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A way as fresh as the seasons

At its heart, California cuisine begins with the best ingredients and makes sure nothing is lost on the way to the table.

October 16, 2002|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

California cuisine has taken more than its share of shots over the years, getting blamed for everything from the latest fusion travesty to sprouts. Those of us who live and cook here know that it really means something quite different. The problem has been coming up with an exact definition.

It's not a matter of geography -- there are restaurants in California that don't qualify and there are restaurants in Manhattan that do. Nor does it come down to quality. Many of the best restaurants in the state don't belong to the club and I wouldn't eat at many of the places that do.

Rather, California cuisine is an aesthetic, a collection of artistic principles. These discussions of sensibility can get complicated, but basically, it boils down to this: Get good ingredients and get out of their way.

As diverse as the world of cooking is, it can be broken down into two main schools: The first emphasizes the ingredients and the other transforms them into something else. California cuisine belongs to the first. In California cuisine, you rarely are left wondering, "How in the world did they do that?"

If you're at a restaurant that offers a fresh peach for dessert, you're probably in California cuisine country. This is definitely true if that peach bears a varietal tag and the name of the farmer who grew it. California cuisine is very big on provenance.

On the other hand, if that same peach is cut into perfect quarter-inch-thick horizontal slices and then put back together with layers of raspberry sorbet and perfectly cut almond tuiles, no matter how delicious that dessert might be, you're in transformation land.

Pure sophistication

This simplicity makes some people crazy. I remember sitting at lunch several years ago with Alice Waters when a prominent French winemaker lectured her for hours on the errors of her ways. "This is not cooking," he kept insisting. "It is arranging."

But wiser heads won't mistake simplicity for lack of creativity. When Charles and Henry Greene forsook Victorian ornamentation on their bungalows and when Gustav Stickley stripped his furniture of finish, they didn't do it because they didn't know better.

That is no idle comparison. Chez Panisse, the fountainhead of California cuisine, is housed in a converted Craftsman bungalow and is steeped in the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. At its core, that celebration of nature and of the importance of beauty in daily life fits hand in glove with this style of cooking.

There is another similarity between the two movements -- an accessibility to the public at large. Just as Craftsman bungalows were originally envisioned not as mansions but as housing for working families, the principles of California cuisine are perfectly adapted for cooking at home.

In fact, in large part that's where they come from. The inspirations for California cuisine come not from the magicians of the kitchen, but from the "old stoves," the best home cooks.

What started all of this pondering is Judy Rodgers' wonderful new "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook." In fact, the next time someone asks you for a definition of California cuisine, you can shortcut the whole argument just by handing them a copy. Though many have addressed the topic from various angles (especially good are the various Chez Panisse cookbooks), this is the best single volume on the subject I've found.

Not surprisingly, Rodgers' roots are firmly in French home cooking. Although she lived for a year as a teenager with France's Troisgros family, there are no recipes from their three-star restaurant -- not a single salmon with sorrel to be found. But there are several she learned at the family dining table. For the most part there is little in "The Zuni Cafe" that any moderately skilled home cook couldn't make -- and not just for the occasional celebration, but for everyday meals as well.

A bite of reality

There was a silly article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago trying to prove that it was cheaper to eat at restaurants than it was to cook at home. Aside from the Enron accounting that was used (wouldn't you think the purchase of a bottle of olive oil should be amortized over the life of the product rather than taken as a one-time charge?), I couldn't help but wonder how different the story would have turned out had they cooked from Rodgers' book.

Let's see, what about some sliced coppa with a quick celery root pickle, roast chicken with bread-and-tomato salad, then plum sorbet for dessert? A wonderful seasonal home dinner for four for less than $20. And no tricky techniques or exotic ingredients involved.

Better than the cuisine, though, is the writing -- and how many restaurant cookbooks can you say that about? Even the recipes are a joy to read. Instead of the usual process (check the title, read the headnote, scan the ingredients), you'll find yourself following them all the way through to make sure you don't miss a hint or a nuance.

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