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California Cuisine

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Now, I happen to like sundried tomatoes and goat cheese. But they can be overused for sure and that is part of the story of California cuisine. I found this little history of the form at Eater to be really quite interesting. The author tells it by examining the 1982 show Great Chefs, showing how high end California cuisine was still really French cuisine at that time, but it was about to change and fast.

The one episode of the 1982 Great Chefs to focus squarely on the new “California cuisine,” as the narrator calls it, visits Jeremiah Tower, who was cooking then at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill. The opening shot presents Tower basting a whole pig turning over an open mesquite fire, framed by dried chile peppers hanging above. Over the course of the episode, he prepares a black bean cake topped with fresh salsa and cilantro (the narrator notes, “It’s a measure of the food sophistication of San Francisco that cilantro, Chinese parsley, usually sold in speciality stores elsewhere, is sold in grocery stores here”), a simple poached fish in a tomato-based sauce, and, yes, goat cheese topped with sundried tomato, wrapped in fig leaves and grilled. The whole pig he describes as a deceptively simple dish. You just need the spit, and the fire pit.

Tower’s dishes aren’t exactly modern, but the approach feels much more familiar than those employed by the chefs working in a Continental mode. It’s still possible to walk into restaurants in San Francisco or Los Angeles and order, if not these exact dishes, then dishes based on similar approaches and techniques — bean fritters, poached fish, grilled cheeses, rotisserie-roasted meats. Meanwhile, finding classical French cuisine, or even a place serving a house-made salmon mousseline, is basically impossible now in San Francisco. On a recent trip, I visited Mijoté, a neo-bistro by the chef Kosuke Tada, who has extensively worked at French restaurants in both Japan and France. The format of his set four-course menu was typical of Parisian dining, but the techniques and ingredients were completely in line with a contemporary Californian approach. A dish of cured halibut, persimmon, and radish arrived in a slightly retro stack, topped with a delicate baby mustard leaf. Its flavors were light and utterly seasonal. The presentation was more visually entertaining than work by American-trained chefs, but the gap had narrowed considerably since 1982.

Tower’s episode also reveals some of the less celebrated reasons California’s chefs were embracing simple techniques. In his telling, he doesn’t cook this way because it’s better, necessarily, or as a virtuous way to highlight the region’s staggering abundance. It’s because it doesn’t require a full brigade. “Payroll in a three-star restaurant is $250,000,” he says, and notes that many of the cooks working under that traditional French system wouldn’t even be paid. The classic California cuisine dish of grilled goat cheese, he seems to imply, is a product of the limited amount of labor: “You just grill it until soft and can be spread on bread.” In 1982, Marian Burros wrote about how this practical approach created a new vanguard of chefs, freed from culinary tradition: “Unlike classically trained chefs, they think nothing is sacred.” That led to an intellectual and academic approach to the food they chose to cook — it was about the ideas or types of ingredients, not a culinary tradition — which helps explain California cuisine’s abstract nature.

But the most dated aspect of the California cuisine episodes of Great Chefs is how monotone its practitioners were, and how the emphasis on ideas and ingredients seeded some of the more tedious aspects of our current culinary landscape. The late chef Bruce LeFavour’s episode features an entree he dubs “Bombay Fantasy,” consisting of steamed beef topped with a curry-infused butter surrounded by a “fantasy of accompaniments”: an Indian-style chutney but also sliced bananas, pickled onions, and Japanese pickled ginger. He says he came up with the dish during one of his long drives to Berkeley to source ingredients, saying, “This story came to mind of a man who had been to India too long, and he fantasized about a beef dish. It’s Bombay madness, a delirious dream late at night.” The hodgepodge fusion and blatant exocticism of its origins presages the 21st century’s “global pantry” problem, which emphasized ingredients over the cultures that cooked with them.

There’s also a mention in here of an attempt to organize Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, which evidently went nowhere. Curious about that.

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