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California Cookbook: Northern California chefs weigh in on Golden State foodie culture

By Laurie Haynes 06/13/2018

Always iconic while constantly evolving, Golden State cuisine embodies the spirit of discovery and an unrivaled agricultural foundation.

Within this limitless bounty, destination-defining chefs who share a passion for fresh ingredients, originality and diverse inspiration are playing a foundational role in making California a global food destination.

“California-style” cuisine is not limited to specific cooking techniques or methods but instead defined by shared values among chefs and served up in an endless array of sights, flavors and dishes.

Chef Tu David Phu of Oakland has worked in some of the nation’s top Michelin-starred restaurants, including Chez Panisse, Quince, Acquerello, Daniel Boulud, Breslin, Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern. He was a contestant on season 15 of Bravo’s "Top Chef" and named one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2017 "Rising Star Chefs."

Phu’s inspiration for Vietnamese-California cooking stems from his mother, an immigrant from the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc, also famous as the birthplace of Asian fish sauce. He thoughtfully attributes the diversity of only-in-California cuisine to the array of people and cultures who have shaped it over several decades.

“The thing that makes California so beautiful is in its neighborhoods and in its people," Phu says. "You go to any neighborhood in California, like in San Francisco, Oakland and all the way down to L.A., it’s multiethnic, it’s immigrant-based.”

Phu shares stories of how his mother nourished his family with dishes from her homeland. Out of necessity, she incorporated the ingredients that were available in California into her traditional meals, representing the foundation of the unique intercultural experiences that foodies expect and crave in Golden State cuisine today.

“[That’s how] this second generation of Vietnamese cuisine is born," Phu says. "I think out of necessity from this multiethnic culture, these beautiful things come about."

To truly appreciate the diversity and originality for which California food is known today, it is important to remember the influences and immigrants who began shaping the state's culinary identity decades ago.

Chef, food historian and author Andrea Lawson Gray shares the story of her journey through the culinary world over the past 15 years. Her experiences in combining fresh, sustainable California ingredients with the traditional cooking styles and tools from Mexico have shaped her vision of "Californio" cuisine.

“Californio food is trending: Farmers markets are filled with avocados, squash blossoms, prickly pear fruit, cactus paddles, chayote, epazote and verdolaga (purslane),” Gray says. “Mexican ingredients that were hard to find a decade ago are finding their way into America’s kitchens in new and surprising ways.”

Gray uses traditional Mexican cooking styles and tools with fresh and local farm-to-table ingredients to create unforgettable dishes with true Californio spirit, because part of what makes the Golden State a renowned foodie destination is the embrace of the freedom and originality in intercultural cooking.

“Although I offer Modern American, French, Italian, Mediterranean and several other Latin cuisines that are not related to Mexico, more than 75 percent of the dinner menus requested by my clients are for Californio fare,” Gray says.

Outside of major cities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, farmers are the ultimate source for the ingredients that constitute the backbone of Golden State cuisine.

Dane Blom, executive chef at The Grange restaurant in The Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, formerly worked in the Michelin-starred restaurant Terra in Napa Valley and studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York before returning to the Sacramento area.

Blom spent his childhood in Loomis, where his family had access to a local farm and picked up the most fresh and local tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions every summer. According to Blom, having access to the best local ingredients sets California apart from any other food destinations.

“A lot of the great restaurants in Sacramento are not doing a lot to these ingredients, and that’s kind of what makes us unique," Blom says. "They’re trying to get [ingredients] on the plate as simply as possible to showcase what we do – and what we grow."

With California cuisine becoming chef- and ingredient-centric, Blom has fostered relationships with local farmers throughout the years who have continued to work with him as suppliers across numerous restaurants.

According to Blom, these relationships enable California fare to remain hyper-seasonal: A pepper that may be available one week could be replaced by a completely different – and equally delicious – component to a dish, keeping the culinary experience unpredictable and always original.

The Golden State’s food offerings are as diverse as its experiences, climates and landscapes for which the state is known. Chefs and cooks with an obsession for the freshest, local ingredients – and appreciation for the state’s multicultural influences – fuel the distinctive motifs of originality and diversity brought to life in California’s culinary culture.



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