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California Cuisine

This travel article on the Bay Area’s food scene was published by the Canadian newspaper, the National Post on Dec. 13, 2008:



be sure to try the fleur-de-sel bonbons, the heirloom tomatoes, the organic almonds, the seasonal cocktails and everything else the California food revolution has given us 

It can be hard to find the anarchic, hedonistic spirit of the 1960s in a San Francisco made smug and rich by its computer-age preeminence, but there’s certainly a little bit of it floating about in front of the domed City Hall on this sunny fall day. Some 85,000 people have converged on the city for the first American Slow Food Nation convention and many of them are ambling through the impromptu vegetable and flower garden covering the vast plaza, watching a Mayan dance troupe perform on a stage mounted on hay bales, sampling organic almonds and artisanal cheeses at the ad hoc farmer’s market, eating wholesome gourmet take-out in the shade provided by the plane trees. There are lots of eccentrics — a woman in purple from her top hat to her velveteen Mary-Janes, the hirsute nutters who’ve been touring the continent in a tricked-out schoolbus promoting the conversion of the White House into an organic farm.

The exuberant City by the Bay was the natural choice for the convention — the first major American touchdown of a movement founded in Italy in the late 1980s to fight the opening of yet another McDonald’s. Many who fled to San Francisco in the Summer of Love to tune in, turn on and drop out, decided, when they grew up, to become chefs, restaurateurs and organic farmers, making the city a mecca for food-loving travellers.

There are, of course, enough fine restaurants to service the region’s old and new money, and Michelin has recently distributed a few coveted stars out here. But Northern California has its own thoroughly indigenous star system, awarded on the basis of culinary and ecological standards. The California cuisine has one multi-pronged commandment — thou shalt combine in an apparently casual and unfussy manner, organic, seasonal and local ingredients into deceptively simple concoctions, sometimes ostentatiously healthy, sometimes unapologetically decadent. This approach has spread widely — we’re all Californians now — but the actual Californians first pulled off that recipe mixing the worthy and the pleasurable. Arguably, they still do it best. The prosperous, privileged post-hippie soul of the region is concentrated at a few key food destinations.

A food pilgrimage to the Bay Area should start where the so-called delicious revolution began: Alice Waters’s restaurant in Berkeley, Chez Panisse. A Berkeley student on the fringes of the campus’s radical Free Speech movement, Waters fell for food during her junior year abroad in France and named the restaurant for a big-hearted character in Marcel Pagnol’s picaresque, Provence-set cycle of comedic plays and films. It wasn’t the haute cuisine in the Michelin-rated Parisian restaurants that enamoured Waters. As Waters biographer Thomas McNamee commented: “Alice loved la cuisine du marché. A French housewife would stroll through a village market, sniffing, appraising, thinking. If some farmer’s basket of bristling just-harvested cardoons struck her fancy and a particularly nice rabbit was hanging from the butcher’s hook, the Frenchwoman would devise in her mind a rabbit-with-cardoons dish and then shop for harmonious accompaniments.”

Funded in part by her psychedelic drug-dealing friends and staffed by brainy grad students, the restaurant has changed its menu every night since its founding in far-off 1971. The now ubiquitous green salad with baked goat cheese was pioneered here. A conspicuous informality gave — and gives — the restaurant much of its charm, with the remainder coming from its Japanese-meets-Mission-style woodwork, garrulous waiters and soft lighting.

At first, fresh produce and meat were found haphazardly — “we literally foraged,” she says. “We gathered watercress from streams, picked nasturtiums and fennel from roadsides and gathered blackberries from the Santa Fe tracks in Berkeley.” It’s no longer quite so catch-as-catch-can, but there’s still a good humour to the dining experience at Chez Panisse that’s exceedingly rare in top-tier restaurants. “You don’t want that,” a waiter advises me. “Trust me, you don’t. Not on my watch.”

At the same time as Chez Panisse found its feet, the organic farming movement took root, with Marin County’s Green Gulch farm leading the way from its founding in 1972. The influence of English master gardener and organic farming guru Alan Chadwick is felt throughout the site’s picturesque 115 acres. A renaissance man — a gold-medal-winning skier, Second World War naval officer, Shakespearean actor and painter — Chadwick brought his mentor Rudolf Steiner’s eco-friendly teachings to bear in his work as well as a love for traditional English country gardens.

Here is a yew-hedge bounded rose garden, there a formal Japanese tea garden (with a tea house where formal teas are served and the ceremony is taught); here are row upon row of colourful vegetables tended by students learning how to farm organically, there are hives buzzing with clover-drunk bees. Open to the public on Sundays, with numerous children’s programs and popular cooking and gardening classes for adults, there’s a palpable feeling of well-being on the site — as if here, at least, the good we do outweighs the evil.

The farm has supplied San Francisco’s leading gourmet vegetarian restaurant, Greens, since 1979. Set in an old fort in the Marina, the city’s Art Deco district, its diners look through floor to ceiling windows over moored yachts to the Golden Gate Bridge and, on fogless days, the dramatic Marin headlands. Chef Annie Somerville has a surpassingly light touch, mingling Eastern tastes into her otherwise classic Californian cuisine. (To try: the Vietnamese yellow curry.) Moving gracefully among the intricately carved redwood tables are an amusingly Zen staff — many are, literally, students of the Way, and all are so chill as to seem exotic to more tightly wound Easterners.

Food’s central place in San Francisco civic life is reflected in the city’s conversion of one of its most conspicuous landmarks, the Beaux Arts Ferry Terminal, into a deluxe market. The stalls offer everything from cheese (Waters protegées run the Cowgirl Creamery outlet here) to chocolate (Recchiuti’s fleur-de-sel bonbons are exquisite), from heirloom tomatoes and potatoes to gelato to bread (another Waters associate founded the superb Acme bakery). On Saturdays, an air of carnival descends as a huge farmers’ market is set up around the building. In addition to the abundance of local produce, there are folk groups amiably strumming and loopy crystal craftsmen hawking their New Age wares. To mark the undeniable elitism of the organic food movement, a documentary film-maker recently found out how far the weekly welfare stipend went here — for $21 he got six eggs, a loaf of bread, a bit of cheese and six tomatoes. Period.

Tarred for its racial tensions in the 1960s, Oakland has lately drawn creative types across the Bay from increasingly expensive San Francisco. This May, Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, veterans of Chez Panisse, started a wood-oven-fired restaurant, Camino. Slow Food Nation’s executive director Anya Fernald likes it here in this dramatic barn-like space, lit by Spanish Inquisition-period chandeliers. “Moore’s whole ethos around cooking is so simple. It’s the Chez Panisse thing — you eat out but you want it to feel like home, and you get these ancient-feeling, earthy foods.” Even the cocktails are seasonal here, using herbs and berries fresh from the fields. “You have this sense of connection to farmers,” Fernald continues. “But it’s without having this preachy long menu, you know the goat ate herbs in the three days before it was slaughtered and its name was Bob.”

The foodies are serious about both taste and ecological rightness out here, but they tend to practice what they preach in a light-hearted, eccentric fashion. Yes, the flower children grew up, many got rich, but, in their way, some have kept the faith.