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Is California Cuisine Boring?

Responding to a San Francisco chef's complaints

Harvey Steiman
Posted: January 2, 2006

San Francisco's reputation as a food mecca took a few shots on the chin recently. Daniel Patterson, a San Francisco-based chef for whom I have high regard, lambasted his Northern California colleagues in an opinion piece for The New York Times. He nailed them for being too timid, playing it safe with similar menus and cooking styles that lacked adventure.

Several other critics have picked up on this complaint and repeated it as gospel. One lamented a lack of ambition among San Francisco chefs. A letter writer to the San Francisco Chronicle's food section agreed, writing, "When I choose a restaurant to try, I seek out a place that has something I can't or won't do at home, and something that's creative and new." The letter writer found too many menus boring.

Patterson blames Chez Panisse and Alice Waters, the venerable Berkeley restaurant's founder. "We all love Chez Panisse," he wrote, "maybe too much. Chez Panisse, the progenitor of what we have come to call California cuisine, has become not just one voice but the only voice speaking out on the values and the mission of that cuisine, particularly in Northern California."

Patterson acknowledges that the food is uniformly delicious around San Francisco. He wishes that fewer menus would offer the same mixed greens with beets and goat cheese, or salmon served over some variation of flavored mashed potatoes, items that, I must admit, appear on many menus. They are, of course, tasty. People like them. Restaurants are in business to please people.

Besides, every cuisine has its signature dishes, and California cuisine is no exception. You can't open a menu in Alsace without finding choucroute garni. Few restaurants in Burgundy can resist escargots. You don't have to order them. Even the more conservative chefs in the Bay area usually offer two or three daily specials, which give them an outlet for something creative.

It's true that a majority of Northern California chefs resist innovative techniques such as sous-vide cooking, in which food steams in its own juices inside a plastic pouch, all the rage among the avant-garde these days.

Actually, I ran afoul of the bias that Patterson describes on that very point recently. Speaking on a panel organized by the San Francisco Professional Food Society, I expressed my admiration for chefs who took what had been a technique for making hospital food and re-thought it into something that produces wonderful results because it cooks the food without diluting it, intensifying its natural flavors. I practically got tsk-tsk-ed out of the building because, well, who knows what sort of carcinogens and pathogens might be getting into the food from the (surgical) plastic bags?

That said, the Bay area has more than its share of chefs who take risks. We can start with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, whose intricate style walks a culinary high-wire every night. Michael Mina did nothing less than reinvent the tasting menu by condensing several variations on the same theme onto one plate at his eponymous restaurant. Roland Passot at La Folie delights diners with quail and foie gras lollipops and Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys somehow makes prawns, prosciutto chips, melon and mint sauce seem like they belong together. These French chefs have distinct personal styles and they are not afraid to run with them.

Patterson cites Zuni Cafe, Delfina, Oliveto, Quince and A16 as examples of Chez Panisse style, so wrapped up in the quality of ingredients that they forget to be innovative. I guess I must be a Luddite. I love those places, precisely because they make food that looks like itself and tastes great. Can food this great be boring?

I was among those who admired Patterson's work at Elisabeth Daniel and Frisson, his most recent gigs. He pushed the envelope with creations like poached halibut in a kaffir lime and coconut consommé. He jazzed up a freakily intense carrot broth with cilantro, and paid tribute to the most avant of avant-garde chefs, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, by serving the Spanish chef's combination of caviar on poached bone marrow. Patterson's new restaurant is scheduled to open in January.

Just for ducks, I sat down and compiled a list of highly admired Bay-area chefs who resist what Patterson sees as the tyranny of Chez Panisse and its simple plates. It's a long list.

Ron Siegel at the Ritz-Carlton weaves out-there Japanese ideas and ingredients into his cuisine. The food at Richard Reddington's new Redd in Yountville takes us in refreshing new directions. Hiro Sone, who made his name at Terra in St. Helena, expands his Japanese, Italian and French horizons further at Ame in San Francisco. Eric Wong at Bacar, Sean O'Brien at Myth, Douglas Keane at Cyrus in Healdsburg and David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos all take delight in showing you a new way to look at food, borrowing freely from various cuisines and putting their own stamp on the food they serve. A visiting gourmet could keep busy for weeks visiting their dining rooms, and I can list dozens of others where I guarantee there won't be much overlap from one menu to the next.

Patterson may wish that more restaurants would take chances. I prefer to see the glass half full. There are plenty of innovative chefs in the Bay area, and they rest on a solid foundation of those who prefer more familiar food. The Bay area is big enough, and good enough, to have it both ways.

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