Food Power by Ruth Reichl

The following article entitled FOOD POWER appeared in New West Magazine on May 19, 1980 and was written by Ruth Reichl, who deserves great praise for squeezing in an enormous amount of data given the space limitations of a magazine. This article is now an historical piece in which she deftly summed up the California “Food Scene” that directly influenced the entire country, in an era where so much change was taking place in the arena of culinary endeavors. In the following pages she delivers a capsulized look into the world of food & wine in California, pinpointing “who and what” were the driving forces between the decades 1950 – 1990. Many thanks to Ruth Reichl for allowing me to reprint this article. K.M.

THINK OF IT THIS WAY: In 1950 you couldn’t buy a French knife in California; the kind of store that sold them did not exist. A woman’s place was in the kitchen, and men who liked to be there didn’t say so. Coffee was sold almost exclusively in cans, preground; it was brewed almost exclusively in percolators, Chinese food was considered exotic, and it was always Cantonese. Italian food was less exotic: It was primarily soft spaghetti with garlic bread on the side. French restaurants served onion soup. What Americans mainly liked to eat was meat.
In 1960 things were much the same. A Frenchman wrote: “California is one of the most beautiful countries I have seen in my life, but when it comes to cooking, forget it.”
By 1970 things had started to change. Slowly, Cooks who bought exotic ingredients did it mostly by mail. Cheese stores were rare. Few people had heard of tofu, and only Orientals owned woks. There was practically no place to buy fresh pasta. Perhaps 90 percent of the cookbooks that are now being sold in this country had not yet been published.
Consider 1980: Something has happened. Suddenly you can’t walk down the street without bumping into cheese stores that stock eight kinds of blue cheese and ten varieties of chèvre. Coffee, freshly roasted, of course, is tenderly brewed in all kinds of contraptions, and the home espresso machine is quite commonplace. Pâté is purchased at the corner store. Not so long ago few of us were fond of fish; we now eat it raw. Our tastes have changed.
Californians have discovered a whole new world of food. If there is one hope on the horizon gastronomically,” a great chef said recently, “that hope is California.” While the rest of the world succumbs to fast food and preservatives, Californians are fighting back. Even visiting French chefs, who once turned up their noses at what they found in our stores, now admit to being pleased with local produce, local meat, even local cheese. Californians clamor for garlic and know when it is fresh. We cultivate or gather a multiformity of fungi. We raise real spring lamb and true suckling pigs. Common California garden snails, once a scourge upon the land, are being processed and packaged as escargots. We make goat cheese. We collect mussels and sea urchins. New life has been breathed into independent markets, and family farms have suddenly prospered. Californians flock to cooking classes. We buy arcane kitchen equipment. We subscribe to more food magazines than the inhabitants of any other state.
Why has this happened? For a great many reasons, obviously. We are more widely traveled than we used to be; we know more about more parts of the world (even if it’s only from television or Time). We are more concerned about health, and have come to realize that what we eat really does affect how we feel. Religion and politics and women’s liberation have all played their parts. But, most of all, it has been the food people. People who love food and have made it their business. People who raise food and sell it. People who cook it. People who write about it. If we now have a hundred alternatives to Wonder Bread—and we do—it is because of these food people most of all, and we owe them thanks.
You may or may not be thankful, but you are not untouched. Even if you still insist on sitting down to steak and potatoes every evening (and chances are you don’t), you’ve probably tasted quiche, a once-obscure French cheese tart that is now dispensed from airport snack bars and frozen food cases. You’ve probably tried the egg rolls or burritos that are sold alongside the hot dogs at the car wash food stand or off the catering truck. You live in a society where crepes are American as apple pie, where teriyaki steak is as American as, well, pizza. Unusual foods become more usual every day. Today’s epicurean delights are tomorrow’s TV dinners. The more exotic sounding Japanese concoction, the most rarefied invention of the “nouvelle”. French kitchen, will probably eventually end up on your table one way or another.
We are what we eat, and a relatively small group of people and institutions in California tells us, directly or indirectly, what to eat—and thus what to be. They are not always the most popular or most skilled practitioners of their craft (though they often are), but they are, or will soon be, the most influential. Here are their names:

Ruth Reichl reviews for Northern California restaurants for New West and is herself not without food power.

IN A CLASS OF THEIR OWN

Julia Child is a Californian by birth, but she doesn’t come here very often. Her books and television appearances are many, and her name is a household word; she has almost single-handedly introduced Americans to serious cooking.

