If There Is A California Cuisine, Who Owns It?
“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