Articles in Editor’s Letter
The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.
Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.
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A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.
Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.
There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.
A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.
“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.
Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue
The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.
In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.
Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”
Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.
PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.
The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.
Check your local PBS listings for show times.
Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV
Aubert de Villaine is a rare wine character. The gatekeeper to the most celebrated wines in Burgundy — Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — de Villaine works in the service of his vines. His wealth and power are obscured by frayed tweed jackets and mud-caked boots.
When you meet him, there is no hint of the haughtiness typical of lesser lights in the wine world. Neither is there the equally off-putting salesman’s instant friendship. A private man, de Villaine maintains a surprisingly low profile for someone with his influence.
By Maximillian Potter
Knowing this, I am all the more astonished by the intimacy of the story Maximillian Potter tells in “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine.” Potter’s unprecedented access to the great vigneron and the people closest to him imbues the book with the spirit of its two main characters, bringing both de Villaine and his vineyards to life as no one has.
This is a thriller, complete with a blackhearted criminal and a scheme so frighteningly sinister it is nearly unbelievable. Unable to put it down, I read it in one sitting.
Lesson in the ‘Shadows’
Potter deftly delivers everything you need to know about winemaking, the French Revolution, de Villaine’s family, the birth of the American wine movement and Burgundy’s history to keep you turning the pages to learn more. When you close the book, you will want to pull a cork as an act of homage and celebration.
My favorite chapters focus on de Villaine’s ancestor, Louis-François de Bourbon, who began the family wine dynasty in the pre-revolutionary intrigue of the court of King Louis XV. From that vantage point, Potter pulls the threads with which he weaves the modern drama that took place in the dark of night on the hillside of La Romanée-Conti vineyard.
In my home, I have two giant bookcases filled with wine books, at least 200 volumes. As a wine writer, I have at least perused nearly every wine book written in the last couple of decades. I keep the ones with information I might need in the course of my work.
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“Shadows in the Vineyard” goes on a separate bookshelf, one reserved for books I’ve enjoyed and want to either read again or pass along to friends. This is a book for anyone who loves a well-told tale. It also might turn you into a wine lover.
I worked with Potter at Premiere magazine when he was a fresh-from-college assistant to the editor. He went on to become an award-winning journalist, writing for Philadelphia and GQ and working as an editor at 5280: The Denver Magazine, Men’s Health and Details. He is now a senior media consultant to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The dogged journalist with an open heart I met 20 years ago is in evidence on every page of this, his first book. It is a feat he accomplishes without once getting in the way of the story he tells. Bravo, Max.
Main photo composite:
Maximillian Potter. Credit: Jeff Panis
Book cover: Credit: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
It was the knife work. The way he smeared a dab of sauce across the plate with the back of a spoon. Jon Favreau’s moves were too smooth. The actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-blockbuster-director, is also a professionally trained chef? No way. I began looking for the “tells” of a body double.
“Chef,” Favreau’s new film, shot in one month, is a trip back to his indie-film roots when 18 years ago the work-a-day actor wrote himself out of that rut with the cult hit “Swingers.” Directing “Iron Man” catapulted him onto Hollywood’s A-list, wattage that is evident in the “Chef” cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman.
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But what makes this fairly predictable father/son feel-good road trip so engaging is the authenticity of the kitchen scenes and those chefy moves. Unlike most food flicks, “Chef” is not food porn. Favreau’s chef Carl Casper handles food with skill and respect — and you leave the theater desperate for a melty Cuban sandwich, sweet plantains and a cold beer.
“Ever since I read [Anthony Bourdain's memoir] ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ I have been intrigued by the chef world,” Favreau told the sold-out audience opening night at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas. He dashed off the screenplay in a couple of weeks, congratulating himself for such an original story — a celebrated chef, trained in the French culinary tradition, who decides to chuck it all to cook the food he loves out of a food truck … and ends up with a rock star career.
Favreau soon learned his “original” idea mirrored the life of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. One afternoon, Favreau stopped by the raw space in Koreatown where Choi was pacing out a new restaurant, Pot, his ode to Korean cuisine. Favreau’s plan was to make Choi a consultant on the film and avoid a lawsuit for stealing his story.
