Falling in Love with the State I’m Supposed to Hate
BROOKLYN, NY — To be a New Yorker means many things, and one of them is to despise California. That predisposition comes with the territory. It’s not enough to love our concrete canyons, clogged sidewalks, and cutthroat pace–one must also disdain the sunny, happy way of life on the other side of the republic. I mean, the nerve of those people to thrive on all fronts without having to endure the obstacles and obscenities that hurtle our way like a never-ending meteor shower.
Well, as longtime readers know, I’ve been researching a book about the American chefs of the 70s and 80s. Much of the interviewing has happened right here in my home base of New York City, but my attentions have been equally allocated to The Golden State. And, after several recent visits, this New Yorker has a confession to make: I love California.
It shouldn’t come as a shock. I was caught at a vulnerable moment. This month begins my 29th year in the Big Apple. It’s a fun and rewarding existence, but I’d still characterize myself as a striver. The inconveniences and the unkindness of strangers wear on me in ways they never used to. In 2009, we moved to Brooklyn for a spacious duplex and access to an above-average public school, and with twin kids in their tenth year, and all that entails, life can be Sisyphean.
And so, my seduction by the West Coast has been swift.
It began with the people. California interviews have been unexpectedly warm and social affairs. Before I know it, drinks have been poured, or meals are being shared, sometimes cooked by the chef-interviewee’s own hand. Extra time, follow-ups, and other support have been excitedly offered. Appointments that were booked with assistants end with the revealing of private cell phone numbers and email addresses. More than a few people, strangers at the outset, have hugged me tightly as we said goodbye. (Of course, many of the same things happen in New York City, but I’ve known people here for 20 years.)
The tone was set over an October lunch in Los Angeles with restaurateur Marvin Zeidler, outside at his Brentwood Cafe. Not only did Marvin make the time to sit down, but he generously provided a list of contact information for key historical figures he thought I should meet. Over two weeks split between Southern and Northern California, and two subsequent visits in November and December, more than 40 chefs and restaurateurs followed suit. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger invited me to raid their vault of press clippings and photographs; Mark Franz of Farallon and Waterbar encored a decadent lunch with a sit down at his home that lasted for hours;Valentino‘s Piero Selvaggio arrived at our second sit-down with a stack of books and magazines he thought might help me, personal keepsakes that he’d amassed over the years. “Keep them,” he said, shoving the mountain of paper my way. Joachim Splichal, John Sedlar, Nancy Silverton, Ken Frank, Cindy Pawlcyn and many others–none of whom I’d met before– extended and/or shared of themselves in ways that I will expand on in a coming post of highlights from the research trail.
It hasn’t just been the toques. Random characters, as if engaged in a Truman Show-worthy conspiracy, continued to woo me Westward. Chief among these was the hirsute barista at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s Mint Plaza who suggested their New Orleans blend to me. (It’s made with chicory, and a little sugar, and was engineered to be served over ice.) I sipped it, nodded my approval, and stayed in line to pay. He turned to the next customer, then back toward me: “You know what, man?” he said. “It’s on me today.”
“What did I do to deserve this?” I asked.
“I just feel like it,” he shrugged, then smiled brightly and added, “Cheers!”
To put it mildly, things like that do not happen in New York City….