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If There Is A California Cuisine, Who Owns It?

Joyce Goldstein and Nancy Silverton discuss California cuisine at a KCRW event in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris

Joyce Goldstein and Nancy Silverton discuss California cuisine at a KCRW event in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris

“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.

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.

Roy Choi discusses his take on California cuisine during a panel discussion organized by KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris

Roy Choi discusses his take on California cuisine during a panel discussion organized by KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris

“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

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.

  • Paul Lukacs 10·23·13

    An interesting column, Corie, that got me thinking.

    “California cuisine” may well be a misnomer, but then so too would any similar regional American designation. Not everyone in California eats food made with fresh. regional ingredients, just as not everyone in Texas eats brisket, or everyone in New England eats chowder. Still, it’s undeniably true that a small group of California restaurateurs began something of a culinary revolution in the late 1960s by using local products and fashioning dishes that, while inspired by European models, aimed to be new and different. Today, nearly fifty years later, that revolution has spread across the country, so much so that California cuisine has morphed into American cuisine.

    We can debate how new that cuisine really was. (Classic American dishes always were made with the freshest ingredients available; just think of the best old-fashioned apple pie,) But what clearly is not new is the presence of “international influences” in what Americans eat. Joyce Goldstein, Alice Waters, and the other California pioneers took much of the inspiration for the dishes they created from European traditions. Over the next five decades, newer, and yes often younger chefs, did not so much disregard those influences as expand upon them, looking to Mexico and other Latin American countries for inspiration, as well as to east and south Asia. Some even looked to other regions of the United States, offering new versions of fried chicken, pulled pork and the like.

    What is most interesting about all of this is that the changes virtually all started in restaurants (and now on food trucks) before coming to home kitchens. No more the old, admittedly clichéd image of the restaurateur serving his customers what mama used to make at home for the family. Now mom, assuming she cares, reads cookbooks, magazines, or web sites like Zester Daily in search of recipes from famous restaurant chefs.

  • Corie Brown 10·23·13

    I hadn’t really thought about the locus of culinary influence in America having flipped from homes to restaurants, but you are right. American chefs have been moving us forward for the last 30 years. I love how they’re now inspiring us to add flavors from around the world to our home cooking. Sichuan peppercorns will soon be as American as apple pie. 🙂 — Corie

  • Joyce Goldstein 10·24·13

    I think Paul Lucacs echoes the point I make in my book – that California cuisine started in restaurants and later moved to the home kitchen. And that our revolution affected major changes in how the rest of the country eats today.

    Also it was not us ( three white older women) versus them( young male Latino and Asian chefs).
    All of us on the panel agreed that California cuisine is a cuisine of PLACE and that LA is as more multicultural and casual place than Northern California which has a more Mediterranean focus in food . But all of us, North and South are dependent upon good local ingredients prepared with personal style.

  • Corie Brown 10·24·13

    You are right. It wasn’t old versus young. Rather, on stage was a new generation rising to take advantage of the foundational work of the last thirty years. California’s bounty now is enlivening cuisines from around the world. A torch is being passed. California cuisine is being redefined by non-European chefs.

    It was a pleasure to listen to the exchange between the two groups. — Corie