“He just showed up by himself,” said Choi, who joined Favreau for the opening night Q&A. After they talked, “he got in my car — which surprised me because it’s a beat old car — he just followed me around all night.”
Six hours on the town with Choi
Kogi BBQ trucks made Choi a Los Angeles hero and paved the way for his other places in the area: the college casual Chego; 3 Worlds Cafe in South L.A.; the neighborhood bistro A-Frame; Caribbean-flavored Sunny Spot; and his late night lounge, Alibi Room. That night, Favreau made the circuit with him. “I just showed him little bits and pieces to see if he thought what we were doing was interesting,” Choi said. “I was just trying to show him what I was about. Chefs are really transparent. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Favreau agreed, saying, “Roy showed me everything. We were out for six hours that night. I tasted a lot of food. And it was amazing food. That’s the thing, you want to eat it all.”
Favreau sent Choi the script. “You know, I’m a fairly successful director and Roy started going after it,” Favreau said. “He red-lined the whole thing.” Chefs don’t wear their whites to the farmers market, Choi chided him. “And here you have the chef smelling the ingredients. You’re not Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ” Choi said.
Choi insisted on more than script changes. He would sign on to help only after Favreau went to cooking school. “My first day studying at the culinary academy was learning how to tie your apron. It is almost a martial art. Where you tie it, how tight,” Favreau recalled. “Roy told me you can tell whether you are a chef by how you hold a towel. And the whites. Keeping the whites clean.”
On the set, Choi showed up every day that involved cooking. The food couldn’t just look good; it had to taste good too. Choi created every dish that appears in the film and insisted that his food not be treated as a prop. The cast and crew would eat it. “Nothing was wasted,” Favreau said. “He kept everything up to restaurant standards. That pig we cut up? We parceled it out and gave it to the crew. Respect for the food permeated the culture on the set.”
As an actor, Favreau schooled himself in Choi. “I watched Roy and emulated everything he did. Every tattoo on chef Carl was approved by Roy,” he noted. The makeup artists added “burns” on his forearms, the mark of a working chef. “I worked from the inside out,” Favreau said.
Favreau’s last chef test
His final exam: joining Choi’s prep crew when he did a three chef tasting menu with Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. “No one knew I was there,” Favreau said. “At the end of the night they noticed me and they were busting my balls. David Chang noticed my whites were dirty.”
Slowly, Favreau found his way from acting like a chef to feeling the part.
“Once I realized his heart and his mind and his soul were open to [being a chef], that’s half the battle,” Choi said. “His movements changed once he got down with how a chef’s mind is working with so many different things going on. We have eyes in the back of our heads. By doing that, his body language changed.”
There was no body double.
Main photo: A scene from “Chef” with Emjay Anthony, left, and Jon Favreau. Credit: Open Road Films
Tourists, particularly food tourists, are easily fooled by Los Angeles. They stuff themselves on the obvious Hollywood and Beverly Hills dining bling, missing what makes the locals smack their lips.
This city of 10 million souls wrapped within a dense-pack region twice that size sustains immense immigrant populations. Along with their dreams, L.A.’s newest citizens arrive with treasured recipes. Restaurants serving authentic dishes from China, Japan, Iran, Russia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, France, Spain — you name the country — are scattered throughout the Southland like so many diamonds tossed out a car window.
Grand Central Market’s gems
You need more than a map to track down L.A.’s hidden culinary treasures. And now, against long odds, the city has that missing piece. Grand Central Market has become a showcase for the culinary diversity of Los Angeles, the old and the new. When all 50-some spaces are filled this summer, it will house an eclectic collection of restaurants, market stalls and artisan purveyors — without the too-cool-for-school attitude that diminishes some other city food emporiums.
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A kombucha peddler, artisan cheese monger, a deli serving house-cured pastrami, a butcher selling acorn-fed pork, a wood-fired pizzeria? Absolutely. But here, the tattoo-and-suspender crowd shares a cavernous cement hall with family businesses hawking Armenian kebabs, Michoacán tacos, Oaxacan moles, Hawaiian barbecue, Japanese bento boxes and a fresh fruit market with piles of gingergrass and cactus pads alongside a towering stand of green sugar canes.
