, very seasonal, and done in a big way," said pastry chef Emily Luchetti. "With fancier restaurants, if you wanted good food, you had to sit for a three-course meal. At Stars, you could go for oysters, hot dogs, and dessert, or for a martini and oysters, or just the martini, or you could get a full-fledged dinner. You could have it your way. "
Jeremiah had a purist's love of fine ingredients. "For me, it's always been about quality. I don't care where it comes from as long as it's properly raised, healthy, and of the quality that I want. In the Chez Panisse days, you couldn't get anything unless somebody brought it to you from their garden. It had to be local; anything else was supermarket food that had survived shipping across the country or being flown in."
He felt that it was essential for cooks to travel and taste to develop their palates and establish a benchmark for the dishes they would make. "If you've never had the best of anything-the perfect olive oil or white truffle-how would you know what you're supposed to be doing?"
Gradually Jeremiah moved out of the kitchen, entrusting Stars's day-to-day culinary activities to his talented chef Mark Franz and a dedicated kitchen crew. Jeremiah became the host with the most, a glass of champagne always in hand, throwing a great party every night in the spectacular tiered dining room, which seated a huge number of guests.
But even the grandeur of Stars was not enough for Jeremiah. He began to expand his domain, opening Stars Café, an upscale bistro adjacent to Stars, in 1988. "In his mind he was going to serve all the most important socialites, artists, designers, opera singers-everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Pavarotti," said former Stars Café chef Loretta Keller. Jeremiah opened branches of Stars in the Napa Valley, Palo Alto, Manila, and Singapore. But after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which closed off the Civic Center and forced the opera and symphony to relocate, Jeremiah lost heart. . Overextended both financially and emotionally, he sold his interest in Stars to a financial group from Singapore led by Andrew Yap. It closed after two difficult years. Jeremiah first relocated to Manila and then New York before finally settling in Mérida, Mexico, where he enjoys a less stressful life restoring old houses and scuba diving.
Imitating It: Food for the Masses in the Mid-1980s
Not everyone could afford to eat in the hallowed halls of Chez Panisse, Spago, Michael's, and Stars.But people who read about these places wanted a taste of this new cuisine. Seizing this opportunity, Robert Freeman, Mosen Aminifard, and James Benson, owners of the Victoria Station restaurant chain, formed the private California Café Restaurant Corporation in 1979. They opened the first California Café in Walnut Creek in 1983, followed by Los Gatos in 1985 and Palo Alto in 1986. These were bistro-style restaurants serving what the owners considered "idiomatic" California cuisine to the general dining public. Their eclectic menu offered interpretations of dishes that had become California classics, such as the Chez Panisse baked goat cheese salad and the grilled fish with a side sauce that Patricia Unterman was doing at Hayes Street Grill. Their simplified-some might say dumbed-down-presentations defined California cuisine for many people. By 1997 the California Café Restaurant Corporation had successfully established twenty cafes, and in 1993 it added the Napa Valley Grille to its portfolio.
In the mid-1980s, two lawyers who knew a good thing when they saw it, Richard Rosenfield and Larry Flax, jumped on the California cuisine casual-dining bandwagon in Los Angeles. I first encountered Rosenfield and Flax while I was chef at Chez Panisse Café, where they took notes and questioned me about the value of a wood-burning as opposed to a conventional oven. They went on to hire Ed LaDou, who had worked for Wolfgang Puck at Spago and had created unusual pizzas at San Francisco's Prego. In 1985, Rosenfield and Flax opened the California Pizza Kitchen. CPK, as it was known, offered some multi-ingredient fusion pizzas that would have turned any Italian's hair white, including Thai chicken pizza and Jamaican jerk pizza. The chain is still in business, with over two hundred restaurants in the United States and almost a dozen abroad.
These mass-market restaurants served all the nouvelle cuisine clichés that had been adopted by California cuisine in its early years. Chef David Gingrass describes how he was particularly irked by "hazelnut oil, raspberry vinegar, and rare duck breasts with raspberries and hazelnuts. These subsequently spun off into the California Café-type garbage where you had macadamia-nut-crusted things and every manner of salsa you could ever imagine."
The wild success of both these chain restaurants cast negative associations on the term "California cuisine," and many in the business shied away from using it. When Patricia Unterman wrote restaurant reviews in the 1980s she avoided using the label because she saw it as slightly derogatory. "It was associated with fusion, food not based in logical technique. When the California Café and the California Pizza Kitchen opened, I saw that as a terrible trend. I think that California then meant some kind of unfettered experimental cooking that had no foundation or roots and really wasn't very good."
Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani of Terra in the Napa Valley refused to identify their cooking as California cuisine because, according to Lissa, "it was permission to do anything. It was the more, the better-twenty ingredients in a dish. Just because you can doesn't mean you should, and that's what happened. The people who were really cooking California cuisine weren't promoting it. The press and writers were. But when the chains saw that there was business to be done, they adopted the name."
Expanding It: The 1990s
The 1990s was a decade of over-the-top creativity and odd juxtapositions. Fusion cooking thrived. Chefs dreamed big, and fifteen ingredients on one plate were not too many for some of them. Press coverage spurred chefs to be expressive with their cuisine, and the dining public got caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment.
