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Alice Waters has an eye for produce at its peak.
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Change Agent

Joyce Goldstein - January/February 2014

Is California responsible for the food revolution? Joyce Goldstein gives a lion’s share of the credit to her home state and praises the innovations that keep on coming.

With all of today’s culinary abundance and variety, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come from the days of predictable menus, stuffy service, routine wine lists, conventional produce, feedlot meats, and frozen seafood.

I was invited to do a cooking demo at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of my book Inside the California Food Revolution last September. I decided to use only ingredients that you couldn’t buy in American wholesale and retail markets before 1970. The list was long. Along with artisanal bread and California goat’s milk cheese, you couldn’t find arugula, radicchio, mesclun lettuces, mâche, chioggia and gold beets, heirloom tomatoes, multicolored cherry tomatoes, golden raspberries, fraises des bois, Romanesco broccoli, haricots verts, padrón peppers, zucchini blossoms, fresh herbs, or any organic produce. Today, these ingredients are in markets all over the country, thanks, in part, to California’s Le Marché Seeds company, who brought seeds to our pioneering organic farmers and who then learned how to cultivate the new crops that our chefs had been craving. So instead of poking fun at our figs and laughing at our little lettuces, why not say thank you? We’re all eating better today because of what happened here in California.

We brought about a revolution in the way we source our ingredients, and our chefs—pioneers such as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Judy Rodgers, Daniel Patterson, and Mark Miller—abandoned the stodgy Franco-Continental restaurant model that had prevailed for years and opened successful restaurants of diverse styles. Since the late 1970s, the menus were written to reflect what was best that day. Open kitchens with live fire cooking made the restaurant a less formal place, and service styles adjusted to the new dining democracy. Chefs and their guests could talk to each other instead of being separated by a wall.

California’s spirit of open-mindedness encouraged entrepreneurs to break the rules and carve their own path. The outcome was the largest group of autodidacts and innovators in the food, wine, and restaurant industry. Self-taught chefs, farmers, artisans, ranchers, and winemakers learned through trial and error on the job, rather than going to a formalized school or rising via the traditional restaurant hierarchy.

Starting in the ’80s, Northern California was home to the most women chefs in the country: in addition to Waters, there was Victoria Wise, Emily Luchetti, Margaret Fox, Loretta Keller, Nancy Oakes, Cindy Pawlcyn, and Deborah Madison. They ran their kitchens in a collaborative, rather than militaristic, manner and became role models for women who dreamed of a career in restaurants. The trailblazing association of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, founded by the late Barbara Tropp, started in Northern California.

Rather than being secretive and proprietary, our California chefs willingly shared information about their purveyors with other chefs because they wanted to keep these farmers and artisans in business. Purveyors went out of their way to educate chefs about their products via newsletters and restaurant visits.

So today, when we hear yet another restaurant’s cuisine defined as “fresh, local, and seasonal,” we have to suppress a desire to roll our eyes. But in the 1970s and the early ’80s, such a description wasn’t remotely possible because the ingredients were just not there! It took great effort and dedication by California’s chefs, farmers, and purveyors to expand our larder and distribution systems so that now, when we say “fresh, local, and seasonal,” it’s a reality.

Since the groundbreaking Tasting of Summer Produce events, organized by Sibella Kraus in the early ’80s, our farmers have been growing specialty produce for restaurants. We are a team. We prize seasonality because that’s when food is at its peak of flavor and at its best price. Our diners are also tuned into the seasons because they shop at our many farmers’ markets and can distinguish a Lucero Farm strawberry from one from Dirty Girl or Swanton. They don’t want to see asparagus on the menu in September, no matter how fine the recipe.

Despite the high cost of acreage in California, the early efforts and teachings of seasoned veterans like Warren Weber at Star Route Farms, Andy Griffin at Mariquita, Lynn Brown at Forni-Brown, Bob Cannard at Green String Farm, and Judith Redmond at Full Belly Farm have inspired young, highly educated entrepreneurs to start small farms and connect with chefs and farmers’ markets. Some are run by women like Adriana Silva at Tomatero Organic Farm and Annabelle Lenderink at La Tercera. These farmers are as passionate as the chefs and are an integral part of the development of California cuisine. After all these years of nurturing and working with our growers, ranchers, farmers, artisans, and winemakers, we are, in fact, creating a truly regional cuisine. Our food has a sense of place, a Northern California terroir just as they have in the Pacific Northwest and in the South. Our larder has not only grown wider, it has grown deeper in our pursuit of cultural diversity and flavor.

In the past, California chefs have been criticized for having good ingredients but no technique. “That’s not cooking, it’s shopping.” “They just put food on a plate and don’t turn it into something more.” These complaints are tired and should be laid to permanent rest. In between farm-to-table is a stop-off in the restaurant kitchen, where ingredients are hit with the delft and creative touch of chefs like Michael Tusk at Quince, Staffan Terje at Perbacco, Craig Stoll at Delfina, Gerald Hirigoyen at Piperade, Brett and Elan Emerson at Contigo, and Laurence Jossel at Nopa, who integrate California terroir into every Italian-, Basque-, Spanish-, and Mediterranean-inspired bite. The bottom line is that their food is delicious and skillfully prepared, and the diners love it. No one ever says no to pappardelle al ragù bolognese, grilled tiny calamari atop local white beans, or a Nopa pork chop or grass-fed hamburger!