Saturday afternoons at the 100-year-old landmark market are buzzing. Young families, gaggles of teenagers and downtown’s elderly residents rub more than elbows as they push to the front of the crowd at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. Young hipsters wait an hour to order breakfast sandwiches at the Eggslut counter. Guatemalan grandmothers and their families commandeer folding tables and chairs to feast on a spread from Sarita’s Pupuseria.
“A year ago, Saturdays were dead,” says David Tewasart, working the counter at his popular Sticky Rice Thai Street Food. “I was the first new place to sign on. It was risky. They had a hard time finding the early people.”
When owner Adele Yellin and her husband Ira bought the market and surrounding buildings in 1984, “the core of the city was rotting away,” she says. “Ira believed if we invested in the core, we could revitalize the whole city.”
When Yellin’s husband died suddenly in 2002, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall was shining brightly on nearby Grand Avenue and economic development had started to spread throughout downtown. Grand Central Market, however, remained a gritty warren of food stalls on a stubbornly ungentrified stretch of Broadway lined with inexpensive tiendas (stores) serving Spanish-speaking immigrants.
“We weren’t serving the food that the new people wanted,” Yellin says. Revitalizing the market without turning out the family businesses that were her legacy tenants seemed impossible.
Redeveloping without losing its roots
Well into her retirement a decade later, Yellin gathered her courage to redevelop the market without losing its traditional flavor. She gambled on a pair of local food artisans — Joseph Shuldiner, founder of The Institute of Domestic Technology, and Kevin West, author of the preserving book “Saving the Season” (Artisan) — to be her talent scouts.
“The market was Adele’s vision,” West says. “We just made the introductions to chefs and other food artisans to help her realize that vision. L.A. is crawling with food talent. There was a tremendous response to her idea of a gathering place for the many cuisines and cultures that make up the city.”
Yellin championed emerging food innovators and entrepreneurs instead of established businesses, and has emerged a hero to the local food movement. She still has yet to spruce up the place beyond a utilitarian coat of white paint. She wants no “fancy schmantz,” she says.
Valerie Gordon was the second new arrival at Grand Central Market, opening a salad and sandwich lunch counter featuring the petit fours and chocolates that have made Valerie Confections a favorite at L.A.’s farmers markets. (Her cookbook is a finalist for a James Beard Award.) In keeping with Yellin’s mission of uniting the old with the new, Gordon created a brownie made with mole sold at Valeria’s, a neighboring Mexican spice stall.
Wariness from the original vendors vanished as business boomed for everyone, Sticky Rice’s Tewasart says as he dishes up his spicy Tom Yum Goong shrimp soup full of big chunks of mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots. I sighed with my first bite of Crying Tiger skirt steak; just the right balance of vinegar and spices. His sticky rice? Chewy and sweet, washed down with coconut water sipped from a straw dropped into a freshly cut coconut.
“It’s been wild,” Shuldiner says with a hint of sadness that his work is winding down. This summer, with the opening of the last few new stalls, the market will inaugurate evening hours for the first time in its history. Cocktails will be served.
Asked whether the market is finished, Yellin smiles. “There is the basement. I’d like to bring artisan food production into the city,” she confides.
Main photo: Adele Yellin, Grand Central Market owner, left, with Lydia Clarke, one of the owners of DTLA Cheese. Credit: David Crane
Among the many stinky, potentially explosive things in the world I leave to the professionals, fermentation ranks high on my list. An afternoon with my daughter Hayley, however, opened my eyes to what I have been missing. “It’s a cheap way to feel good,” says my recent college grad surviving on minimum wage. “And kind of critical, considering all of the bubble gum-flavored antibiotics you dosed me with as a child.”
