what is California Cuisine, anyway?

The next time you stroll down a U.S. grocery store aisle, pause in the section where they sell olive oil. Fifty years ago, there likely was no olive oil to be had, much less the vast array of domestic (mostly California) and foreign varieties. The same goes for the bewildering selection of fruits and vegetables. Purple potatoes? No. Blenheim apricots? Huh? Chioggia beets? Don’t even think of it.

It may not be obvious now, but 50 years ago, food in the U.S. was very different. The best restaurants served so-called “continental cuisine,” which was basically French haute cuisine, heavy on sauces, rules, pretense, and formality. Chefs would order ingredients, often canned or frozen, flown in from France. 

We may think that “farm to table” is cliché, but in the 1970s it was revolutionary.

In 1978, Sally Schmitt opened one of the first restaurants in Napa Valley that served what would later become known as California cuisine. It was the original French Laundry in Yountville. It was casual, approachable, and leveraged the freshest ingredients from California’s abundant agriculture and coasts. After that came a long line of pioneering chefs who turned to small farmers and embraced seasonal produce. On restaurant menus you would see which farm the peaches came from, or who raised the ducks. 

California cuisine has come to mean something like extreme dedication to ingredients, to freshness, to lack of artifice, simplicity in preparation.

Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Winery, quoted in “Inside the California Food Revolution”

California cooking is not so much a series of specific dishes and recipes. It’s a philosophy and way of living. It’s about the values of appreciating terroir, the farmers, and the fishermen. It relies heavily on fruits and vegetables to add brightness and freshness to dishes. It embraces the foods of Mexico, Asia, the Mediterranean, and other cultures.

California cuisine was born and nurtured at the same time that the California wine scene was emerging on the global stage. Large consolidated wineries — not naming names here — gave way to smaller, family-run estates that produced limited varietals. The same thing happened with agriculture, with smaller producers focusing on just a few splendid products. Today California food and wine are closely intertwined.

In fact, the last few years of living in Portugal has rekindled my love for all things that are fresh, and bright, local, and seasonal. Portugal did not suffer as much as the U.S. at the hands of mass-produced, industrial agriculture. There are still small local butchers in every neighborhood (except the ones that have been swallowed up by tourists and short-term rental apartments). Corner bakeries are still here. Community markets are still busy.

Portuguese food is comfort food. I grew up with it. Its soups and stews, and grilled fish in the summer, have their own terroir and cultural stories. Yet, I miss fresh, crisp vegetables and dishes cooked with a light touch. Luckily, I can cook that at home, embracing local ingredients with the California approach. As California chef Jeremiah Tower said, food “needs a good editor,” when we can “put something on a plate…brilliantly done, very fresh, clean, unadorned…”

It sounds simple, but it’s not basic.

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