What is California cuisine? It’s you, L.A. (and kale)

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Listen up, L.A. If you want to know what California cuisine is, look in the mirror.

We talk a lot about the ingredients. Unrivaled seasonal produce – goodbye tomatoes, hello pomegranate, farm-to-table and all very precious. But there’s another component at play here: the embrace of a willing audience whose enthusiasm for crazy ideas, such as those of an inspired young Korean chef who topped corn tortillas with charred meats and salty kimchi and handed them through the window of a food truck, created a palpable energy in a big city before sparking a nationwide frenzy.

“A great chef can now serve amazing food out of a truck and start an international trend,” said Father’s Office chef Sang Yoon, referring, of course, to Roy Choi and the Kogi truck. “I love how L.A. restaurants are defined by our casual sensibility.”

Yoon, speaking Sunday at “California Cuisine: What is it and why does it matter,” was joined by author Joyce Goldstein, Corazon y Miel chef Eduardo Ruiz, Mozza’s Nancy Silverton and Choi. The panel was led by former L.A. Times and New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine’s last editor Ruth Reichl.


Almost as soon as it began, the discussion focused on L.A. as the heart and mind of California cuisine and the current superiority of food here over other parts of California and New York.

“I don’t think our team could have done what we did in Berkeley or San Francisco,” said Choi of his Kogi truck. “We’re a land of discovery. We’re not chained to any form of history or a past. We chill like that.”

In the 1960s, “continental cuisine” was the dominant description of restaurant food. Food was frozen or from a can “and you didn’t know who grew anything,” said Goldstein, author of “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years that Changed our Culinary Consciousness.”

But soon things began to change. Michael’s in Santa Monica then Spago in L.A. moved dining forward. Restaurants became raucous and kitchens started opening up. Chefs began relationships with farmers.

As Yoon, Choi and Ruiz were growing up, Silverton was beginning her kitchen career buying eggs and duck for Michael’s, not realizing how unique it was at the time to pick up fresh ingredients daily.

Her observation of the current generation of chefs? “You can still be a great cook and you don’t have to have tattoos.”


Tattoos or no tattoos, chefs in California continued to set the region apart by the types of food they built their dishes on.

“One of the hallmarks of California cuisine is that while the rest of the country looked to Europe this side of the country looked east and south,” Reichl said.

Indeed, for Ruiz, Yoon and Choi, it was the food that they ate at home that informed their cooking.

“My grandmother never skimmed a soup in her life,” Ruiz said. Her soups will always taste better because of that: “It coats your mouth with fat and gives you a warm feeling inside.

“Our grandmothers and mothers inspired us to cook.”

Added Choi, “I never thought Korean food was going to be popular. I saw the people’s faces when they looked in my refrigerator.”



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