A high point of my recent California road trip occurred in, of all places, a San Francisco grocery. The shelves veritably burst with the conspicuously obscure: verjus, chanterelles, tamarind caramels, Elderberry Root elixirs. There were bottles of blue-label Chimay and bags of local toffee. The cheese section groaned under the weight of pedigreed Garrotxa. In the produce section, a big wooden crate overflowed with a kaleidoscope of heirloom tomatoes grown by Bi-Rite Market’s owners. The customers were young, knowledgeable, good-looking, and courteous; the clerks, even more so. Over my shoulder I heard an animated voice: “Dude—don’t be harshing on my quinoa!” The situation was a happy cliché of California culinary privilege, a sort of happy utopian foodie future. I’d expected to find it in perhaps a few spots, but was surprised to find echoes of this knowledge and enthusiasm throughout the state.
Much of the credit for the positive changes in the way Americans eat today goes to the Golden State and its band of self-actualizing philosopher-farmers, artisanal cheesemakers, hippie restaurateurs, and New American winemakers. Forty years ago they kick-started a movement promoting food made from locally sourced, proudly grown ingredients. This ethos has spread all across the country, but on its own turf it still has the fattest toehold.
What, though, does food culture actually look like in today’s California? Who’s setting the new trends there now? And how will they affect those of us living elsewhere? Behind the wheel of a glossy, purring Mercedes C350, I set out to investigate, tracing a route from Marin County to San Diego. After the 46 meals and conversations I had with the cooks, ranchers, cheesemakers, winemakers, restaurateurs, waiters, grocers, and farmers I encountered on my weeklong 1,300-mile peregrination, I felt enlightened, bronzed, hopeful, ready to move to California—and just a little crowded in the gut.
When asked why their state has served as the principal incubator for American food trends, many Californians bless their climate. But that’s only part of the answer. What sets this state apart is that its finest tastemakers are idealists at heart. They’re capitalists, too, and brilliant ones at that. But they’re increasingly looking for a triple bottom line: financial profit, environmental sustainability, and social improvement.
Cruising down Highway 1, that lovely timeless coastal road, the air feels like pure oxygen, and the oak and acacia won’t stop flirting with the sun. At dusk, the patchy pines and muscular knuckles of mountain let go their arid colors and glow fuchsia and gold. Miner’s lettuce, acorns, wild radish flowers—those are the flavors of this place. If Berkeley, home of Alice Waters’s restaurant Chez Panisse, was the nucleus of the delicious revolution, Marin County served as mitochondria, feeding it bijou vegetables and handmade chèvre. Today it remains a stronghold of idealist-capitalists; it’s where I meet Bill Niman, the mustached founder of Niman Ranch, the first company to successfully mass-market conscientiously grown grass-based beef and pork. Niman is a meat dealer who believes that people should eat better meat, even if that means eating less of it. When his company’s new management began to cut corners Niman didn’t approve of, he dissociated himself from them; now he’s raising heritage turkeys, cattle, and goats at BN Ranch in a way he deems truly sustainable.
“The industry used to laugh at me when I said I was going to raise antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. Now everyone’s trying to follow, but in a way that’s watered down,” Niman says. “So we’re starting over, trying to set another standard: for meat that’s truly wholesome, healthful, and humane.”
Continuing south, I seek out Andy Griffin, the genial farmer whose Mariquita Farm CSA boxes contain some of the most lusted-after vegetables in Northern California. Griffin’s blistering, thoughtful weekly online newsletter, The Ladybug Letter (ladybugletter.com), is just icing on the eggplant. Shaped by Marin’s mores, Griffin now farms in Watsonville.
“Eventually, I realized that going after this with production values instead of ?being groovy’ values might actually make me some money,” Griffin says.
As Griffin and I chomp on chilaquiles in a local Mexican restaurant, I think how meeting the idealist-capitalists unveiled two false dichotomies—gently encouraged by the likes of food magazines and even, sometimes, my own brain—that set moneymaking in opposition to artisanship and pit technology against tradition. As Niman and Griffin know, this is bogus—these pairs work best as complements to one another. Embracing this duality, in fact, is critical for a nation no longer agrarian but not resigned to eating mediocre, mass-produced, artificial junk.
In an austere private dining room tucked off a fashionably trashy street, I bring this up with Daniel Patterson, the heady, earnest chef-owner of San Francisco’s Michelin two-star Coi, where ultra-pure ingredients meet cutting-edge culinary technology. “The overarching theme seems pretty clearly to be a movement toward redefining how we grow and raise our food,” says Patterson. “What we should be doing is keeping some of the efficiencies of modern thinking and technology while undoing much of the processed-food mind-set we’re mired in.”
For Patterson, this means water carbonated in-house, individually baked bread buns, house-made butter, and an 18 percent tip shared by the entire staff. It also means beefy matsutake mushrooms grilled on the plancha with a potato-pine needle puree, or an ethereal tofu mousseline with yuba, pickled baby turnip, lime zest, and briny fresh seaweed.
For Jeremy Fox, the 32-year-old chef at Ubuntu in Napa, creative restaurant operation involves his place’s growing its own biodynamic produce, giving his chefs four-day, 40-hour workweeks with the option to work in the garden, and cooking Michelin-level food with a yoga studio as a backdrop. “It can take me two hours to clean 30 radishes,” he says. “I look at them like jewels.”
Fox’s is one of the rare high-end kitchens where hierarchy is replaced by collaboration, and intimidation supplanted by mutual respect. His food is fun—and spectacularly fine. The carta da musica is a symphony of freshly picked “stuff” on a bed of flat, cracker-like bread: peppery greens from the garden, violet blossoms, figs, crispy black-trumpet mushroom chips, pecorino, and shaved baby radishes. There’s an outstanding dish the menu lists as “expression of carrots” on an enormous flat gray slate, scented with nasturtium foam, nectarine puree, vadouvan, and citrus. And the lagniappe received just before leaving is parsnip milk, feuilletine, and ice cream—”a fancy French version of Frosted Flakes.”
