The New York Times applied the label to California Cuisine, giving it “Official Status” in 1982 after local chefs had denied its very existence. Writer Marian Burros wrote about trends in California Cuisine using these vivid descriptions:

  • Freshness of ingredients is always the cornerstone
  • Local ingredients are sourced from nearby farmers and producers
  • Food served is seasonal
  • Baby vegetables garnish the plate
  • Red meat is replaced with chicken, fish, quail, and squab
  • Grilling is prevalent, especially with mesquite
  • Heavy sauces and marinades are eliminated
  • Ethnic ingredients are used
  • Simplicity of presentation on the plate
  • Creative new approaches to flavors – cuisines are combined such as Japanese and French

President Ronald Reagan hosted Queen Elizabeth at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in 1983. The dinner was described by his social secretary as “a toast to the Cuisine of California.” The local salmon was poached in California’s heritage wine, Zinfandel. The salad combined lamb and lentils, radicchio and enoki mushrooms tossed in raspberry vinegar and walnut oil dressing. California wines were paired with each course. California wine became both an ingredient and the beverage to be served with local California Cuisine.

Most importantly, California Cuisine means “Sense of Place.” The foods are sourced locally and seasonally by chefs who are free to combine, cook and serve what inspires them. Each chef is the master in the kitchen and the creative spirit behind the cuisine. Some chefs are formally trained but many are self-taught. California’s freedom to innovate inspired chefs, farmers, cheese makers, dairymen, breeders, grape growers, and winemakers to raise and craft quality products that expressed the terroir and climate of their local regions. Organic farming and farmers’ markets gradually rose to support the California Cuisine Movement as it expanded across the state. Eating and drinking became important to people. Cooking became a focus of social life. Gourmet Clubs and dinner parties became part of the California lifestyle. Local newspapers added Food Editors who reviewed local restaurants and published food history and recipes.

Sunset Magazine laid the foundation for the California Cuisine Movement by showcasing two important sections in their monthly magazine published in California. The Garden Editor taught readers how to grow local foods each season and the Food Editor created the recipes using these local foods in seasonal recipes. The recipes were not complicated and focused on healthy casual meals to share with family and friends. Sunset Magazine was a powerful influence on the California lifestyle and cuisine; it focused on a casual western lifestyle, what we grew, what we cooked, and how we entertained.

There were individual chefs in both Northern and Southern California that soon focused on California Cuisine and opened restaurants with new menus and new dishes to delight their diners in the 1980s.  I could mention many people, but I’ll focus on Wolfgang Puck as a major influence. He broke with the classical French traditions and Nouvelle cuisine to develop dynamic new trends in California Cuisine.

Wolfgang emigrated to the United States in 1973. He was born in Austria and apprenticed as a chef in France. He had worked as a chef in major three-star restaurants including Maxim’s in Paris and L’Hotel de Paris in Monaco. After arriving in the United States, he worked at a fine restaurant in Indianapolis before arriving to become the chef at Ma Maison, Patrick Terrail’s Nouvelle Cuisine restaurant, in Los Angeles.

During the next few years, Wolfgang explored the ethnic neighborhoods, cultures, and cuisines of Los Angeles, sourcing ingredients from local markets and learning new cooking styles. He wanted to have California Cuisine reflect the rich local ethnic diversity. He opened up to new possibilities.

He opened his own restaurant, Spago, on the Sunset Strip in 1981 and brought more innovations to the movement. He was the first to build an open kitchen so that diners could watch their food being prepared. He built a giant grill and a wood burning oven for his pizzas. He served fresh, casual, and unusual food which was affordable. These innovations strongly influenced other chefs.

Two years later in 1983, Wolfgang opened the first fusion restaurant in the United States, Chinois. He created his own style by incorporating the Asian influences into his cuisine.

California Cuisine became a local phenomenon. Chefs moved out of the kitchen to search for local ingredients and local farmers. They developed their menus daily to reflect the available ingredients. San Luis Obispo joined the California Cuisine movement, but it was not easy. Ian McPhee made it happen and Gary Eberle and Ken Volk paired their wines with his dishes.

By Libbie Agran