So what, exactly, is California cuisine? Certainly, it has its famous standard bearers like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, who all but trademarked terms such as “local,” seasonal” and “sustainable” (and fostered chefs like Jonathan Waxman, who transported the style to New York), as well as modern torchbearers a la Daniel Patterson, who upped the ante with both foraged and hand crafted ingredients at San Francisco’s Coi. But along with being marked by its unprecedented, year-round access to ocean-caught seafood, lean proteins and garden-fresh vegetables, Cali cuisine comprises a diverse array of food movements, each of which has had far reaching implications throughout the U.S.
How did an Austrian-born chef end up glorifying Asian fare in California? Wolfgang Puck is undoubtedly one of the most widely recognized names and faces in Los Angeles, notably upholding the tenets of California cuisine in splashy fashion at Spago (which serves items like Liberty duck breast with grilled farmer’s market nectarines), embellishing it to include Asian accents at Chinois on Main (where you’ll find his infamous mandarin, sesame and soy-sauced chicken salad) and regularly marrying the two at his slew of other eateries (think Santa Barbara spot prawns paired with squid ink xiao long bao). Of course, the very fact of California’s geographical location (it’s one of the closest states to the Asian continent, as well as closely bordered by Mexico) has influenced countless culinarians over the years. So much so, they’ve pretty much done away with that bastardized caption, “fusion,” and re-phrased their approach as “chef-driven cuisine” instead—meaning that it’s not tied to any particular genre (French, Italian, etc.), but celebrates a co-mingling of flavors from all over the world.
There’s a reason we think of Cali as the land of sunflower seeds and tofu. It’s been forever marked by both its crunchy granola hippie contingent, and body-conscious entertainment industry, not to mention the year-round beach weather that buoys a bikini-wearing, fun-in-the-sun lifestyle. So while the East Coast has become relatively recently obsessed with ancient grains, juicing and kale, it’s all par for the course in California, flush with healthy eating meccas like the 100% organic and vegan Café Gratitude, the gluten-free Urban Plates, and the macrobiotic M Café de Chaya.
Of course, on the other side of the coin is an enduring love for fast food, the product of California’s on-the-go car culture. The lionized In-N-Out Burger (which currently boasts 230 regional locations) is probably the best example, although it’s hardly a unique phenomenon; drive-in chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr. and Panda Express were all established in Cali.
Sometimes you go to the grub (see above) and sometimes the grub comes to you, as is the case with California’s hallowed food truck tradition. In fact, the L.A.-raised chef, Roy Choi, is considered one of the founders of the modern food truck movement, debuting his Korean taco-slinging mobile, Kogi, in 2008. And while it had first crack at beachgoers for a while, seeking sustenance along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, it’s now just one of an estimable crowd, as diverse as Tokyo Doggie Style, Swamis Sandwiches, and Barcelona On the Go.
“Want to continue the conversation about the past, present and future of California cuisine? Join chef Nyesha Arrington and writer/activist/farmer Stephen Satterfield for a discussion on where California food is headed, and how it’s impacting food across the country, by purchasing tickets to Taste Talks LA today!”