San Francisco has earned a reputation for navel-gazing, but boy, it sure has good reason to. Its humble neighborhood restaurants, like Terzo, where I had a few bites of goat from BN Ranch, serve better food than most cities’ best shot. Local food literature (shopping guides, restaurant reviews, producer profiles) is democratic and articulate. Everyone seems to have casually impeccable taste, from cookbook expert Celia Sack, the painstaking curator of Omnivore Books on Food, a just-opened 1,200-volume cookbook shop, to the good-looking cheesemongers at Cowgirl Creamery, who pose the washed-rinds on tables so they tumble down just so.
Why are people buying this type of food: clean, fair, good—and expensive? The answer lies in a pool of overlapping truths about California: the political atmosphere of the ’60s, where good eating became a radical act; Californians’ relentless quest for health; their open attitude toward experimentation; the ascendancy of local food crusaders; and, finally, the understanding that good food costs more—and is worth it. These days, younger people are the ones really driving the movement, as producers, consumers, cheerleaders, and chroniclers.
“People are seeing the end of the road for the myth of convenience,” posits Andy Griffin, the organic vegetable farmer in Watsonville. “They’re as hungry for the information about the food as they are for the food itself. And that’s new.” California food owes its success to the master storytellers who make it.
South of Watsonville, the landscape changes. The mountains recede and lie supine in a dusty fog. The roads are wider and meaner, and semis stacked 20 flats high with romaine whip past so fast that they lob eddies of dust onto my windshield. The fields are one of two colors: electric green under the mist of 10,000 sprinklers, or a dejected, dusty brown. By the time I get to Paso Robles, a town reinventing itself as California’s next up-and-coming wine destination, I’m thirsty.
There’s plenty of wine there, and plenty of story, too. Paso’s a cheerful town, shiny with new shops, restaurants, and hotels eager to please the tourists that its wines (some quite good) are attracting. The local-wine marketing committee, which promotes Paso’s $1.5-billion-a-year industry, makes sure I’m properly accompanied during my whole stay, but at dinner, I happen to sit next to a man who farms east of Paso, in the San Joaquin Valley.
“The water’s run out,” he admits dejectedly. “The land’s turned into a desert. If it doesn’t rain, I can’t farm next year.” It’s a disaster of unmitigated proportions, one affecting a good deal of California and the American West—but you’d never know it in Paso, with its exposed brick and bougainvillea.
South of Paso, I hit the coastal road again. For many miles it’s a Beach Boys song incarnate, all crashing waves, sparkling sun, and skateboarders heading west on the highway overpass, toting surfboards under their arms. Finally, I crack into Los Angeles, where the beautiful, wearing huge sunglasses and muscle tees, convene at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market for daikon and heirloom tomatoes and dry-farmed watermelon.
“This is what I love about cooking in California,” says my local guide, Quinn Hatfield, who, with his wife, Karen, cooks with a subtle, comfortable sensibility at L.A.’s beloved Hatfield’s. “I can come to an open-air market every day of the year in a T-shirt.” For Quinn and Karen, California on a plate means kabocha squash agnolotti with fresh purple-hull peas, Sherry brown butter, and armentizia cheese. For other folks, California cuisine means sushi and celebrities, as at Katsuya in Hollywood, where the food is mostly forgettable and the hostesses are anything but.
Outside the upscale, too, L.A.’s food dazzles. The city’s huge ethnic population makes for a fertile cauldron of traditions out of which to pick and choose, yielding the sort of food unheard of in a Betty Crocker yesteryear: Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Korean, Oaxacan, Guadalajaran, Persian Jewish, African-American, Japanese, and Chinese, all downtown. Indeed, a free paper’s food critic, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism, writes passionately about the city’s food trucks. The best thing I eat in L.A., in fact, is a divine taco al pastor from the El Matador taco truck parked at Western and Lexington avenues, richly caramelized meat and hot sauce between the linen-soft sheets of a fresh corn tortilla.
My last stop is San Diego, where, in the name of research, I have eight fish tacos in one day. The first few are at Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, the Carlsbad-based casual-dining chain that has sold more than 70 million fish tacos since 1983, and the grilled mahi-mahi version was actually quite tasty. Co-founder Ralph Rubio excels at telling the brand’s story, “The Road to Rubio’s,” in which, on spring break in Baja, he fell in love with the fish taco, brought home the recipe, and turned it into a $150-million-a-year business.
Wily corporations are hip to the fact that there’s money to be made off consumers’ trust in words like organic, handmade, local, natural, and artisanal. But that’s California: as well-intentioned as it is commercially savage. There’s raw milk for sale at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and 10,000-cow dairies a few hundred miles north, some of them mystifyingly certified organic. Farmers are canonized but farmworkers criminalized. An organic yerba maté bar squats happily next to a Jack in the Box. But it’s precisely in this kind of profound and multilayered pluralism that California’s bewildering postmodern beauty lies. Perhaps the tug-of-war will yield some satisfying fallout—companies, say, that bridge with integrity the gap between boutique and mass production.
While beet gnocchetti and borage vichyssoise TV-dinner boxes won’t be hitting your 7-Eleven anytime soon, in future years expect chefs nationwide to grow their own biodynamic shiso, clerks to fill shelves with tomatoes ripened on the grocery store roof, and fast-food chains to french their fries to order. Expect, too, the young to lead the way—and follow in droves. One bumper sticker cheekily evangelized, “The road to health is paved with good intestines.” In sunny, delicious California, that’s gospel.