With its emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, innovative techniques and an openness to the cultural influences of the state’s diverse population, California cuisine turned the country’s culinary consciousness on its ear when it came to the table in the 1970s. California, the state that spawned this food revolution is now receiving the ultimate recognition in the first-ever MICHELIN Guide to cover an entire state.
The epicurean earthquake that shook up the way we eat had its epicenter in Berkeley, California, at a little neighborhood bistro called Chez Panisse. Self-taught chef and owner Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, inspired by the meals she had savored during her travels in France. Her quest for nearby suppliers of organic, sustainably raised ingredients stood out in stark contrast to the frozen-food trend that predominated home cooking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the Chef Panisse kitchen, chefs were careful to respect the integrity of local products raised for their flavor, showcasing them in dishes that allowed their natural goodness to dazzle.
Along the way, Waters’ groundbreaking restaurant nurtured a cadre of young chefs who went on to make their own marks on California cuisine: Jeremiah Tower (Stars, San Francisco), Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill, Berkeley), Jonathan Waxman (Michael’s, Santa Monica) and Joyce Goldstein (Square One, San Francisco), foremost among them. Each of these iconoclasts, in their own way, played a part in elevating American cuisine on a par with French—a preposterous notion when they started out.
The California Way
As Waters’ gospel of fresh, local food spread around the state, more restaurants began to adopt her philosophy. In Los Angeles, Michael McCarty brought farmer’s-market-driven cuisine to Southern California in 1979 when he opened Michael’s in Santa Monica, which quickly became a celebrity haunt.
In the 1980s, Los Angeles chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger pushed the culinary envelope even further by peppering their dishes with ethnic flavors from California’s diverse population. At Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, Puck fused formal French techniques with traditional Chinese preparations and California ingredients, while Milliken and Feniger took a deep dive into authentic Mexican cooking nearby at Border Grill.
As California cuisine was defining itself in the kitchen, restaurants settled into a more informal state of mind in the dining room. At Michael’s, for instance, tuxedoed waiters were replaced by a wait staff clad in a casual-chic uniform of Ralph Lauren shirts, khaki pants and Top-Siders. A new concept, open kitchens—many equipped with wood-fired ovens—put the chefs center stage, thus making dining a form of entertainment and altering the dynamic between diner and chef.
“The top has trickled down,” believes Anthony Secviar, chef/owner of one-MICHELIN-star Protégé in Palo Alto, “and the great chefs of California have left a strong root system of highly trained cooks that are now opening their own restaurants throughout the state. These chefs have, for the most part, abandoned the white linens and pretense of traditional fine-dining restaurants while maintaining the same quality and standards in a more laid-back dining scene that embodies the California vibe.”
As the most agriculturally diverse state in the U.S., California grows a veritable ABCs of fresh produce, from artichokes to zucchini blossoms. From the waters off its 840-mile-long coastline come delicacies such as abalone, Dungeness crab, halibut and Petrale sole. Much of this abundance is laid out at the state’s myriad farmer’s markets, where chefs and farmers forge lasting connections.
Laurence Jossel, chef/owner of San Francisco’s Nopa, goes to five different markets three days a week. “I know my farmers, I know their families, I know where every leaf of lettuce comes from,” he declares. “There’s such an abundance coming out of the ground here. When I travel and come back, I can taste the difference in a carrot or [a leaf of] arugula.”
Matt Accarrino, executive chef of SPQR in San Francisco, whose restaurant has held a MICHELIN star for seven years running, epitomizes the ties between chef and farmer. “I have a close relationship with area farms so I can have things grown for me,” says Accarrino, who favors hyper-seasonal ingredients like the delicate blossoms of crab apple trees, which are only available for about two weeks each spring. “We can be that highly tuned to seasonality.”
At Mister Jiu’s, also in San Francisco, Chef Brandon Jew’s cuisine is guided by the past, present and future: “The past being my recollection of food I grew up with, taste memories from my travels and the history and adaptations of Chinese food in America; the present being the organic and biodynamic products that I believe in, my ongoing long relationships with area farmers, and the seasonal bounty of the Bay Area; and the future being the exploration of the new ideas and combinations that give our food a sense of place.”
“California cuisine has had a very natural evolution,” notes Secviar, an alum of Chef Thomas Keller’s three-MICHELIN-star restaurant The French Laundry, in Yountville. “It started with chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, who recognized the quality and significance of showcasing California’s local and organic produce. The minimalistic approach to utilizing these ingredients and creating dishes that allowed the bounty of California’s produce to shine through has evolved into more creative approaches from world-class chefs throughout the state.”
From Alice Waters to Thomas Keller, over the past 50 years the independent pioneering spirit of culinarians in California has yielded an innovative chef-driven cuisine that looks no farther than its own backyard for inspiration and ingredients. The sky’s the limit as to where it might go from here.
Edited by Linda Lee.