M.F.K. Fisher. Author of fourteen books, she was brought up in Whittier. For the last 30 years she has lived in Northern California. She is 71 years old and has been writing about living well and eating well for most of her life. Though she has probable taught more people more about the idea of food than anybody else alive, Fisher is far too modest to attribute the changes in our eating habits to her own writings. She believes that the health food movement has a great deal to do with it. “The young people have simply said, enough of all this stuff. Some of what they eat is pretty awful. But it is real. It’s made them aware of what they’re eating and why.”

James Beard. He is sometimes known as “the dean of American cooks.” The author of several books, a widely read columnist, a much-beloved teacher (there is a two-year waiting list for his classes) and a staunch supporter of honest food and honest restaurants, he lives in New York, but he spends a good deal of time on the West Coast. People come from all over the country to participate in his San Francisco classes. Restaurateurs say that his support has been invaluable, and that he is one of the people responsible for making Californians discover the joys of their native foods.

THE CRITICS

Lois Dwan. Restaurant critic fore the Los Angeles Times, she recently wrote about Los Angeles restaurants: “We have crossed a barrier, climbed a mountain, steadied to a direction.” She is the only critic who really counts in Southern California. Everybody seems to like her. Many of the young chefs in Los Angeles say that the encouragement of the Times’ critic has been crucial, and she is certainly the person who brought the chefs out of the kitchen and into the limelight.

Patricia Unterman. She has been writing in the combined San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner Sunday “pink section” for about a year, bringing the city its first decent newspaper restaurant criticism in years. (She is also part owner and full-time chef of the new Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco).

Caroline Bates. She writes about California restaurants for Gourmet Just about everybody agrees that she would be a better critic if she occasionally criticized.

Robert Lawrence Balzer. People generally agree that his major influence has been through the Holiday Awards, of which he is director, although his wine articles in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Home magazine have made people who don’t go to posh restaurants recognize his name. A veteran of the California wine and food scene, he has written several newsletters and numerous books, owned his own restaurant and run a pioneering Jurgensen’s-style grocery store.

Jack Shelton. He started the first restaurant newsletter in San Francisco and now writes about food for the Pacific Sun and Focus.  He gave restaurant criticism a good name when many critics were still eating on the cuff.

Robert Finigan. Most people agree that he is, at the moment, the most important restaurant critic in San Francisco. Jack Shelton groomed him as his replacement, in addition to writing Shelton’s old Private Guide to Restaurants, he publishes a guide to wine that is important enough to make French winemakers call him up and argue about his opinions.

Elmer Dills, Jackie Olden and Don Fitzpatrick Dills on ABC television and radio, and Olden and Fitzgerald on KNX radio (on what was the late Mike Roy’s show), both in Los Angeles, collectively probably tell more people where, how and what to eat than anybody else in the state.

Doris Muscatine. She wrote A Cook’s Tour of San Francisco in 1963. It came about because people where always asking her for restaurant recommendations, and a friend finally suggested that it would be easier to write a book than to keep little lists. The format has since been widely copied. She was one of the first California writers to understand the importance of food as cultural history. And she probably knows more than anybody else about the history of San Francisco restaurants.

THE TEACHERS

Marion Cunningham. She had never been outside the state of California when her grown son urged her to conquer her fear of flying and take a cooking class that James Beard was giving in Oregon. Since then she has traveled around the world assisting Beard with his classes. Her influence as a teacher has been enormous locally, but she has been nationally important with her revision of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. “I’d never done any writing,” she says, “but when the editor ask Jim (Beard) to suggest someone to do the book, he sent them a pack of my letters.” The project took five years, and the result is likely to become the new bible of American cooking.

Rita Leinwand. People in Los Angeles once stood in line all night to get into her classes. She has since moved on to other things; she is now the food editor of Bon Appétit.

Jack Lirio. He opened one of the first cooking schools in San Francisco—the Jack Lirio School of Cooking—in 1969, long before cooking became chic.

Narsai David. Has a restaurant. Has a gourmet shop. Has a catering business. Has an unusual first name. Has, incidentally, a regular spot on a television show.

Mildred Knopp. The author of many cookbooks, she once promised her readers success in the kitchen if they remembered “four simple things”; enthusiasm, pride in what you serve, confidence in yourself and “confidence once again.” She received an award at the Los Angeles Gourmet Gala for here “extraordinary contribution in arousing desire and love for culinary excellence.”

Joserphine Araldo. This irascible Frenchwoman is the author of two books and the mentor of many of San Francisco’s more promising young chefs.

