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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Who -- or what -- killed haute cuisine? There are plenty of suspects in Patric Kuh's fascinating history of America's culinary revolution.
One of them is the advent of credit cards, first Diners Club in 1952, then American Express. Their introduction transformed the old payment system, whereby favored customers received house accounts at elite restaurants, to a more democratic system in which all cardholders could eat now and pay later. As a result, the clientele shifted from the upper to the middle class.
Another is Restaurant Associates, the can-do firm that American Express hired to create and run a group of themed restaurants, from Zum Zum to La Fonda del Sol to the concept's ultimate expression, The Four Seasons. (In these ventures, the Falstaffian James Beard serves as a guide to authenticity.) Restaurant Associates' mass-merchandising of the restaurant experience overturned the old, elitist notions of gastronomy.
Another -- albeit unlikely -- suspect is Ronald Reagan. In the 1966 California gubernatorial election, he overwhelmingly beat two-term governor Pat Brown, even as the young radical Robert Scheer was defeated for a congressional seat in the primary. Among the disenchanted Democratic supporters was Scheer's campaign manager in Berkeley, a young Montessori teacher named Alice Waters. With politics behind her, she decided to create her own reality, a restaurant in Berkeley.
To put it all in perspective, Kuh, a Paris-trained chef, writes of the choices diners had in the 1950s: "In the 1950s, we didn't have to choose between Northern and Southern Italian, Asian fusion, Cal-Med, or Franco-Californian. Contemplating a meal at a certain price range, we had one very simple decision to make. Did we want to sit among drapes of red velvet or in a cocoon of red leatherette?" Red leatherette was the choice at the "21" Club in New York, Dinty Moore's in Chicago, Chasen's in Los Angeles. Red velvet was the choice at the halls of fine dining, like the Pump Room in Chicago, Le Pavillon in New York, and Ernie's in San Francisco.
Twenty-five years later, around the time that California wines unexpectedly beat out French wines in a blind tasting in Paris -- judged by Frenchmen -- California also took over the culinary lead. Kuh quotes from the review of Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in the October 1975 issue of Gourmet: "One evening some months ago, while diners in restaurants the length of California were facing that unholy trinity of onion soup, duck à l'orange, and créme caramel, we were occupying a window table in the enclosed porch off the dining room at Chez Panisse and discovering a ramekin of mushrooms in the style of Quercy, roast duckling with fresh basil, and an almond tart surely made in heaven."
From the 1941 opening of Le Pavillon to contemporary restaurants like Le Cirque and Spago with their extensions in Las Vegas, Kuh brings to life the very moments that transformed the American restaurant and cooking scene. Joseph Wechsberg, Henri Soulé M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Ruth Reichl, Sirio Maccioni, Danny Meyer, and many others are well represented. It is a lively, engaging history. (Ginger Curwen)