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California Cuisine A Crusade for Better Food

by Lisa Harrington

Warning: This issue contains calories

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History is served: Inside the California Food Revolution, UC Press 2013 (Lisa Harrington)

In her new book Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness, Joyce Goldstein carefully captures the cultural shift that began around 1970. Voices of visionary chefs, food artisans, and restaurateurs she interviewed for the book tell the story of how California, and particularly the Bay Area, changed the way we now grow, shop, cook, and eat our food.

Goldstein is well qualified to write the history. The recipient of a James Beard Award for “Best Chef in California,” she taught classic French, Italian regional, and Middle Eastern cooking classes in San Francisco from the mid-1960s through the 1980s. She invited small groups of students to her home kitchen before she started California Street Cooking School in 1972. After working as a chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley from 1980 to 1983, she opened her first restaurant, Square One, at age 50 and ran it for 12 years.

“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,” writes Goldstein. “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.”

In graduate school, with her own kitchen at last, Goldstein learned to cook. “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.” M.F.K. Fisher, Waverly Root, and Julia Child books followed.

At age 16, Judy Rogers, of Zuni Café, had her palate awakened as an exchange student in France when she was placed with the family of three-star chef Jean Troisgros. After finishing Stanford, she often dined at Chez Panisse, because it reminded her of the family meals she’d had in France, and soon she began to work there. She was later hired as chef at the Union Hotel in Benicia, on the recommendation of Marion Cunningham, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook author.

Chez Panisse is, by all accounts, the mothership of the California food revolution. It has launched many culinary careers—Jeremiah Tower, of Stars; Paul Bertolli, of Fra’ Mare salume company; Peggy Smith, of Cowgirl Creamery; and Steven Sullivan, of ACME Bread, to name just a few.

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Alice Waters al fresco (David Sifry, Wikimedia Commons)

Thirty years ago, I interviewed Alice Waters as she peeled shallots at one of the restaurant’s tables in the late afternoon. “The idea for Chez Panisse grew out of frustration with eating habits in this country,” she told me. “No one spends any time around the table talking to one another.”

In 1971, Waters and a few friends pooled their resources (“we couldn’t get a bank loan”) and turned an old stucco house on north Shattuck (between Cedar and Vine) into the kind of place where they would want to go. “I opened Chez Panisse with huge amounts of naivete,” she admitted. “I thought anything was possible at the time in Berkeley. I was sure the restaurant would always be full, at least with friends.”

Word spread quickly, and soon Chez Panisse was the talk of the town in New York and beyond. Waters even received an invitation to cook for President Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, an opportunity she declined. Why? “Well, it was an odd request,” she said. “Considering that we’re in Berkeley and my being a student of the ‘60s, I could have used it to make a statement. But it just didn’t seem worth it. Besides, I was busy.” She got a second chance and took it in 2009, cooking for one of the inaugural dinners celebrating President Obama’s election.

As a college student, Waters was shaped by the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and has been an activist, certainly with regards to food, ever since. She has inspired us to insist upon local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable food. She established the Edible Schoolyard Program in Berkeley to teach children how to grow food free of pesticides. She is now lobbying policymakers for free and healthy school lunches for all. As the spokesperson for Farms Not Fracking, she also warns against natural gas exploration that could harm agricultural land.

So what is California cuisine (a term originally used by a reporter from the London Observer) afterall—can it be defined? “I think California cooking is a philosophy and a way of living your life,” says Waters. “It isn’t just about the food. It’s about all the values of the culture—the artist and production, the terroir, the rituals of the table. That’s the beauty of being around for 40 years. You can see that we have succeeded in a certain way. It’s beautiful to see this next generation of kids—they’re completely committed, they’re going to do it right. [whereas] the French and the Italians, they’re having a hard time holding on to their hats and hoes these days.”

Goldstein attributes much of the California food revolution’s success to the welcoming environment that Waters, she, and other chefs found in Northern California. She writes: “In the Bay Area you could open a low-profile place on a shoestring budget and still get press coverage and a clientele eager for food rather than froufrou. You did not need Baccarat glassware, Limoges china, and $600 chairs to succeed.”

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