Buwei Yang Chao. She wrote How to Cook and Eat in Chinese in 1945; it was immediately successful because, in addition to being the first book on Chinese cooking addressed to the American housewife, it was delightfully written. In 1973, at the age of 84, Mrs. Chao wrote How to Order and Eat in Chinese. A practical Californian, she describes the meal system in China but concentrates, as she says, on eating Chinese in America. Once again, the book was so delightfully written that it gave people who never dreamed of eating anything more exotic than an egg roll the courage to eat shark fins and fish tripe and duck liver with fermented bean paste.

Belle Rhodes. She is a member of the organization committee of Americans for Wine and a longtime cooking instructor. She and her husband, Dr. Bernard Rhodes, are both acknowledged as “great palates.” In the business it is said that they know lots of people and lots about food, and that they were encouraging the makers of both food and wine long before it became chic to do so.

Shirley Sarvis. Her first job was with Sunset magazine. She has more than a dozen cookbooks to her credit. She has written on food for many national magazines. She is now devoting much of her time to teaching classes on tasting wine with food.

THE BUSINESS PEOPLE

Thomas Cara. He still has what he says is the very first espresso machine imported into this country after World War II. He brought it in in 1947. At that time there was only one other store in the country that imported foreign cookware—Bazar Français, opened in 1877 (and now closed). Cara’s establishment, Thomas Cara, Ltd., in San Francisco, is now the oldest cookware store in America.

Chuck Williams. When he opened his first Williams-Sonoma store in Sonoma in 1953, back before anybody knew cooking would turn into such a fad, Williams went to France to buy merchandise. He went all around the country talking to people who made bakeware and pans and dishes and knives. “There were a few people making Sabatier knives, and they looked at me as if I were crazy,” he says. “They said to me, “What do you mean, export? Americans don’t want these things.” In those days all the equipment was being made by small craftsmen. Now it’s become a big business.” He believes that the wealthy have been the real innovators in the food world.” For the first ten years almost all of our customers were in just a few zip codes. Now everyone is interested in cooking.” Williams own influence has probably been in knowing people in the food world and bringing his customers into contact with them. “He’s in touch,” says one observer, “and he knows everybody.”

Phillip Brown. He writes the newsletter for Jurgensen’s grocery stores, the state’s oldest and largest group of “gourmet” purveyors. His late wife, Helen Evans Brown, wrote the first real California cookbooks.

Darrell Corti. He helps run the Corti Brothers wine and food stores in Sacramento—which have single-handedly put that city on the international food and wine map. He probably knows more about things to eat and drink than anybody in California, and will gladly say so. He goes everywhere, knows everyone. He has the best Italian wines, ports, sherries, olive oil and smoked salmon in the state, and the only fresh white truffles.

Joe Coulombe. To a large degree, the success of Joe Coulombe’s 22 –year-old, eighteen-store, Southern California Trader Joe/Pronto market chain comes not just from low prices and convenient shopping hours (7A.M. to 11 P.M. every day of the year), but also from the firmly entrenched image of Trader Joe as a “regular” Joe. All around him, Joe sees food and drink prices escalating, while quality goes straight down the tubes. He’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to eat it anymore. The result is not only the markets, but also one of the feistiest and most enjoyable food newsletters produced anywhere. Trader Joe’s Insider’s Report dispenses tales of culinary malfeasance and chronicles the market’s legendary blind tastings under headlines like GOOD PIZZA WINE—$1.39 and a SWELL NEW YOGURT. There are few Southern California food mavens who don’t know of Trader Joe’s, and most have shopped there for incredible bargains on cheese, wine and so on.

Michael James and Billy Cross. They started a catering business together in the early 1970’s. In 1974 they rented a house in the Napa Valley and invited Simone Beck (Julia Child’s sometime collaborator) to give a series of cooking classes. When M.F.K. Fisher came to visit she noticed that many of the students looked bedraggled, so she said teasingly, “You ought to do this really luxuriously.” They took her at her word. Their series, called The Great Chefs of France, now brings the likes of Jean Troisgros, Roger Vergé and Gaston Lenôtre to California each year. The classes are now held at the Robert Mondavi Winery, where a five-day course costs $2,000. Cross and James have been so successful with their concept that they now do road shows all over the world—Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia and England are all on their schedule next year, as is a weeklong course at Eugénie-les-Bains, France home of nouvelle cuisine wizard Michel Guérard’s three-star restaurant.