Fermented foods are part of Hayley’s daily routine. She drinks a couple of glasses of homemade kombucha — a bacteria-laced apple cider vinegar — as a snack. Her countertop is cluttered with kimchis and sauerkrauts brewing with all manner of vegetables. “When a vegetable in the fridge is about to go bad, we just cut it up and throw it in a jar with salt and whatever spices and herbs are lying around,” she explains.
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When she shows me her SCOBY — symbiotic communities of bacteria and yeast — a white floating island growing on top of a current batch of kombucha, I call a timeout. Really proud of the frugality, my dear, but how does something so gross make you feel good?
“My body now is a well-oiled machine,” Hayley laughs and rests her case.
Her confidence comes from studying books by Sandor Ellix Katz, a fermentation evangelist she discovered while working as an intern with Chefs Collaborative on its Sustainable Food Summit last fall. “He’s given me a healthy respect for gut bacteria,” Hayley notes.
Before Katz became its champion, fermentation was more ignored than dismissed among food professionals. It never went out of style, he told the Chefs Collaborative gathering of environmentally conscious chefs. It was living, neutered, behind the wall of industrial food processing.
We crave fermented foods; think chocolate, cured meats, beer, wine and cheese, he said. “Fermentation creates the strongest flavors,” Katz asserted. “People who have grown up not accustomed to them find them scary … and inaccessible.”
When modern America declared war on bacteria, pasteurizing and sterilizing processed food, Katz believes we robbed food of much of its nutritive value. Worse, we lost our healthy gut bugs in the process, fracturing an elegant symbiotic relationship with the microbial world. With the release of his 2003 book “Wild Fermentation,” Katz began barnstorming the country in the equivalent of a “bring back bacteria” tour.
Katz grew up on sour pickles in New York City, but he didn’t think to ferment on his own until he was diagnosed with HIV and moved to rural Tennessee in search of a way to manage his health through diet. Experiments with making sauerkrauts from old garden cabbages, he says, changed his life. His enthusiasm for fermenting became contagious. Both “Wild Fermentation” and his next book, “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” became manifestos for food activists.
His third book, the recently released “The Art of Fermentation,” cemented his reputation as an authority on the topic. In the foreword to this dense tome, Michael Pollan calls the book an inspiration. “I mean that literally. The book has inspired me to do things I’ve never done before, and probably never would have if I hadn’t read it.
“Sandor Katz writes about the transformative power of fermentation with such infectious enthusiasm that he makes you want to try things just to see what happens,” Pollan writes. But the book is more than a “how-to” guide. “It tells you why an act as quotidian and practical as making your own sauerkraut represents nothing less than a way to engage with the world.”
Katz’s instructions for brewing kombucha are straightforward:
- Brew black or green tea (loose leaf or bagged).
- Add sugar (about ¼ cup to every liter, more or less to personal taste).
- Add a SCOBY mother (obtainable from a fellow brewer or a health food store).
- Let it sit for 10 days and watch the new SCOBY grow on the surface of the liquid.
- Flavor the final product with whatever you like. Fruit or vegetable juice, herbal infusions and mint are a few of his suggestions.
Hayley likes the experimentation. “Katz embraces the uncertainties of dealing with something that is alive, and invites you to explore the world of fermentation for yourself,” she says. He gently guides folks toward ever more daring adventures in fermentation.
Her most recent experiment was cutting up a discarded SCOBY and turning it into gummy candies. Not bad tasting, but well beyond her mother’s comfort zone.
Top photo: Homemade kombucha in process. The SCOBY is floating in the jar. Credit: Hayley Fager
Editor’s Note: Corie Brown joined the Chefs Collaborative Board of Overseers last month and is looking forward to the Sustainable Food Summit in September.
Zester Daily fans took a deep dive into our rich assortment of stories in 2013. A review of our top hits of the year reveals an appreciation for the practical as well as an insatiable appetite for what’s weird and wonderful.
With more stories than ever from an expanded network of contributors, Zester Daily delivered on our promise to treat readers to a wealth of “fresh intelligence.” Below, you will find a countdown of our 12 most popular new stories with links to the complete stories as well as links to the contributor page for each author.
Cheers to a great 2013!
