The Self-Made Cooks Who Helped Define the Bay Area’s Cuisine.
Pioneer: Joyce Goldstein
Like most of San Francisco’s commercial streets, strolling a few blocks on Valencia will march you past an open-kitchen bakery, a single-batch chocolate shop, a menu from Ethiopia and then one from South India and then one from Guadalajara. With not a single dress code in sight.
What now seems commonplace is what we’ve come to define as California Cuisine: local, fresh and often made in front of the customer. California Cuisine is interactive and eclectic. It changes with the seasons. It pushes culinary comfort zones. And thanks to Joyce Goldstein, people will remember that it is a new concept of only 40 years ago.
Although best known for her Mediterranean restaurant Square One and over two dozen cookbooks, Goldstein recently became a food historian as well, authoring Inside the California Food Revolution, a text that provides context for terms like “organic,” “farm-to-table” and “casual food.” And gives credit to the people who changed our dining culture.
Like many of the pioneers profiled in her book, Goldstein’s own story began without any formal training, but with a lot of curiosity.
“I grew up with overcooked food,” she says, “but I ate out really well, so I knew it could be done.”
It was just a matter of figuring out how. And while studying at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, Goldstein made weekly treks to the Growers’ Market on Chapel Street, hauling carts of ingredients back home to experiment on friends, teachers and family.
She learned by tasting, reading and never shying away from something totally foreign.
“We were a generation of confident people,” she says of herself and her Revolution cohort. “We traveled and we were self-taught. We never thought we would fail. And it never dawned on us to not run our own business or open a restaurant.”
With that confidence, Goldstein’s New Haven dinner parties transformed into informal cooking classes. Which grew into the first San Francisco International Cooking School, one she ran for 18 years. And eventually, a three-year cheffing stint at Chez Panisse Café. Confidence also led Goldstein to open up her own restaurant, testing her abilities and her diners’ expectations.
In the beginning, Goldstein changed the menu every day, a novel and gutsy move. She put unheard-of items like romesco and chermoulah on the menu. And she put a lot of faith in her customers.
“I didn’t want to scare people but I knew it was delicious. And there was a general collective high around food in the 1980s. People were open minded and it was a bad time to be a stick in the mud.”
Goldstein was also one of the first chefs to put an open kitchen in the dining room, an architectural shift that transformed the entire experience.
“Restaurants became more democratic,” she says. The home cook’s palate got “jazzed up.” And restaurants were no longer just fancy, quiet temples of cuisine, but “a whole spectrum of dining formats that welcomed multiple levels of dining experiences.”
While the major part of the food revolution is over, she’s proud that most Bay Area eaters today know ingredients have seasons and that, if they ever see asparagus on a menu in November, it is (as she puts it) bullshit. But she’s also aware that, because of a culture gap and supermarket plastic wrap, people still forget the origin and value of the food available to them.
“People throw out words like ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ but don’t understand what they mean,” she explains.
“Everyone thinks food should be cheap, but where did we get that idea? And when people say ‘local’ and ‘sustainable,’ they don’t think about keeping a farmer in business. We are supporting a whole community of people. That’s sustainable.”
Pioneer: Victoria Wise
In 2007, three women chopped culinary stereotypes to bits and pieces. Tia Harrison, Melanie Eisemann and Angela Wilson opened Avedanos, the only all-female-run butcher shop in San Francisco, where they haul, clean and hacksaw whole animals into a variety of cuts for purchase.
And while the store carries on a long tradition of butchers occupying this Cortland Avenue storefront since 1901, the name belongs to Harrison’s grandmother, Flora, whose traditions and recipes inspire many of the prepared dishes.
But Avedano’s is not alone in giving the world of meat and cleavers a feminine touch. In California, there is Chef Duskie Estes of Sonoma County and Lindy and Grundy in LA. And, of course, Victoria Wise of Berkeley, who opened Pig-by-the-Tail in September 1973.
A petite woman with a bob cut, it is hard to imagine Wise hauling 40-pound boxes of pork butt, working 12-hour shifts and haggling for the best duck livers that Chinatown had to offer. But Wise did just that, opening her own American charcuterie without any formal training in business or the culinary arts; just enough confidence and passion to run it successfully for a dozen years.
Under the influence of an Armenian father and a mother from the American Southwest, Wise says she was hands-deep in homemade yogurt and pizza dough from early on. But she never thought of food as a career until, while at Berkeley, she overheard whisperings about a new restaurant looking for a cook. A rumor that led Wise to make one of the first dinners served at Chez Panisse: duck with olives.
“I never had a moment of thinking ‘What am I doing?’” she admits. “I had total confidence because I had huge amounts of food knowledge in me. And it only occurred to me some years later, man, I would sure like to know how the pros do this.”