Maggie Waldron. She started her career working for food and editor Helen McCully at McCall’s. She is now one of the major people in food advertising (she works at Botsford Ketchum), doing everything from billboards to television commercials, and her creations could be said to reach more people than those of any other cook in the country. Her agency just built her a fabulous kitchen. Everybody came to the gala opening.

Sunset Magazine. This Menlo Park—based  “magazine of the West” was far ahead of its time with its articles on cooking, growing fruits and vegetables, and so on. Annabel Post is the food editor.

Bon Appétit. Formerly a sort of low-rent Family Circle (and merely a bimonthly one at that), this publication was bought in 1975 by Los Angeles-based Knapp Communications, who put out the extremely successful interior decorating magazine Architectural Digest. It is now, in terms of advertising sales, the most successful food magazine in the country. Editor-in-chief is Paige Rense, who holds the same position with Architectural Digest. Other top editors are Marilou Vaughan and Natalie Schram, and the aforementioned Rita Leinwand.

THE RESTAURATEURS AND CHEFS

Cecilia Chiang. She opened one of the first “northern-style” Chinese restaurants in America—The Mandarin, which originally seated only 40 people. It was extremely successful, and she soon expanded the restaurant in San Francisco and opened a branch in Beverly Hills. Unlike most Chinese restaurateurs, Cecilia Chiang is very well connected in the California food world. Last year she traveled in France and Switzerland with Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham; the three are now planning a trip to China.

Alice Waters. When she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley eight years ago, Waters had no formal training as a chef. What she did have was a scholarly interest in food, enormous curiosity and an experimental spirit. She sought the best local ingredients and discovered new ways to cook them. Everyone agrees that Alice Waters and her restaurant are, at present, the greatest influence on Northern California restaurants.

Vic Bergeron. He opened his first restaurant—Hinky-Dinks—in Oakland in 1934. Later he changed its name to Trader Vic’s. Taking inspiration from the pioneer “Polynesian” restaurant, Don the Beachcomber’s in Los Angeles, he developed a melting pot, pan-Pacific kind of food with English grillroom and American roadhouse accents, serving his own versions of Southeast Asian curries, Indonesian roasts, Chinese seafood dishes, chafing dish “Continental” specialties and elaborate rum drinks in a jungle-hut atmosphere to an appreciative clientele. In 1951 he opened the San Francisco branch of his restaurant. After that, things happened fast, and he now operates 26 restaurants all over the world. (He also has a place called Señor Pico and Mama Gruber, featuring “authentic Mexican and early California food” and seafood, in Century City.) Bergeron understands the concept of restaurant as theater better than anyone else, and that is what makes him such an extraordinary restaurateur. He was one of the first to really grasp that people don’t always go out for something to eat—they often go out for something to do.  He was also one of the earliest champions of California wines, some examples of which can still be found on his wine lists at relatively old-fashioned prices.

Kit Marshal. He opened the first casual French restaurant in Los Angeles—Au Petit Café. In 1965, just returned from three years abroad, Marshal realized that the only good restaurants in Los Angeles were “very starchy places.” He saw no reason why diners couldn’t be both comfortable and well fed. At first his restaurant was open only for lunch, but the clientele soon coaxed them to serve dinner as well. Two waiters soon left to open their own restaurant, Le St. Germain. People from there opened Le Restaurant, and people from there opened Le Dôme. Among the other direct descendants are Le Sanglier, Mon Grenier, Chambord and Chantal.

Jean Bertranou. When he opened L’Ermitage in 1975 there was nothing like it in Los Angeles—indeed, in California. The menu was ambitious and sophisticated; the inspirations were both classic and “nouvelle.” His pioneering gave others the courage to follow in his footsteps. “It was the opening of L’Ermitage that showed that something more could be done in L.A.,” says the chef of one of that city’s other better French restaurants. Many of the younger Los Angeles chefs were trained in Bertranou’s kitchen. He developed talent where he found it, and, even after they have moved on to running their own kitchens, if you ask many young chefs what standard they measure themselves against, they answer L”Ermitage. Bertranou is also, unfortunately, the first great tragedy of the new California restaurant scene: In 1979 it was discovered that he had an inoperable brain tumor. His physical involvement in his restaurant is now minimal, though he is still unquestionably its guiding light. “The quality at L’Ermitage isn’t going to falter much,” one local restaurant critic notes. “Those people love him and respect him, and they’ll try to maintain his standards just because they feel they owe it to him, if nothing else.”

