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Reviving the FarmtoTable. Chefs Partner with Purveyors and Artisans. Common Cause. Nouvelle cuisine entered restaurant kitchens in California via French-trained chefs and restaurateurs based here. Given LA's interest in style and presentation, nouvelle cuisine met with warm reception there, and by the early s, its precepts had become associated with California cuisine. In a article in the New York Times, food columnistMarian Burros wrote that Wolfgang Puck might be "the link between nouvelle cuisine and this new California cooking, between the formal and the informal. The new California food, he says, 'is Schramsberg and pizza with grilled Santa Barbara shrimp instead of caviar.

In , he emigrated to the United States. The rest is history with a capital H. After a few years in Los Angeles, Wolfgang became fascinated by the city's ethnic enclaves. This is such an interesting city with so many different cultures, so many different cooking styles.

You could eat at a lot of restaurants. And I was thinking, 'You know, our food should reflect a little bit the cultures we have. He bought fresh tuna at the Japanese fish market, marinated it, and served it rare, either grilled or poached in olive oil. People would eat the vegetables but skip the tuna because they thought it was not cooked.

They told him he didn't know how to prepare fish. Of course, "now you cannot go to a restaurant where they don't serve some kind of raw tuna," he added. It was an instant sensation and a magnet for celebrities, who came to have Wolfgang cook something special for them. Spago did things differently. The cooks wore baseball hats instead of chefs' toques. You could see them because Spago had one of LA's first open kitchens, and its giant grill and wood-burning oven were visible the minute you walked in the door. After Ruth Reichl wrote a cover story for the Los Angeles Times about Spago in the early s, every restaurant in town wanted a pizza oven, a grill, and its own version of California pasta, where angel-hair noodles were tossed with goat cheese and broccoli or used as a bed for squab or trout, combinations that no Italian would consider.

Wolfgang followed his growing culinary curiosity, taking traditional recipes and tweaking them to suit his palate. Instead of having pepperoni we made duck sausage and put it on. And we put goat cheese on pizza, which at that time was completely new. Even sun-dried tomatoes were new.

It's crazy to think how many things have become everyday staples that were completely out of this world at that time. Wolfgang bought a smoker to air-dry his version of Peking duck but wound up using it to make cold-smoked salmon. She said, 'Oh, that's my pizza! We made the smoked salmon pizza and he called it the 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Pizza. He had a partly open kitchen, and I saw a smoked salmon pizza. I said, 'Paul, what is that?

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When Wolfgang opened Chinois in , it was the first fusion restaurant in the country. He wanted to bring Asian influences into his cooking, but as he had done with pizza, he created his own interpretations. I am bored very easily, and I don't want to be boxed in with one thing. Michael McCarty was another important restaurateur whose culinary foundation and technique were French.

At his namesake restaurant, which he opened in Santa Monica in , he presented dishes inspired by those he had eaten at his favorite places in France. His early cooking was based on nouvelle cuisine, with its emphasis on freshness, simplicity, and lightness. The nouvelle look to the food eventually evolved into simpler plating. Self-taught chef Bruce LeFavour was originally influenced by the French three-star chefs who popularized nouvelle cuisine, according to an interview he gave Marian Burros in Rose et LeFavour was a jewel of a restaurant that opened its doors in in St.

There Bruce offered a single five-course menu each evening that was French in conception but Californian in its incorporation of fresh, local ingredients and ethnic touches. On the entry hall table there might be a basket of fraises des bois from Napa farmer Lynn Brown, a hint of the deliciousness that was to come inside. On April 24, , guests dined on Muscovy duck breast in a salad of local greens, a Thai-style soup with Monterey squid, gray sole with spinach, chives, and basil, steamed New Zealand venison with morels and wood ear mushrooms, a cheese tray, and a sweet from the dessert cart.

Cindy Pawlcyn, who later opened Mustards Grill, was his first sous chef. The French-inspired California food was so wonderful that we would drive all the way from San Francisco to St. Helena just for dinner. In the late s and early s, Bruce worked in American Army counterintelligence, stationed in eastern France. On weekends he would go down to Burgundy or Alsace or into Paris to see the sights and, of course, sample the regional cuisine. In , he came back to the States and got married. Three years later, he opened a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, called the Paragon.

The restaurant was very successful. He sold the Paragon and moved his family to an isolated two-hundred-acre ranch on the Salmon River in central Idaho. They were fairly self-sufficient. The growing season was short, but they were able to cultivate lettuce, broccoli, and other cold-weather crops. In addition, they had about a hundred chickens, eighty ducks, some lambs, and two Jersey cows.