At this adventurous time, genuine Asian food also came into the spotlight, and soon other types of ethnic restaurants entered the arena. As diners became more accepting of regional and authentic cuisines, chefs could present their food as it was served in their country, without having to make compromises to please timid diners. Indian restaurants no longer needed to tone down their flavors, Asian restaurants didn't need to serve bread, and at Mourad Lahlou's Kasbah, he didn't have to offer ketchup as a condiment alongside harissa.
Kasbah, San Rafael; Aziza, San Francisco
Mourad Lahlou came to the Bay Area from Marrakesh to pursue a PhD in economics. "I had no plans to cook. I was going to be somebody who had a degree, then go back home and make everybody proud-the typical immigrant story."
Living so far away from where he had grown up made Mourad nostalgic for Morocco and homesick for his family's food. "I would go home to my apartment and miss getting together around a table, everybody yelling, the kitchen all upside down. It was quiet, there was no smell. There was nothing that made me feel alive, so I started to cook." Working from the memory of his mother's kefte with tomato sauce, he bought some tomatoes and paprika and started experimenting. Soon he was cooking for others, and after he got his master's degree, he decided to start a small restaurant with his brother while he worked toward his PhD. They found a space in San Rafael and financed Kasbah by putting $300,000 on Mourad's credit cards. On opening night, there were no menus. Mourad told the servers, "Go to the table, tell them to give us $40, and we'll cook for them." He improvised, and the guests were happy. The restaurant was busy from day one. Within four weeks they started getting rave reviews. After one year he realized he was in it for the long haul.
Mourad initially intended to make recipes that he remembered from home: his mother's chicken with lemons, his aunt's lentil soup, the bastilla his family served at special events. But when he could not manage to make his food match his memories, he started to doubt his abilities as a chef. A visit to Morocco revealed the reason for the differences. "Our Moroccan chicken took an hour and a half to cook; here it takes thirty-five minutes. It's not the same tomatoes; it's not the same lamb; it's not the same spices. It's not the same hands. This is not made by somebody who made it for thirty years, over and over again."
It dawned on Mourad that people who were able to recreate dishes from the past were considered the best cooks in Morocco. Nobody talked about innovation or about tweaking recipes. In the United States, traditional ethnic restaurants rarely evolved. "I was getting bored making couscous the same way. I remember thinking, 'I can't do just this for five years.'" He decided that there were enough restaurants serving standard Moroccan cuisine. "That stuff was not going to be endangered if I didn't do it anymore, so I thought I might as well take a chance, see where it was going to go."
He began eating out to see what other chefs were doing. He went to Chez Panisse and Zuni Café. He realized that the chefs at those restaurants were cooking with a wide variety of ingredients. "But when I went to the market, I was just looking for tomatoes, carrots, beans, stuff that I recognized from Morocco. I began adding arugula, cress, and goat cheese to Moroccan food and cooking it in a way that still had some link to the foundation, but at the same time was branching out.
"Moroccan food has layers of flavor. It's a stew that takes six hours, a tagine that takes twelve hours, a couscous that needs five or six steamings, pancakes that have to be proofed three times." The problem was that these methods robbed individual ingredients of their unique flavors. Mourad was investing in quality products-lettuce from Annabelle Lenderink at Star Route Farms, chickweed from Jesse Kuhn at Marin Roots Farm, rabbits from Mark Pasternak, chickens from Hoffman Game Birds, lamb from Niman Ranch, and produce from GreenLeaf-but when cooked in traditional Moroccan fashion, "what you taste is the spices, so the flavor of the carrot is masked by the cumin, the flavor of the rabbit is like paprika, the flavor of the chicken is merely preserved lemons and cracked olives. Why was I spending this much money on produce if people couldn't tell the difference?"
He began to simplify traditional Moroccan preparations so that the flavors of his ingredients would stand out. "Not as much cumin, not as much spice. We don't need to put seven vegetables in the same pot and cook them at the same time. Why don't we cook them one at a time so we can have each one perfect and then put them together? It was the Chez Panisse influence; you go there and get a garden salad that tastes like a salad, it tastes like lettuce. My role is to know when to stop, to show restraint, and not to spoil the taste of the carrot."
Mourad's goal was to find a middle ground where he maintained the integrity of the ingredients without sacrificing the flavor of the dish as a whole. "I would be lying to people if I said I'm making Moroccan food. I'm making food that is a compilation of everyone that has influenced me, including you, Joyce, and Judy Rodgers and Alice Waters and Paula Wolfert, and more recently Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras, and David Kinch. I try to understand what they do and apply it to what I'm doing. Food that has an idea behind it and food from the soul-that's what I try to do. I try to find a place in me where that food resides."
People came to California from all over to taste this distinct and special cuisine. It was difficult to define, yet people were eager to experience it. It had iconic dishes-Chez Panisse's goat cheese salad, Wolfgang Puck's California pizza-but it was characterized by its ever-changing, all-encompassing nature. This is a story about how communities evolved and the kitchen culture shifted. How immigrants arrived and created California versions of cultural staples. How growers and artisans made their way to the table. All of this took place in the context of a productive push-pull between Northern and Southern California.
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