With Jane Grigson and French Pork Cookery in hand, Wise tackled the art of charcuterie.
“I tried to sneak in a pâté wherever I could at Chez Panisse,” she says. And after one and a half years, she left to redefine the American deli.
“At a traditional French charcuterie you might find a pretty little salad or vegetable,” she says. “But it was always presented in an extravagant way. The notion of a big tray with salad that you could take home and eat was new.” Wise made everything in house, from the crépinettes to the piecrusts. And she took pleasure in offering customers products like caul fat and boudin noir sausages that they couldn’t get anywhere else.
“This was before anyone thought you should touch blood,” Wise explains, “let alone eat it. But I wanted to make it because no one made it.”
Wise eventually closed the doors of Pig-by-the-Tail in 1985 to take on another new career: food writing, authoring over 14 cookbooks, earning a James Beard Award nomination and recently reinventing her classic offerings in Sausage: Recipes for Making and Cooking with Homemade Sausage, bringing the art of charcuterie directly to the home.
As for Avedanos, Wise cannot wait to visit the Bernal Heights shop, but refuses to take credit for inspiring its establishment.
“It’s not my legacy,” she says. “That’s a little bit of hubris because women have been doing this for centuries and it’s not new at all.”
Much like her own parents, though, Wise can take credit for giving generations of home cooks, including her own lineage, the confidence to trust their inner chef.
“I spent Mother’s Day with my son and he prepared the most amazing ceviche,” she says, pausing to remember the taste. “But he didn’t make it from a recipe. He made it from his heart and his mind. Food just comes out of his pores.”
Pioneer: Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson’s motorcycle ran out of gas on Martin Luther King Avenue in Berkeley. An East Coast transplant on a cross-country trek, Johnson decided to camp for the night in a field next to what was then called In Seasons restaurant.
“I woke up in the morning and the guys were doing prep,” he says. “I wandered over. They asked if I needed a job and that’s how the whole thing started.”
That was 1977. And by “whole thing,” Johnson is referring to his over three decades as owner of the Monterey Fish Market, author of the award-winning Fish Forever and leader in the sustainable fishing movement.
But back to the beginning: While cooking at In Seasons Johnson found himself meeting Jerry Rosenfield at the back door every morning when he dropped off the day’s order of fish. Rosenfield had two accounts at that time: In Seasons and Chez Panisse. And after a little while, Rosenfield decided to hand the business over. To Johnson.
“He said he didn’t want do this anymore,” Johnson recalls, “so I took over and started going over to the wharf in the morning in my Lincoln Continental, taking orders for the two restaurants.”
Johnson quickly learned the skills of a fishmonger, becoming a savant of sorts.
“I just kind of took to it and it was easy for me,” he says. “I could simply look at the fish and know if it was fresh without having to touch it or look at the eyes.” His fish sixth sense attracted other customers, like Hayes Street Grill and BayWolf.
“People would say ‘If you’re doing fish for Alice, then you’re doing fish for me.’”
The freshness of his product made Johnson stand out; but more importantly, the way he worked the dock changed the way restaurants valued fish. He choose products from the smaller boats catching by hook rather than the ones with a cheaper price tag, simply because he found the quality to be preferable.
“We were really one of the first companies to put quality ahead of cost,” he says. “It’s what we call ‘sustainable fishing’ today. But we weren’t doing it for environmental reasons back then; we were doing it for taste.”
As a result, his clients learned to be flexible with their orders.
“Chez Panisse never got what they planned for,” he says. “Even if they wanted rockfish, I would get to the dock and pick what was best. Then I’d have to go back and explain the rockfish wasn’t looking good so it’s sea bass instead, and you either have to make soup with this or something different. Fish is the last source of wild protein we have, so it’s up to nature what you’re going to get.”
Although a brief period during the ’80s and ’90s led people to fly fish in from all over the world, Johnson says we’ve come full circle and people want what’s local and in season again. But he does warn that trendiness can, at times, outweigh truth.
“I was in a restaurant in Oakland and the special was local swordfish,” he says. “Well, I know it’s not happening. I see what’s coming in and it’s not swordfish. Someone’s making that up because they know what customers and chefs want.”
To avoid false advertisement (and “fishy” practices) requires making the fisherman a visible part of the commercial food chain. And thanks to Johnson, those responsible for the day’s catch often now get credit on the menu.
“We’ve given the fishermen recognition as well as responsibility for their product,” Johnson says. “And by instilling pride in them, they take extra care of the product instead of letting it flop around on the deck. Because in the end, it is reflective of who they are and the job they are doing.”