At SPQR, Matthew Accarrino’s food is Italian-inspired and immensely personal. While he could have played it safe and stayed with the original rustic Italian concept, he wanted to broaden the restaurant’s perspective. His menu has evolved to reflect the local culinary landscape with increased sophistication. Five years ago, when he arrived in California, he found copious amounts of fennel growing wild. It reminded him of his first visit to his family in Puglia. Today, he uses the flowers, buds, and fronds in shortbread cookies, for flavoring a yogurt sauce for grilled lamb, and to pair with aged squab, Crimson Rocket peaches, Tropea onions, candied olives, and wild fennel agrodolce. That’s Italian, but it’s just as surely California.

Nicolaus Balla’s cooking combines the culinary influences of Hungary, Scandinavia, Japan, and California seamlessly. Co-chef and partner Cortney Burns adds her passion for the arts of curing, pickling, and fermenting food to give their dishes a distinctive signature flavor that we can only call Bar Tartine cuisine. They have revived the Danish open-faced sandwich tradition of smørrebrød, topping Tartine Bakery’s hearty whole-grain bread with house-smoked trout, smoked mashed potatoes, and dill, or with salmon tartare and celery root rémoulade. Balla is a typical California chef with his vegetable-heavy menu and multicultural influences. He cultivates special heirloom peppers on land that he leases from Scribe winery. After the harvest, they are dried, smoked, and ground into Bar Tartine’s signature local paprika. His umami-rich stock—made with dashi and house-made smoked dried bonito—is used in his fisherman’s stew, made with local sturgeon, green chile, collard greens, and hen of the woods mushrooms, paying homage to the freshwater fish soups of Central Europe with local ingredients.

Mourad Lahlou at Aziza may have stepped away from the rote reproduction of traditional Moroccan dishes, but his contemporary cooking still reveals a palate formed by years of immersion in his native culture, his playful delight with our wide selection of ingredients, and his astute distillation of contemporary culinary ideas and techniques. Moroccan cooks don’t use shiso, but that doesn’t stop Lahlou from adding it to his melon salad. In Morocco, chicken is cooked with preserved lemons and olives. At Aziza, it comes with wheatberries, corn, and berbere. For the past 16 years, he has had the same Moroccan man hand-rolling and preparing couscous in the traditional manner, but Lahlou then tops it with a non-traditional mixture of local shelling beans, squash, Urfa peppers, and our magnificent figs. Yes, those figs!

Other Northern California chefs may not be tied to any specific cultural tradition and they may use more modern techniques, but never at the expense of flavor. Seasonality and local ingredients are still prized, although they may appear in new ways: fermented, pickled, sprouted, cooked in ashes, or frozen.

Evan and Sarah Rich know that their signature sardine potato chips can never leave the menu at Rich Table, nor can they stop serving their wild fennel bread with house-cultured butter. But everything else, especially their delicious pastas, change daily. Bucatini come with pork Bolognese enhanced with crispy pig’s ears and blood orange. Farfalle are tossed with local Dungeness crab, yuzu and horseradish. Cappellacci are baked with seven sisters cheese, black truffles, and feather cress.

At State Bird Provisions, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krazsinski offer dim sum cart service with a multicultural mix of plates: curry rabbit roti with black trumpets and lentil dal; cumin lamb and baby octopus with plancha fried farro. There are dishes of pickled beef tongue fondue, wild salmon tartare and fermented turnips, raw oysters with spicy kohlrabi kraut and sesame, as well as its signature fried quail. Every day something new appears on the cart, and the diner is delighted.

At Manresa, David Kinch’s creative pairings of ingredients may be unexpected by the diner, but the flavors impress. Those stellar ingredients come from their own Love Apple Farm down the road and from the best local purveyors. A dish romantically titled the Tide Pool combines local abalone, sea urchin, mushrooms, pickled kelp, and oyster and mushroom gels in a dashi-based broth. Spot prawns come with bone marrow and artichokes with a black trumpet tapenade.

At Commonwealth, Jason Fox serves clams with fennel panna cotta, pickled kelp Meyer lemon, lager granita, and squid ink cracker. Sea urchin is served with cauliflower and a seaweed brioche, tapioca, ginger kimchi, and coastal succulents. Local, yes. Predictable, no.

These chefs integrate flavors and textures so well that their innovative dishes appear to be not flashes in the pan but classic and Californian. Our dining public is so sophisticated and well-informed they recognize talent no matter the venue and are willing to broaden their horizons to try new foods. Creative, well-trained chefs don’t need to work in white tablecloth establishments to make their mark in the food scene. Bar chefs like Isaac Miller at Maven, who was on the line at Manresa, and Robin Song at Hog & Rocks, who worked at Patterson’s Plum, are cooking way more than burgers and fries. They enjoy the challenge of cooking in a casual place and pairing food with cocktails as well as wine.

