How California Revolutionized Food

In her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, author and chef Joyce Goldstein recounts how local chefs and artisans sparked a nationwide food movement.

Chef and author Joyce Goldstein has written more than 26 cookbooks, but her newest book, Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness, proved her biggest challenge yet. “This was the hardest book I’ve ever had to write in my life,” said Goldstein, who said she interviewed more than two hundred chefs, artisans, food writers, and purveyors to tell the story of the sustainable food movement and the birth of California cuisine. “This was not like writing a cookbook.”

But if anyone could tell the story, it was Goldstein. She was in the thick of the food movement’s beginnings, as chef at Chez Panisse Café from 1980 to 1983 and then the chef of Square One Restaurant in San Francisco, which was one of the first to interpret the flavors of places like Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East through a California lens. “Everybody I interviewed said, ‘You are the perfect person to have written this book.’ I think it’s because I knew so many of the people and [have] been around for such a long time,” said Goldstein. “And they knew that they could trust me with their stories.”

For those who geek out about Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes, or the chanterelles at Monterey Market, Inside the California Food Revolution has plenty of entertaining stories. Many of them focus on people in Northern California, like Laura Chenel, whose goat cheese became a staple on Chez Panisse Café’s menu, and Warren Weber, whose Star Route Farms in Marin County was the first organic farm in the Bay Area. The book also documents people and places that are slipping out of memory, such as Sally Schmitt and the original French Laundry, a seasonal restaurant that served as a hub for the food community in the Napa Valley for more than twenty years before Thomas Keller bought it.

One thing that the book stresses is that the artisans, farmers, and restaurateurs who changed food consciousness in America were largely self-taught. “They did not go to culinary school, they did not work at restaurants. They taught themselves everything just by doing it,” said Goldstein.

The book also considers the place of women in the movement. There were many female chefs. “It had a huge effect on Northern California cuisine, because they ran their kitchens in a different way, in a much more collaborative way,” said Goldstein. “Instead of just blindly following recipes, they were tasting the ingredients and talking about them, deciding what to do with them because the way they tasted changed from week to week. They ran much more humane kitchens. There wasn’t pot-throwing and screaming.”

Back then, “It wasn’t stupidly competitive; everyone was really generous with their knowledge,” Goldstein continued.

Hear insights like these and more when Goldstein discusses her book with local food writer Carolyn Jung at The Marsh Arts Center (2121 Allston Way, Berkeley) on Thursday, October 17, as part of Litquake. 6:30 p.m., $10 suggested donation.

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