12) New Seasoning Shio-Koji Emerging in Japan, by Sonoko Sakai: The city of Saiki in the island of Kyushu in southern Japan is blessed by nature. In the surrounding mountains, farmers grow shiitake mushrooms, prized for their thick meat. The crystal clear sea is …
11) 3-Day Detox Juice Cleanse Comes With A Dramatic Arc, by Cheryl D. Lee: Juicing and juice cleanses are all the rage these days. Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon turned TV personality is a great proponent of juicing. He has his own 3-Day Detox Cleanse, which seems very easy to follow. My system needed a jump-start …
10) The Icelandic Food Scene Goes Beyond Rotten Shark, by Jody Eddy: “Is it a cookbook about rotten shark?” I’ve received this question more than once when people find out I’m writing a cookbook about Icelandic cuisine. But contemporary Icelandic food …
9) Fight Cancer: Top 10 Foods To Decrease Inflammation, by Harriet Sugar Miller: “One of the most significant medical discoveries of the 21st century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting chronic diseases,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman, author of several books on health and wellness. The conditions he’s talking about …
8) A Secret Weapon for Silky Custard: Vitamix Blender, by Caroline J. Beck: Late winter is usually a somber time in the garden. But in Southern California, it’s citrus season — bringing a combination of riotous color and flavor intensity that …
7) A Thanksgiving Appetizer So Good You’ll Have To Hide It, by Clifford A. Wright: Long before the turkey comes out of the oven golden and glistening, our family has gathered, preparing all the myriad dishes, drinking, laughing and nibbling on Thanksgiving appetizers since the morning …
6) The Mother Of All Heirloom Recipes From Brooklyn, by Julia della Croce: Long before Brooklyn became a mecca for hipsters, it buzzed with Italian immigrants. Hearing the dialects on the streets of Williamsburg, Red Hook or Bensonhurst, you would have thought you were in Naples or Palermo or …
5) Boost Cancer-Fighting Effects Of Onions And Garlic, by Harriet Sugar Miller: Although some Buddhists may swear off onions and garlic because they allegedly arouse both anger and libido, these aromatics have powerful nourishing properties. Experts say …
4) Surprising Top Beef Cuts Make for Succulent Holiday Roasts, by Lynne Curry: If you’re thinking of serving beef this Christmas or New Year’s, you’re probably counting your quarters to see if you can afford a tenderloin or prime rib. Like many people looking for good …
3) The Mystery of Almond Boneless Chicken, by Tina Caputo: It’s been more than 20 years since I moved from a suburb on the east side of Detroit to San Francisco, and there are a few things I miss about my childhood home. When I say “a few” I mean three …
2) The Secret To Mastering Italy’s Best Tomato Sauce, by Julia della Croce: A question I’m often asked is how to make the best so-called “marinara.” It’s one that vexes me as much as the perennial hunt for the best pizza that makes good headlines. How could only one …
1) Consumers Still In The Dark: 6 Tips To Buying Better Olive Oil, by Elaine Corn: Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure? “Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint …
Also, the top Soapboxes of 2013 from outside contributors:
5) Don’t Overanalyze Your Wine. Enjoy It, by Terry Theise: Lately I’ve been frustrating my customers, which is never a wise thing to do. We get asked all the time for analytical stats on the wines we offer …
4) Koloocheh, A Persian Cookie, Is A Cultural Mother Lode, by Louisa Shafia: Is it possible that an exotic date-filled confection offers insights into the secret origins of Christianity? Well, while it remains a fringe theory, researchers …
3) Living Simply is Complicated – Is it Just a Fetish? by Elissa Altman: Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are …
2) Lessons Marcella Hazan Taught Me, by Amelia Saltsman: Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author, passed away Sept. 29. That evening, as I prepared a simple tomato sauce for dinner, I realized I routinely hear …
1) What’s Hiding Behind Our Food Labels? Deceit, by Andrew Gunther: Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims …
Top composite photo:
Images from top Zester stories, clockwise from left, lemon curd from Caroline J. Beck, Koji Master Koichi Asari from Sonoko Sakai, tomatoes for best Italian sauces from Julia della Croce, olive oil tips from Elaine Corn, cookbook author Louisa Shafia, and holiday roast from Lynne Curry.
