What Is California Cuisine Exactly? It’s Changing All the Time.
In California, if you’re going to spend over $100 for two on a night out — maybe more like $200 these days — the experience must meet certain expectations. The produce should be fresh and seasonal, sourced from your city’s flagship farmers market. The flavors of a dish should come from light sauces, unexpected herbs or chiles, the smoke of a grill, and most importantly, the key ingredients themselves. The presentation should be unfussy and stylish, matching the rumpled linens, rare sneakers, and vintage jeans you and everyone else in the restaurant are wearing for the occasion.
It feels wrong to call this cooking all the same type of cuisine. The restaurants that practice it could call themselves Italian, French, Mediterranean, Turkish, Mexican, Vietnamese, or American. But there’s a term that encompasses this approach, even if it’s old-fashioned and outmoded, weighed down by goat cheese and sundried tomatoes and Napa cabs: California cuisine.
Pioneered by Alice Waters and her collaborators, notably Jeremiah Tower, at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, this style of cooking emphasized first and foremost respecting the beautiful ingredients produced by farmers in the Golden State. Today, cooking with local ingredients doesn’t sound particularly innovative, let alone era-defining, but that’s merely a sign of this philosophy’s success.
In fact, it’s difficult to understand how specific this style of cooking is, and how this approach transformed dining out in California and the rest of the country, without looking into the past. The show Great Chefs, which ran on PBS and the Discovery Channel in the ’80s and ’90s, is a surprising find of culinary archaeology. For the uninitiated, every episode of Great Chefs is simply constructed, almost refreshingly so. Each 30-minute segment consists of chefs cooking their own recipes, in their own kitchens, over the course of what appears to be a single shoot. There’s little biographical storytelling, minimal drama, and not a single close-up of tweezers. What the camera captures first and foremost is process. It’s closer to YouTube than Chef’s Table.
The second season of Great Chefs, which aired in 1983, focused on San Francisco, an era and region that calls to mind rustic grilled pizzas, little mesclun salads dotted with goat cheese, and fruits on plates. Instead, the season is a paean to pate. Of the 13 episodes, seven feature chefs who are French or trained in traditional French kitchens. They don’t all cook true haute cuisine, but their food is much closer to the refined, rich, technique-heavy cooking of traditional French restaurant kitchens than the rustic peasant-style French cooking that inspired Waters and others. The chefs featured in these episodes make salmon mousseline and duck liver mousse; they craft marzipan roses and bread baskets made of literal bread; they wield multiple wine-reduced sauces and stuff chicken legs with veal. There is so much straining. None of the food could be described as simple.
What this series inadvertently captures, in other words, is the cuisine that the Berkeley heathens were in the process of supplanting. It’s not entirely hard to see why. The food is fussy and complex, and it has fallen so far out of favor that the dishes seem to come from another planet. Episode 2 features the late French traditionalist René Verdon, who had been Kennedy’s White House chef, and who was described as a keeper of an old flame even at the time. He works with local ingredients — a freshly caught local salmon he breaks down by hand and then grinds up to prepare a classic mousseline, which is served on a bed of beurre blanc beribboned with three other sauces: a genevoise made with the salmon’s head, a lobster sauce, and a saffron-infused tomato sauce. California cuisine’s dictums, on the other hand, would have dictated that same salmon be served as simply as possible, whole or in filets with a light sauce.
The series also captures more forward-looking chefs whose approaches were still fundamentally Continental. Episode four features the chef Masataka Kobayashi, a French-trained Japanese chef who dazzled San Francisco at his restaurant Masa’s. His menu isn’t strictly French. He serves a pasta course, which prompts the narrator to note, “Pasta has become so popular food writers now make fun of it.” The foundation of his food, however, is standard French technique, especially the sauces, which he opts to reduce rather than enrich with butter and cream in deference to “modern tastes.” He finishes a baby salmon stuffed with caviar with two different red wine-based sauces, which sounds like the polar opposite of today’s modern tastes. The Times called his food “fussy,” but also noted that he was greeted by applause in his dining room night after night. It’s possible that Kobayashi’s technical approach could have been more influential on contemporary dining if he had not been murdered in 1984, in a bizarre crime that is still technically unsolved.
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.
Over the ensuing decades, there have been efforts to foreground the fusion aspects of California cuisine, and therefore its diversity. Burros described fusion as a hallmark of California cuisine as early as 1984 in a list format of the movement’s tenets, which included: “Combining cuisines that scarcely had a nodding acquaintance before, such as Japanese and French.” On a panel in 2013, Ruth Reichl said, “One of the hallmarks of California cuisine is that while the rest of the country looked to Europe this side of the country looked east and south.” But France’s nouvelle cuisine was also arguably sparked by looking toward Japan, and California chefs didn’t look even that far; many of the best ingredients these chefs worked with were grown by Japanese American farmers in their backyard.
In recent years, critics and chefs alike have linked California cuisine back to the state’s long culinary history, deepening it in the process. When San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho reconsidered California cuisine in 2021, they highlighted the work of Cafe Ohlone, founded by two members of the tribe that has called the Bay Area home long before any settlers arrived. “We want people to know that what we’re doing is work that’s been happening for a long time: work that we’ll continue to do. Farm-to-table is nothing new here,” co-founder Vincent Medina told them.
In 2022, one of the most striking disjunctures in the California approach of the ’70s is the obsession with ethical and pristine ingredients, and the comparable lack of emphasis on the working conditions for the people preparing them. The most generous reading of this dynamic is that California cuisine’s foundations were built in much more affordable times: The radicchio revolution worked because more people could enjoy its abundance. In the Times, Burros notes in 1984 that at California cuisine’s standard-bearing restaurants, the prices were surprisingly affordable. A 1985 story in the Los Angeles Times about a union drive at Chez Panisse claims that most Chez Panisse employees were not interested. “By all accounts, it’s a strange labor struggle. Most employees show no sign of wanting the union. They are a varied lot, including psychologists, sculptors, free-lance writers and students happy to have part-time jobs.” The union activists, the Times reported, had hoped Berkeley’s forward-thinking restaurant owners would welcome unionization, and that they could use that success as a springboard to unionize fast food.
Fifty years later, celebrating a chef’s obsession with the perfect mussel or peach hits differently since the pandemic shone a spotlight on the gulf between many restaurants’ sourcing ethics and their labor ones. Progressive restaurants in San Francisco are only now haltingly deploying the earnestness once reserved for small farmers about how the people who work at the restaurant itself are treated.
Many of the leading new guard of chefs in California are also cooking food that is as technical and ambitious as their forebears, but is often more personal as well, rooted in cultural traditions they grew up in, and food they grew up eating. The most exciting new openings go beyond fruit on a plate to the perspectives and identities of the people who make the restaurant what it is. Maybe the restaurant riffs on the chef’s personal background in Filipino cuisine. Or it serves the most perfectly imagined version of bulgogi, or a lobster burrito.
A Great Chefs of San Francisco in 2022 would undoubtedly feature a more modern vein of technically, profoundly fussy cuisine served in tasting menus across the state, especially in the Bay Area. But it would also highlight Brandon Jew’s whole roast duck with peanut butter hoisin, Val Cantu’s in-house nixtamalization program at Californios, and Corey Lee and Jeong-In Hwang’s double-cut galbi. Likely an episode would forage with Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino of Cafe Ohlone, too. California cuisine, in other words, must now be understood as rooted not only in the products, but also the people of this place.
Natalie Nelson is a collage artist and illustrator based in Atlanta.