They made their own butter and had wonderful heavy cream. Bruce said he'd probably still be there if he and his wife hadn't gotten divorced and been obliged to sell the ranch. After the divorce Bruce came to Northern California and looked for a place to open a new restaurant.

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He settled in the Napa Valley because "all my experience had been that you need a fairly sophisticated audience to do the type of cooking that I was doing at that time. Carolyn, known as "C," ran the dining room with warmth and quirky authority. Bruce didn't have enough land to grow anything aside from herbs, but he found that he didn't need to.

You have everything here that you need. He also had a close relationship with Lynn Brown and Pete Forni of Forni-Brown Farms in Calistoga, and they supplied him with produce a few times a week. They grew what he asked for, so he'd bring seeds to them and patiently await the results: little fraises des bois and unusual varieties of carrots and beans.

We just rolled with whatever looked good. Carolyn always handwrote the menu with her elegant script. He did mention a certain Mrs. Herb was a retired detective from Chicago who raised snails. She was a tiny lady, maybe 5 foot 2 inches in sneakers and thin as a rail. She would make her rounds in town. If you didn't use poisons in your garden, she would ask if she could come into your property early in the morning and pick snails.

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She had a big greenhouse in the back of her house and she'd raise the snails, purge them, and deliver them in strawberry boxes to the restaurant. But he tired of cooking the same things every nightand felt burdened by the paperwork and other responsibilities of sole ownership. In , he sold the lease to a man in town and retired. As a whole, the new restaurant chefs in Northern California did not embrace nouvelle cuisine.

Unlike their counterparts in Los Angeles, most of whom were formally trained, chefs up north were largely self-taught and independent who did not readily buy into any doctrine. There was a period in San Francisco when classically trained French chefs such as Jacky Robert at Ernie's and Hubert Keller at Sutter practiced this new style of cooking, but they were in the minority in a world of traditional French restaurants, old-fashioned Continental and Italian family places, and the budding new California establishments.

At this time, cooks at Chez Panisse, Bay Wolf, and Narsai's were still recreating classic French recipes, and their plating style was straightforward, direct, and traditional. According to Victoria Wise, the first chef at Chez Panisse, "The tipping point for California cuisine began in the late s. By the eighties, it was on the road. I had a conversation with a journalist from the London Observer along about who asked the question, 'Do you think there's such a thing as California cuisine?

I guess it was too scary to name yet. Most chefs were saying it did not exist and did not want to be labeled or pigeonholed. In fact, until recently,Chez Panisse did not identify itself as a California cuisine restaurant. While Sunset was exemplary in depicting how we ate in the West, offering multicultural recipes made with ingredients grown in the region, it did not brand these recipes as California cuisine.

I don't remember using it with regard to Wolfgang Puck, but I do distinctly remember talking to Michael Roberts about it when I wrote an article about him at Trumps. And he said 'There's no such thing,' which is, of course, what we all said. Trumps was an idiosyncratic LA restaurant that occupied a former gas station with concrete floors and polished concrete tables. In keeping with a Southwestern design theme, the waiters wore string ties along with European-style long white aprons.

In other words, his California cuisine menu was all over the culinary map; it was multicultural, eclectic, and personal. Barbara Fairchild thought that applying a label got people to talk and think seriously about California cuisine. For her,the term "California cuisine restaurant" conjured up "food with a dreamscape lifestyle behind it. Clark Wolf is a restaurant consultant now based primarily in New York. I call him "Mr. Soundbite" because he always says something eminently quotable. Clark lived in Northern California during the early years of California cuisine, first owning a pioneering cheese shop and then managing the Oakville Grocery in Napa.

Downstairs was experimental and emotional and metaphorical; it was too intellectual, it was university. It was based on French structure and codification. Downstairs was taking you away to someplace else, a magic France land, and upstairs was so much of where you were in a particular way, and that's what got translated to what people called California cuisine. It came to New York, oddly, as a concept, with quotes around it and capital letters.

It sailed instantly and permeated totally.

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Fresh food was simply not in New York. I used to joke-and it's still very much true in a lot of cases-that things percolate and develop in the Bay Area, and when it's named by New York media, it becomes a trend. Sometimes it goes to LA to become a business. Indeed, it was the New York Times that applied a label to California cuisine and gave it official status, and Marian Burros gets the credit.

She wrote about California cuisine in the Times first in and then again in She identified several trends:"grilling, especially with mesquite; combining cuisines that scarcely had a nodding acquaintance before, such as Japanese and French; replacing stock-based sauces with compound butters or no sauce at all; using baby vegetables to garnish almost every plate; serving fish, chicken, squab, and quail rather than red meat; and elevating country food to the status usually reserved for truffles and caviar.

