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Jan 28, 2009 02:00 PM

Define Californian Cuisine

My roommate from Mexico City asked me yesterday: What is Californian cuisine? And assuming I just knew this kind of thing, being a California-native, I tried to give him a definition. It occurred to me I have no idea how to define Californian cuisine. I have an idea in my head of what it is (I'm thinking California benedict, avocado avocado avocado, strange yet delicious and fresh concoctions in general), but no concrete definition. What's your interpretation?

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  1. I'd say that the hallmark of California cuisine is seasonal, local ingredients, prepared in novel ways using techniques borrowed from a variety of culinary traditions (especially European and East Asian). IMHO, Alice Waters is the poster child for California cuisine, although Wolfgang Puck has a higher celebrity factor.

    6 Replies
    1. re: alanbarnes

      Don't forget Michael McCarty. His restaurant, Michael's, is probably responsible for more of the now famous California chefs than even Chez Panisse.

      1. re: Bob Brooks

        Haven't heard of it, but would be willing to try it the next time I'm visiting my family.

        Chez Panisse
        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

        176 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

        Michael's Restaurant
        1147 3rd St., Santa Monica, CA 90403

        1. re: Bob Brooks

          Was he even potty-trained when Chez Panisse opened?

          1. re: alanbarnes

            Chez Panisse opened in 1971. Michael's in 1979. I'd say they've both earned their positions in the history of California cuisine.

            1. re: Bob Brooks

              Wow, he must have been a pup when he opened the place. Isn't he around 50 years old?

              1. re: alanbarnes

                He was 25 in 1979 when he first opened Michaels

      2. Fresh, healthy, avocados, sprouts, raw, coastal cuisine (seafood), things which go well with beer (surfer's diet), diet fads, whole grained and experimentally topped pizza, quinoa+Braggs, tofurkey, influenced by ranchers, gold diggers (modern and traditional), dreamers (Go West!), bright and fluffy (Apple!), organic and vegan (Hollywood, starting with Gloria Swanson), things which benefit a body which will be exposed at least 75% of the year due to warm weather, camping/hiking food, munchies, German bread, lemongrass, decadent but earthy, olives and wine, traditional but not conservative

        (I'm no expert on these things, but this is what I came up with from both my years living in CA as well as from visiting family there my entire life)

        2 Replies
        1. re: Caralien

          In the begining when I started in the restaurant business, California Cuisine was a catch-all for fresh innovative dishes that represented a fresh alternative to more richly prepared and heavy handed cuisine. Many chefs had a hand in the creation of the new style, but more than anything it was the abundance of ingredients that California produces and the idea of local being better that inspired its development. As for cooking technique it is nearly impossible to catagorize. In our restaurant we use everything from Italian ideals, post modern to French, Italian and Spanish. Today I don't think there is a true identity to the cuisine as ithere was ten, fifteen years ago. It has become much more localized and vastly different. So much so I think Regional American can describe it much better these days.

          1. re: cshack_21

            Somewhat off topic, but Cuisine Minceur, by Michel Guérard, published in 1974 (yes, I have a paperback copy!), was a similar fresh and lower-fat alternative for French cuisine.

        2. What comes to mind when I hear "Cali4nia Cuisine" is fresh, seasonal and local ingredients, prepared in a fusion of culinary styles & techniques, from Asian to European and Mediterranean to South American.

          I guess in a way, it could be called World Cuisine.

            1. re: Karl S

              I ate at a McDonald's while in Hong Kong in 1980, it's hardly CA cuisine.

              1. re: Karl S

                McDonald's was invented in Illinois. Hamburger U, in OakBrook, is worth a visit (there's a lounge where corporate dining is served, and the grounds are beautiful; just watch out for the geese).

                1. re: Caralien

                  Actually, well, Kroc may have been from Illinois, but his inspiration came from the high volume fast food system developed by the original McDonald's in California. Probably more people on this planet have had McDonald's-influenced food than, say, Chez Panisse or French Laundry influenced food.

                  I meant it in humor, but also as a healthy balance against what I find is the excessive reverence often paid to developments in the restaurant scene in the Bay Area.

                  1. re: Karl S

                    Downey or Whittier wasn't it? they also gave us the Carpenters...

                2. re: Karl S

                  I might say In-N-Out, but McDonald's? shun

                3. Asian+Mexican+Mediterranean+ A smattering of Fresh Americana=West Coast Cuisine
                  Oregon and Washington have fallen under the California sphere..
                  Nevada and Arizona seem to have absorbed some influence too.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: bbqboy

                    This is basically how I've always interpreted California cuisine. Mix the sensibilities of seasonality, hippy/granola/healthy eatings, with world food = California cuisine. It's been ages since I lived in California, but it was the food I was raised on. My parents also fall more heavily into the hippy/granola category of the above mix - so I may be over exaggerating its presence in cuisine. Or that's a more dated perception.