When he came to Hog & Rocks, Song knew to not throw the baby out with the bath water. He inherited a menu of bar classics: deviled eggs, Kennebec fries, burgers, fish and chips, and Buffalo style chicken wings that the regulars loved. He improved the basic ingredients while not appearing to change the recipes, creating great bar food and also bringing guests along with more contemporary and sophisticated offerings. Gradually, he added his own signature “trotter tots,” chicken liver mousse, salt roasted beets, cuttlefish salad with potatoes and green garlic, and roasted bone marrow served with toast and preserved lemons.

Miller is having fun creating dishes to match the drinks created by the talented bar staff. This spring, Miller had on his menu English pea soup with goat’s milk cheese and blackberry-infused olive oil. How he came up with this unique flavor pairing was part memory and part accident. His grandfather had a blackberry patch, where he used to pick berries. The day he went into the walk-in to get the peas, the blackberries were next to them and the aromas of the two mingled. So he decided to try putting them together, and it worked. As a chef, he has learned that by keeping your senses open, you can be creative when serendipitous inspiration strikes. Naturally, the bartender created a blackberry-infused drink to match.

More bars, beer halls, wine bars, and cocktail lounges led by accomplished chefs are on the horizon. Look for Randy Lewis, formerly chef at Napa’s Q and The Tavern at Lark Creek, to be chef at the new Bergerac in SOMA and for Dennis Lee of Namu to design the food for the new Magnolia Gastropub Brewery in Dogpatch. Dennis Leary has closed Canteen to concentrate on the food at his soon-to-open Trocadero Club and Café Terminus.

Culinary TV stardom doesn’t impress diners here. We want people to be an active part of our vibrant community. We expect to see our chefs in their kitchens most of the time, and we like to run into them at the market. We also know our noted wine directors and some of the front-of-the-house owners. Rather than just read about them, we can engage them in conversation. We like someone to really be minding the store. We value dedication and passion, not phony personages cooked up for the camera.

Many culinary students are choosing to bypass the kitchen and are taking their newfound knowledge to other fields: writing; food styling; research and product development; catering; baking; cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and jam production; farming; winemaking; becoming sommeliers or restaurant managers. Opportunities abound in California’s ever growing food and wine industry, and the entrepreneurial spirit prevails.

Along with tourism, one of the major industries of the Bay Area is food. Artisanal products are now in vogue everywhere, but ours have been around since the ’80s. Steve Sullivan’s Acme Bread launched the artisan bread revival in the United States in 1983, followed by Semifreddi’s, Metropolis Baking Company, and Panorama. These have inspired talented bakers such as Kathleen Weber at Della Fattoria, Josey Baker at the Mill, and Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery. They, in turn, will train others. We’re just starting to see a revival of new small bakeries and pastry shops like B. Patisserie, Heartbaker, and 20th Century Café. Our diners are hungry for more.

When Laura Chenel made the first California goat’s milk cheese in 1980, she was the first woman to break into what had been a predominantly male profession. Because of her work, we now look forward to the latest offerings from Soyoung Scanlan at Andante Dairy, Jennifer Bice at Redwood Hill Farm, and Peggy Smith and Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery.

Instead of importing charcuterie from Europe, Victoria Wise, Bruce Aidells, and Paul Bertolli made their own, inspiring a movement, and prompting chefs to give salumi a prime place in their kitchens and on the menu. Their efforts made it possible for the pastrami and corned beef from Wise Sons and for small-scale charcutiers like the Fatted Calf to succeed. The Bay Area continues to lead the way in developing artisan products with food incubators such as La Cocina.

Since the early ’80s, our restaurants have supported our growing wine industry. California wine lists weren’t totally Eurocentric, and our wine-by-the-glass programs were innovative. Wine education flourished here, and wine and food pairings became a natural part of our dining experience. We could visit the wineries with our staff. We didn’t have to fly in winemakers for events because they were here, eating in our restaurants and learning how California cuisine, with its live fire cooking and bold and multiethnic flavors would affect their winemaking style.

These last 40 years have been a heady and exhilarating time to be in California. So you may wonder if we’re suffering withdrawal after the giant adrenaline rush that fueled us during those exciting and crazy years. As in the normal course of events, our revolutionary upheaval has given way to evolutionary change. We’re still passionate, but mellower. Age will do that to you.

I’m not sure we’re smarter today, but we surely are more informed. There are newsletters, blogs, websites, videos, magazines—so many ways to communicate and find out what’s going on, sometimes within hours of happening that it’s almost all we can do to keep up with all the new places and players. This constant media barrage makes it appear as if cutting-edge changes are occurring every day, but it’s just that there’s so much more of everything since the ’70s: more chefs, more chefs with farms, more farmers, more new ingredients, more artisans and suppliers.

The revolution that we helped bring about is not inherently understood and appreciated by the younger generation of chefs and diners. They take what we have for granted because that’s all they have known. Those of us who were pioneers and active participants need to tell them of our history. We hope it will inspire them to add to the richness and diversity of California cuisine, whose revolutionary effects are now echoed nationwide.