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.
Southern and Northern California are two different animals, to be sure, and their denizens would be the first to remind us of that. But both regions have also roped me in with their distinct beauty. A few minutes early to meet Bruce Marder of the late, great West Beach Cafe at one of his current restaurants, Capo in Santa Monica, I took a stroll behind the restaurant to the beach. There, I was greeted by this magical view:
Reassuringly, those who live there appreciate their environs as well: “Let’s sit outside,” Suzanne Goin conspiratorially suggested when I arrived at AOC in Los Angeles one bright afternoon for our interview. It was only the first week in October, but this Brown University-educated chef clearly appreciated that my outdoor days were numbered back East. In the Napa Valley, restaurant designer Pat Kuleto ushered me to a spectacular view of his estate before we sat down to interview in his gargantuan living room. (As I write this, I realize that one reason I’m so drawn to the iconic photograph of the original chefs from Michael‘s restaurant featured in the margin of this webpage is that it was taken outside.)
Ironically, California drove me out of my first career. In my past professional life I realized a childhood ambition and was firmly entrenched in the film industry, an aspiring screenwriter working as right hand to an Oscar-nominated, Gotham-based producer. After four years, I went west with him to work on movie in Los Angeles. For me, it was a fact-finding mission: having taken things as far as I could in New York, the only logical next step was to move to California. I loathed Los Angeles at the time, and when I came home to Bleecker Street, swiftly quit my job, and proclaimed myself a “prose writer.”
During my recent jaunts, the reasons for my prior contempt eluded me. After much thought, I’ve concluded that it’s all Woody Allen’s fault. Growing up Jewish and cineastically in the 70s meant idolizing all things Wood Man and his first masterpiece, Annie Hall, ripped LA a new one: Tony Roberts and his absurd sun-reflecting suit, Christmas music layered over shots of lonely hot dog stands, the derision of the sit-com set and its laugh track foundation. A snobby resistance to all things Pacific Coast was practically ingrained in me from those formative days. (Apologies for the unnecessary subtitles in the following clip.)
So it took a while to give myself permission to fall for California. Thankfully, I’d been softened up over the last few years, having visited San Francisco each of the past three Januaries on my way to and from moderating a week of chef demos at the Ahwahnee, a magnificent hotel in Yosemite National Park. Two years back, I even wrote about my then-nascent affection for all things West Coast.
On Wednesday mornings, there’s an overlap at the Ahwahnee: the chefs from one session are about to leave while the next crop have just arrived. Last year, Nopa‘s Laurence Jossel, Fifth Floor‘s David Bazirgan, and Haven‘s Kim Alter were breakfasting together in the Ahwahnee’s cathedral of a dining room, while a newly arrived trio of New York Chefs–Jonathan Waxman, Jimmy Bradley, and Joey Campanaro–were chowing down a few tables away.
The Californians were revealing trade secrets to each other, gleefully exchanging names and emails for specialty purveyors and farmers.
One of the San Francisco chefs leaned over and whispered to me: “I’ll tell you the difference between New York and California. We share with each other. They don’t do this in Manhattan.”
Surely that couldn’t be true. I mean, there was Jonathan Waxman. Back in the day, his buddy Larry Forgione had been so generous with sources that Jonathan joked at the time that his Jams restaurant could have been called Another American Place.
But the comment stuck with me. On returning to Brooklyn, I put the question to a member of the rising generation of chefs, Battersby’s Walker Stern, who validated the statement: “Maybe it was different in the 80s,” he said. “But now, it’s ‘I got this shit. If you want it, go find it for yourself.’”
I confessed to Walker that I had developed a bit of a crush on California. He understood, having spent part of his childhood and early career out West. “People are happy there,” he said.
Happy. It sounds like a silly word to our hardened ears. I was reminded me of an old Village Voice article that insisted there was only one possible response to Bobby McFerrin’s hit trifle “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: Fuck you.
Anyway, I just booked my airline ticket to San Francisco for this year’s Chefs’ Holidays. I will spend a week in Yosemite, then five days conducting book interviews in the Bay Area. Yes, it’s my job, but I am atwitter with anticipation: I will marvel at the 60-degree February days, drink California wine in the open air, try new restaurants, then resignedly head back East. The first blaring car horn will startle me, as it always does after more than a few days away, but never fear: by the next morning I’ll be back in the swing, fighting my way through the crowd, living the dream.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.