Patrick Terrail. His uncle runs the three-star Tour d’Argent in Paris. He himself is the first French restaurateur to really understand Los Angeles. His establishment, Ma Maison, is casual. It’s pretentious. It’s hard to get into. It’s expensive. It even has an unlisted phone number. And the food is unusual and very, very good. Terrail created an atmosphere he liked and then went into partnership with chef Wolfgang Puck, a highly talented young man who does exactly what he wants in the kitchen. The combination is unbeatable. It has been, and will be, much copied. Which is ironic, because of course it can’t be, exactly. Right now Terrail is in France, running a two-week-only restaurant called Ma Maison 80 in a thirteenth century waterfront château pleasantly close (this is the point) to the Cannes Film Festival. Terrail also oversees Ma Cuisine, a cooking school adjacent to his Los Angeles restaurant. The teachers are chefs such as Puck, Ken Frank (see below), Jonathan Waxman of Michael’s (see below again) and, this August, Roger Jaloux, head chef for Paul Bocuse.

Hank Rubin. He took over the Potluck Restaurant in Berkeley in 1959. Casual atmosphere, inventive food and good wine were all part of the formula, and at the time there was nothing else of its kind in existence. There are now hundreds of restaurants around the country in the same mold—but the Potluck is not one of them. Rubin closed his place in 1974 and now concentrates on wine, writing columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and Bon Appétit.

Michael McCarty. He opened Michael’s in Santa Monica about a year ago, modifying ideas about French “nouvelle” and traditional cooking to take advantage of the raw materials and sensibilities of California (see New West, June 18, 1979). His chefs (including Jonathan Waxman and Mark Peel) and his wine list (compiled by Phil Reich) are setting new local standards. He is the hottest thing in town—in the state, for that matter—in his rather specialized but highly popular area of endeavor. He is now making plans to take the California-French style to New York.

Ken Frank. He has cooked at almost every major French restaurant n Southern California, most notably at the now-defunct La Guillotine, the now-defunct Club Elysée, the spectacularly nondefunct Michael’s and now at La Toque, a place he co-owns with veteran maître Henry Fiser. He has no formal training and hasn’t been to France for three years but is known for creating some of the most delicate, painstakingly crafted, imaginative contemporary French food in Los Angeles. He is 24.

The Sushi Chef. His name might be Seke or Kojima, Kenji or Matsu, Ippei, Noboru or Goro . . . . There are lots of him in California today. He feeds thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic local residents, many of them not Japanese, on various combinations of raw fish, seaweed, sticky rice, fungi and roe—delicacies it would have been inconceivable for an American to eat willingly a couple of decades ago. No one seems to know why sushi has suddenly become so popular here. Perhaps it has something to do with the influx of Japanese businessmen or the fact that Guérard, Bocuse and other trendy French chefs have spoken highly of Japanese food. Perhaps it has to do with the new American search for natural, unadulterated food. Whatever the reasons, the sushi chef is here in spades. The frosting on the tofu is that the popularity of sushi has made life easier for French chefs, too, giving them access to a wider variety of fresh fish and vegetables and exposing their customers to more culinary and decorative refinement.

Henry Chung. The New Yorker called Chung’s Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco “the best Chinese restaurant in the world.” When the Hunan opened in 1973, it seated all of 36 people. Nevertheless, it was so popular that it drew customers from all over the country. Chung moved to larger quarters in 1978. Henry is so proud of the food of his native province that he wants as many people as possible to taste it. He even wrote a cookbook—a charming one—laced with stories and anecdotes and wonderful recipes that are bound to convert thousands into lovers of this sort of food. He has almost single-handedly started the nationwide craze for Hunanese food.

The Stanford Court. The first California hotel to really concentrate on food, it opened in 1972 as “an understated luxury hotel.” In its restaurant, Fournou’s Ovens, president James Nassikas set out to “overcome the restaurant-in-a-hotel problem.” One of the ways he did it was by buying the best local produce. One of the ways was by sparing no expense. And one of the ways was by courting the food establishment. James Beard holds cooking classes at Fournou’s Ovens. Shirley Sarvis has her wine-with-food sessions there. And on almost any day you may run into a wine tasting or two.

The Beverly Wilshire. The closest thing in Southern California to the Stanford Court, at least in the areas of food and wine. The restaurants are more conventional, but the overall quality of the food service is high, and, like the Stanford Court, the hotel is extremely hospitable to local wine and food circles. Peter Korzilius is the man in charge of such things.