It is very rare that anyone can point to a single event as the impetus for the creation of a new cuisine. The one exception may be California Cuisine and the opening of Chez Panise by Alice Waters in 1971. Alice Waters was not the first chef to rely on a diverse selection of fresh, local ingredients or to be inspired by California's diverse cultural heritage. She was the first chef, however, to truly popularize and commercialize this style of cooking. Along with such chefs as Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck, Waters was responsible for taking the principles of California Cuisine to the global stage.
Over time, California Cuisine has developed an elitist image: big ego chefs making dishes with small, over-priced portions. The real base for California Cuisine, however, is grounded in a simple love of unique flavor and food. California Cuisine is defined both by its ingredients and diversity of cultural influences. Fruits, meats and vegetables can only be of the highest quality and must always be fresh, local and seasonal. This emphasis can be very labor intensive and require a change of approach for many chefs. Instead of spending a majority of time in the kitchen organizing and perfecting recipes, chefs must commit more time working with a multitude of local farmers and specialty food distributors. It is a never-ending search for new sources: white asparagus and beans in spring; herb flowers and freshly harvested garlic in summer; wild mushrooms and squash in the fall; and shellfish and mustard greens in winter.
The roots of California Cuisine go back more than 100 years. It is now planted firmly in the history of California and, in fact, the world. In many ways it is not a new cuisine at all, but a very old cuisine that utilizes the modern availability of new and diverse ingredients. Traditionally, food was always local and seasonal. You ate whatever your village could produce. The food trade was limited by restrictions on travel and preservation. Advances in these areas gradually changed what we ate by broadening what was available to us and reducing our reliance on local production. This had the general effect of giving us an ever-growing diversity of foods to eat, but often at a sacrifice of quality and personal relevance. California Cuisine attempts to pull together the best qualities of the past (freshness and quality) and the present (diversity) into a single cooking philosophy.
California is, by far, the leader in both production and status in the United States. California currently produces 90 percent of all American wine. Its near-perfect conditions for grapegrowing–lots of warm sun during the day followed by cool nights–has helped California prove itself to be a world-class region. With instantly recognizable appellations such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Mendocino, Monterey and Santa Barbara County, and the ability to grow everything from sauvignon blanc to viognier to pinot noir to sangiovese, California has almost become synonymous with American wine.
Franciscan missionaries planted the first vinifera vines in California in 1779. The first wines were made from the Mission grape, which dominated production for the next century. When the US annexed California in 1847, winegrowing spread rapidly through the state, with vineyards being established as far north as Amador County. But it wasn't until the 1970s that the big boom hit in California. In a span of about 30 years, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grape acreage has risen from 700 acres to more than 174,000 in 2001. When combining all other grape varieties, California was producing wine from about 290,000 acres of vines by 1991. As of 2002, that number has risen to around 450,000 acres in production and is still on the rise.
[VINIFERA - the European species of vitis; the vine most used for making wine, i.e., chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon.]
In the past 30 years California Cuisine has continued to adapt and evolve. Even the look of the kitchens has changed as more women and minorities have stepped into leadership roles at prominent restaurants. Today there is a movement towards a new California Cuisine that is even more diverse and dynamic than the original. Two major differences can be seen between traditional and modern California Cuisine. The first difference would be in cooking techniques. Although the ingredient list for traditional California Cuisine was very much international, the preparation methods were often limited to primarily French and Mediterranean influences. Modern California Cuisine chefs on the other hand are looking for influences from Asia, South America, Africa and other world cuisines.
In addition, over the last 30 years the idea of what is "local" has changed dramatically. Today, almost every corner of the world is accessible within 24 hrs. New California Cuisine adheres strongly to the need for fresh quality ingredients, but today they can get fresh fish from Hawaii, shrimp from Mexico, olives from Spain, truffles from Italy, lamb from New Zealand and spices from India. All of these ingredients can now be delivered to a restaurant from around the world in about the same time it used to take to deliver within any given state.
For the consumer, all of these changes mean more choices than ever before. Barring a natural disaster, the California wine industry should hit record production levels every year for years to come. This increased production means, ideally, a larger selection of wines to choose from at, hopefully, more affordable prices. In food, the key themes will be diversity and experimentation. This should make California a delicious place to visit or live for many years to come. So pour yourself a glass of Sonoma County Zinfandel, and enjoy your Chilean Sea Bass with Spanish olive tapenade, sautéed Central American tubors and French seasonal vegetables. Eat, Drink & Enjoy. Cheers.