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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.
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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 with my husband to live in Rome 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 the difference between baby goat chops and diminutive lamb chops. I learned to love assertive and bitter flavors and began adding radicchio and arugula to my salads. Italy changed forever the way I cooked.
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 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, seafood quenelles, and cassoulet for 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 popularize kiwifruit 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 surprised to 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 adieu to béchamel and sauce espagnole and started to make greater use of broths and vegetable purées. This was done not 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.
Excerpted from California Revolution by Joyce Goldstein, Dore Brown. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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