“California cuisine?” When my friend Evan Kleiman and Santa Monica’s public radio station KCRW dedicated a Sunday afternoon to discussing the topic, I was curious.
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California has a rich and evolving food culture, but a distinctive style of cooking? Hardly.
Turns out I’m not the only naysayer on this topic. On the stage at New Roads School in Santa Monica were three people comfortable with the label sitting next to three folks who clearly weren’t. The difference was written on their faces — three older white faces next to three younger Asian and Latino chefs.
A turn toward fresh ingredients
California was stuck in post-World War II “continental cuisine” muck with the rest of the country, according to San Francisco cookbook author and chef Joyce Goldstein, whose new book, “Inside the California Food Revolution” (University of California Press), provided the background for the sold-out event.
In the mid-1970s, a group of young, largely self-taught California chefs decided to throw out the cream sauce and started building menus around fresh produce. Today the whole country talks about farm-to-table cuisine. The idea, however, said Goldstein, took root here then.
Unfortunately, “the ingredients weren’t here,” said Ruth Reichl, the former Gourmet Magazine editor who, at the time, was a cook in Berkeley.
Michael’s in Santa Monica, the first Los Angeles restaurant promoting “California cuisine,” flew ingredients in from New Zealand to serve produce good enough to take center stage, said Nancy Silverton, the chef behind La Brea Bakery and L.A.’s Osteria Mozza, who worked the cash register at Michael’s when it opened in 1979.
From the earliest days, Reichl said, California’s food revolution was part of an anti-industrial farming political movement. To get the food they wanted to serve, the chefs had to cultivate farmers willing to learn how to grow it.
“The big change — beyond just connecting with farmers — was when restaurants became personal businesses where you knew your purveyors,” said Goldstein. Chefs shared their sources with each other, something she said could not have happened in the secretive world of New York City’s better kitchens.
“We made sensible choices and cooked sensible food,” said Silverton. Formal dining gave way to raucous rooms with open kitchens; waiters dressed in khakis. Going out to dinner became fun.
California’s casual ingredient-driven way of eating spread across the country long ago, but the Mediterranean climate continues to give the state a distinctive edge. “If you go to our farmers markets, on our worst day, our produce is orders of magnitude better than what you have on any day in the Greenmarket in New York City,” said Sang Yoon, chef/owner of L.A.’s Lukshon. “California is all about celebrating that bounty.”
International influences make their mark
The difference is the personal histories of today’s California chefs. The European traditions that underscored the original “California cuisine” have been pushed aside in favor of the richer, spicier flavors familiar to chefs who grew up in immigrant communities.
“I see California beyond the food we cook as chefs and look at the way we grew up,” Kogi taco truck impresario Roy Choi told the audience. “It’s about immigration and how some of our food becomes stronger here.”
Take the taco, Choi said. “A taco from L.A. tastes like a taco from L.A. You can’t duplicate it in New York.” Yet, he added, “Korean food in L.A. is better than what you find in Korea.”
Mexican food has been slow to gain respect, said Chef Eduardo Ruiz. But the critical accolades for his Corazon y Miel in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell is evidence of change. Ruiz said he looks to his grandmother and mother for inspiration.
If he had the chance to start his career over again, Korean-born Yoon said he would skip the years he spent training in the “physically and emotionally abusive” kitchens of France’s top chefs. “I’d embrace my own culture and start there.”
“I’ve never been more proud to say I’m from L.A.,” said Yoon.
The hometown crowd erupted with applause.
“California cuisine” may have been definable back when farm-fresh, casual dining was novel. Today’s California chefs have more interesting stories to tell.
Top photo: Joyce Goldstein and Nancy Silverton discuss California cuisine at a KCRW event in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris
This Sunday morning, we filled our farmers market baskets with fragrant heirloom melons, the tastiest of the dozens of varieties of plums and pluots on offer and piles of fresh greens, lugging home a rough balance of fruits and vegetables.