Freshness [is] always the cornerstone. She noted that in America, "there had been nothing like it before. We finally learned that cooking and eating were important. We did French, then nouvelle cuisine , and then cuisine minceur, but it was still very French-oriented. Here were people taking the ingredients they had, and cooking with those ingredients, and making something that was unique to California. It was something that gave the rest of the country an idea [of] how to make uniquely American food, whether you were using French techniques or not.

In , Marian gave an example in the New York Times thatdemonstrated how things were changing. A dinner was held at the St. Francis Hotel, which had a German Swiss chef by the name of Norbert Brandt, who had been hired in to replace the hotel's ossified Continental cuisine with the new California style of cooking. Salmon poached in zinfandel, lamb salad with lentils, radicchio and enoki mushrooms with raspberry vinegar and walnut oil dressings, sweetbreads with hot mustard sabayon, and balsamic vinegar shallot sauce. One of the first cookbook authors to make the newly emerging California cuisine accessible to home cooks was Diane Worthington.

In her cookbook, The Cuisine of California, she praised California chefs and their food. This movement toward freshness, simplicity, and originality defines itself by the use of the freshest local produce, herbs, fish, and dairy product; lighter marinades and sauces; California wines both as ingredients and accompaniments and an astounding array of ethnic and indigenous ingredients.

In her follow-up book, The California Cook, Worthington noted that chefs in both San Francisco and Los Angeles were experimenting with new ethnic ingredients and combinations while continuing to use classical techniques. She also observed that grilling had become prevalent. Vegetables are briefly cooked so that they still have some crunch when served.

Second, combinations of ingredients are chosen so that natural flavors are heightened and balanced rather than masked. Third, the simple and elegant presentations that began with 'nouvelle cuisine' continue as California chefs bring their varied and eclectic training to bear on interpreting regional ingredients. In some kitchens, creativity and freedom combined to give rise to a new subset of California cuisine: fusion. A fusion dish results when a chef borrows flavor combinations, signature ingredients, or techniques from one culture's cuisine and applies them to a dish where they are not part of the original flavor profile or even part of the culture from which the dish is derived.

They do not have to change their menu every day; they can change one or two things or just the sides. They can choose to list all of their suppliers and farmers on their menu, or not. They can focus on the Mediterranean, Asia, or Latin America, all of these, or none. They can spoon a Mexican salsa on an Asian fish.

They can use Parmesan cheese from Italy instead of California and not find picketers outside their restaurant. California cuisine is a cuisine of options. It has wide parameters and no rigid rules. The one common element is that California cuisine uses fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby. Unlike traditional cuisines, which have their roots in the home and community, California cuisine originated in restaurants. Many were self-taught, while others had the finest European training. An unprecedented number were women. In , Sally Schmitt opened one of the first restaurants to offer what would become identified as California cuisine—the original French Laundry in the Napa Valley.

This history is about people as much as food, and in these pages they share their stories. Today anyone who loves food has heard about the French Laundry. But there was a French Laundry well before Thomas Keller bought the building and turned it into one of the most famous restaurants in the country. In , Sally and Don Schmitt moved to Yountville to manage a new real-estate development called Vintage Sally offered a simple menu of hamburgers from the grill and a couple of sandwiches. When a space became available in the main building at Vintage in , they opened the Chutney Kitchen, a lunchroom that quickly became the hottest spot in the Napa Valley.

Soon Sally was cooking regularly for the St. Helena Ladies Luncheon Group. They took me under their wing. They taught me how to set a lovely table and that the salad could be served after the main course. I owe them a huge debt. Next Sally and Don added a once-a-month dinner series that grew to twice a month. There was one menu and one seating, by reservation only.

We ended up cooking for seventy, recalled Sally. I was young and had more energy, but the thought of cooking a five-course dinner for seventy people frightens me today. We have five children, and the two oldest girls were able to help in the kitchen and serve, and [our son] Johnny, who now runs the Boonville Hotel, was the designated omelet man.

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The menus were all hand done, one for each table, with nice little drawings on them. Our daughter Cathy was very good at that. Sally was a locavore before the term was even coined. I remember somebody was bringing people from France over, wanting me to do a special dinner and suggesting that I make French food for them. She had grown up on a small farm, so it made sense to her to source food from as close to the restaurant as possible.

However, there were few small farms that could provide quality ingredients back then. Neighbors would come to Sally and inquire, What would you like me to plant? She asked one man if he could supply her favorite beans, Kentucky Wonders. I loved the flavor. That was before we ever had heard of haricots verts.

