Laurence Jossel, Evan Rich and Cortney Burns at the talk. [Photo: San Francisco Cooking School]
Chicago's star chef Rick Bayless visited town earlier this year and observed that the San Francisco restaurants he visited were "all a little bit too alike," what with their dedication to seasonal and local produce. "Lots of the restaurants in San Francisco have a similarity," he clarified. "It's called regional style." But just what characterizes the regional style of California cuisine, or even a San Francisco cuisine that's all its own?
That was the topic of Wednesday's Taste Talk at the San Francisco Cooking School, which featured a panel of local chefs that included Laurence Jossel of Nopa, Evan Rich of Rich Table, and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine, plus old-guard chefs Joyce Goldstein (formerly of Square One) and Catherine Pantsios (formerly of Zola's, now director of Culinary Arts at San Francisco Cooking School). Sara Deseran of San Francisco magazine moderated the talk, kicking things off by suggesting that California cuisine might be more of an "aura" than anything else.
Here are some intriguing highlights from the chefs who participated:
· Joyce Goldstein, who recently wrote an entire book on the subject, described California cuisine in five words: "Fresh, seasonal, local, sustainable, original." Before 1980, she said, you couldn't find arugula, radicchio, or wild mushrooms in stores (but there was ample iceberg lettuce). People dined out so infrequently that chefs never had to change their menus, and attention to seasonality was basically nonexistent. These days, she says, a chef who put asparagus on the menu in December would be laughed at.
· When Laurence Jossel was opening his restaurant Chez Nous, he had long hair and "looked like Meatloaf." It was while conditioning his epic locks that he conceived of the restaurant's small-plates menu—as a solution to its equally small tables.
· To Evan Rich, California cuisine is characterized as being "chef-driven," instead of driven by a particular genre or type of cuisine. While he makes pastas at Rich Table, they're as non-traditional as possible, as are dishes like his chilled kale soup with pickled plums and crispy chicken skin. He wants diners to be satiated, but also excited by what they're eating.
· Cortney Burns talked pickling and fermenting at Bar Tartine, where she and Nick Balla sought to capture flavors from a different time, but with a fresh curiosity. Burns admitted that her seasonality obsession is such that she stays up late at night watching YouTube videos on growing mushrooms, but "ultimately, we cook food that we want to eat." To her view, California cuisine is defined by a renewed interest in and dedication to old methods, but with a new twist.
· For Goldstein, fusion started in Los Angeles with Wolfgang Puck and Roy Yamaguchi, then filtered north to make for some "horrrible food" in the 90s. Now, fusion has come into its own, with younger chefs who've grown up with a diversity of flavors and know how to deploy them.
· Did California cuisine get its start at Chez Panisse? No, but ingredient-driven cooking did. Goldstein told an old story about a Chez Panisse dinner in New York, where a snobby French chef looked at the plate and said, "That's not cooking. That's shopping."
· Evan Rich: "If you think, understand and respect the ingredient, that's California cuisine." While Jossel says that "the less I do to the food, the better it tastes to me," Rich noted that chefs are also being creative because they're entertaining themselves over the course of a 15-hour day.
· Is the hippie movement's legacy a part of San Francisco cuisine? Tofu, wheatgrass, seeds and nuts are back on plates, and vegetable-centric menus are all the rage. "Why not makes something delicious that's also good for you?" asked Burns. Goldstein also gives the hippies credit: "They started back-to-the-land; they started 'organic.'"
· What happened to all the female chefs? Go back a couple of decades, and there were a lot more top female chefs running the kitchens. But the legacy of a more team-oriented, less militaristic kitchen remains, and diners are far less likely to see SF chefs barking orders to their underlings (though, of course, it still happens).
· In conclusion, if San Francisco has its own regional cuisine, what would it be? Fresh, organic, local, ingredients-driven, chef-driven, creative, fusion, sustainable, health-conscious? One thing everyone could agree on: San Francisco cuisine is really, really good.