Scientists might identify our fruits according to which produce started out as a flower. Sweetness, however, is the distinction that makes a difference to us.
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The perfect accompaniment to the season’s intoxicating abundance is Yung Chang’s film “The Fruit Hunters,” a love letter to the world’s rarest, most delicious fruits and the people obsessed with finding and eating them, which is being released on DVD and digital on July 16.
Chang calls his cast of sweet freaks “fruities” and they are manic about the taste of their favorite fruits. “There is a need to grow the fruit, to cultivate the fruit, not just to taste it,” he says. “There is an explorative, adventuresome sensibility. They want to discover the origin of the fruit they love.”
Don’t call them “foodies,” says Chang. Fruities only love to eat fruit.
Inspired by his friend Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 nonfiction book “The Fruit Hunters,” Chang spent two years following fruit obsessed scientists, anthropologists and conservationists around the world in search of nature’s sweetest treats.
Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell lead an Indiana Jones-like quest for rare mangoes in Bali and Borneo as they race to preserve disappearing varieties. Honduran scientist Juan Aguilar struggles to breed a banana capable of resisting a devastating fungus threatening the world’s banana crop. And in the hills of Umbria, Italy, Isabella Dalla Ragione researches Renaissance-era paintings for clues to where she might find the remaining examples of ancient cultivars.
As Gollner writes in his book, “These denizens of the fruit underworld are as special as the flora they pursue.” Largely hidden from the public eye, “they have devoted themselves to the quest for fruit.”
The passion is understandable, he writes. “Fruit is inherently erotic. After all, every time we eat a fruit, we engage in a reproductive act.”
Food porn for the smart set
“I’ve lived for the last 20 years for each day off when I can learn more about fruit,” Bill Pullman told the crowd at a Santa Monica screening of “The Fruit Hunters” earlier this summer. The star of Chang’s film, Pullman is a fruit tourist traveling to tropical fruit hot spots to meet his fruit heroes and learn their secrets, slurping and moaning over each local delicacy he discovers along the way.
At home, the actor is a fruit community organizer, leading his Hollywood Hills neighbors in a quixotic quest to turn abandoned land near their homes into a community orchard. He spreads the gospel of fruit through communal fruit harvests, known as gleanings, and homey canning parties.
There is urgency to the effort, Pullman explains. Industrial farming has taken a toll on fruit diversity. The race is on to save what is left.
Fruities believe a special bond connects fruits and humans, says Chang. Fruits nourish us and, through the act of consuming it, we ensure the future of that fruit species by dispersing its seeds.
“It is a love affair gone awry,” he says. “We need to reconnect with what it means to be a fruit hunter. These people we meet [in the film], these fruit hunters, take us through the world to rediscover our innate connection with fruit.”
As Gollner writes, “To love a diversity that, as limitless as it is fragile, both haunts us and fills us with hope.”
‘Fruit Hunters’ unearths an inner-fruit fanatic
“My connection to fruit was nostalgic,” says Chang. The people, not the fruit, drew him to the project. Several months into filming, he realized things had changed.
“At the beginning, I was very focused as a filmmaker, looking through the lens, so to speak. But people were always handing me fruit to eat. You can’t deny it. You have to taste it,” Chang says. The revelations “became overwhelming. Everywhere. Every second. Someone would have, for instance, a freshly fallen durian fruit [a spiky skinned Southeast Asian fruit with creamy almond flavored pulp] in the backyard of a grandmother’s home and at that moment that would be my favorite fruit.
“Then we’d be at a nursery in Hawaii and I’d be presented with a Burmese grape. It looks like it is in the lychee family. You open the shell, and inside is this semi-translucent pearl with swirls of pink. It tastes like Bubblicious gum.”
The tart, sweet blue Haskap berry that grows in arctic climates and has three times the antioxidant value of blueberries will be the next fruit craze, predicts Chang.
You don’t have to be a fruitie to enjoy “The Fruit Hunters.” The film is playful and joyous, a feast for the mind and the senses.
“When you watch this much food porn, you’ll want to eat fruit,” cautions Pullman. “Would you have come to a movie about vegetables?”