Ten years later, after a dispute with their landlord, Sally and Don left Vintage and, along with a good friend, purchased a building that had previously housed a French laundry. The people of the community continued to refer to the building as the French laundry, so the Schmitts kept the name. As Sally said, It was a simple building, built by people who did not have any money.

It turned out to be lovely. The French Laundry opened in Sally wanted to offer a single daily menu, but at first she wavered about the concept. We tried to make the French Laundry as much as possible like entertaining at home. Sally had one part-time assistant, who cleaned during the day and then went home, changed her clothes, and returned to wait tables at night.

We operated with a tight staff and our own girls. The French Laundry is on two floors, so we had one waitperson on each floor, one person to help me in the kitchen, a dishwasher, and Don to greet people and pour wine. We served mostly Napa Valley wine, although we snuck in a few outsiders, like a couple of Chalone wines that we particularly liked. The Schmitts ran the French Laundry nonstop for seventeen years, then decided to sell because, as Sally said, life in the Napa Valley was getting fancier and that was not their style. It was night and day. I thought it could never happen in this small building, but he loved the building as much as we did.

Today Sally and Don have retired to Elk and their children run the farm. While most of the established restaurants in the s and early s were content to cook with generic commercial ingredients, supplemented with canned and frozen products, the new chefs wanted to serve fresh, seasonal food that could be cultivated locally, ideally by people who shared their passion for flavor and quality. Although the majority of restaurants had not been sourced this way in the past, it was not a wild or impractical dream. California had the rich soil and ideal climate to grow a wide variety of ingredients.

But to change the existing supply chains, wherein restaurants were limited to a standard array of commodities offered by large producers, chefs had to first find and then support like-minded small farmers and ranchers. The pioneers included Georgeanne Brennan, who imported seeds from Europe so farmers could raise specialty produce; growers such as Warren Weber, Rich Collins, Lynn Brown, Bob Cannard, and Jeff Dawson, who slowly built up alternatives to produce grown on an industrial scale; Jameson Patton, Steve Walton, and Sibella Kraus of GreenLeaf Produce, who helped create a distribution network that could get local produce into the hands of chefs quickly; and Bill Fujimoto of Monterey Market, who connected growers and buyers and educated both groups in the process.

Chefs supported ranchers and poultry farmers who raised animals sustainably and humanely, and they encouraged artisans to revive the traditional arts of making cheese, curing meats, and baking bread by hand.

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A few artisans went to Europe to observe time-honored techniques. They longed to learn from cultures that had a rich history of experience, although their reverence was usually accompanied by the California desire to tweak the original. Laura Chenel, one of the most widely respected early artisans, briefly apprenticed to a cheese-making family in France. Goat cheese producers around the country refer to Laura Chenel as the mother of them all. Laura Chenel was born and raised in Sonoma County.

Her interest in the back-to-the-land movement led her, in the s, to start a small farm in Sebastopol with bees, chickens, a couple of goats, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees. The idea was that if the world was going to come to an end, I wanted to be able to produce my food.

I made kefir and yogurt and all that stuff. I fell in love with the goats, a deep connection that exists to this day. Her goats provided so much milk that Laura decided to make cheese. I mailed away for the government pamphlet on how to make cheese. It never worked out—it was horrible. I kept trying and trying. One day someone brought her a piece of French goat cheese, and as soon as she tasted it she knew that this was what she aspired to create. Laura went back to school to learn French and then wrote for advice to Jean-Claude Le Jaouen, who had recently published The Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese, his now-classic book for artisanal cheese makers.

He invited her over, and she found somebody to take care of her goats in California while she undertook a brief apprenticeship, or stage, in Europe. I was there for about a month with some really nice people who had about eighty to one hundred goats. We took them out to graze, and milked them, and made cheese. From there I went to a second family in the Loire. When they knew I could make cheese, they took off for Italy. In all, Laura lived with four families, and she recalled that by the time she left, she wanted to stay and do this forever.

But it did work out and, starting in , Laura was making cheese daily. After she started selling to Chez Panisse, cheese shops and chefs from all over California started ordering her products. Square One wrapped it in phyllo and baked it to serve with a pear, endive, and walnut salad.

Others bundled it in grape leaves and grilled it. The ubiquitous goat cheese became a symbol of California cuisine. Laura would visit restaurants to train the staff how to use and store goat cheese, giving them samples of a range of cheeses, from mild and young to sharp and aged. Laura inspired others to try their hand at cheese making, especially women. I think that aspect was critical, she remarked. Cheese had been a very traditional male-dominated [business]. In , after thirty years of making cheese, Laura sold her company to a French business.