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California Cuisine: The Rock Opera

September 17, 2009
by Patrick Dillon

Though Berkeleyites like to claim that all fresh garden rows run through Chez Panisse, the phenomenon technically predates us by several hundred years, when native Californians utilized fresh acorns, wild mustard, salmon, and berries in their diets. During the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods, fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats were consumed locally because they would spoil before reaching their customers in the south.


Contemporary California cuisine also owes its origins to the Chinese immigrants who imported rice and found that it would grow well in the Sacramento Delta, while Japanese immigrants began cultivating large-scale vegetable farms in the Santa Clara Valley. Chef Deborah Madison took her inspiration from the fields of a Zen retreat in Marin County before opening Greens, one of the nation’s premier vegetarian restaurants. Alice Waters channeled her ’60s activism into a culinary La Bohème, and with Jeremiah Tower, urbanized French farmhouse cooking in an unpretentious Berkeley walkup that attracted the local Bohemian bourgeois. Michael McCarty channeled his French culinary academy training through Chez Panisse-trained Jonathan Waxman at Michael’s in Santa Monica. For one-time Berkeley architecture student Charles Phan, California cuisine has its origins in the piney hills around his native city of Dalat, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. There, he remembers delighting in the blend of fresh local ingredients—lemongrass, sesame, strawberries, fresh crab—and French techniques the chefs practiced in the colonial city known as "le Petit Paris." That East-West fusion still overlays fresh California ingredients at his Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.


Aside from its table-fresh fare, California cuisine may best endure for its "think global, eat local" mantra that pushed fresh food into the political conscience across the nation. Still, with all the California- trained chefs and California-inspired cooks commanding stoves from Seattle to Las Vegas to Saratoga, if the opera is ever written, it should be titled: Les Panisses.

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