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[Insert State] Cuisine

July 9, 2013

Growing up in Miami we had something called Floribbean Cuisine. Just like it sounds, it was Florida meets the Caribbean. So there were tropical fruits, plenty of citrus, and fish that could be found within our surrounding waters. For the most part it was light and went well with the heat and humidity of south Florida.

Granted, it’s probably less famous than California Cuisine. Living in Berkeley and working in San Francisco, I was exposed to this style of cooking at restaurants and from chefs that claimed to start the movement, and even more at places run by their disciples. Chez Panisse would seem to have the best PR department. And there is some debate whether the credit should go to Alice Waters or Jeremiah Tower.

For the record, I’m in Chef Tower’s camp. But there were many chefs in California who were working with similar ideals. Take Bradley Ogden, for example, who is quoted as saying, “Keep it simple; use the freshest ingredients available and put them together in such a way that the flavors, colors, and textures combine to bring out the best in each other.”

In some ways, California Cuisine has gotten wrapped up in New American Cuisine. And really, I’m not interested in parsing the differences. There are just a few things that I want to get straight.

Yes, there are some elements of California Cuisine that can be copied. But you can’t really have California Cuisine outside of California. It kind of defeats the purpose. Yes, you could fly in fresh figs and persimmons. You could have boutique biodynamic date growers send you a couple of pounds of their heirloom varietals via FedEx. And many of California’s cheeses are already widely available around the country.

But all of this would really defeat the point of the movement.

Thankfully, people aren’t really doing this. Instead, they are incorporating the ethos into New American Cuisine. However, this isn’t really a very satisfying option for me either.

Really, I want to see New York Cuisine.

One thing that California Cuisine has going for it is its connection with French, Italian and Mediterranean cooking. These give the food a strong starting place. And it makes sense since California shares a Mediterranean climate. From there the food can take on influences of the local culture, with flavors ranging from Asian to Mexican.

Here’s the thing. It’s not like there were a bunch of French or Italian people in California. Alice Waters was simply in love with French food, and that served as her muse, and informed the path of Chef Tower.

So one could imagine an equally passionate restaurateur grabbing onto a classic European cuisine as a starting place for New York Cuisine. Given our shared climates, I would think Germany would be a suitable pick. And before you start sniffing at German food, you should check out some of the dispatches DocSconz put together while eating his way through the country. His posts are stunning.

Or maybe there is another way that makes sense for the ingredients of New York to come together into a cohesive cuisine that’s more than just delicious tavern fare. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I love our taverns. And maybe that’s the answer: local, seasonal and sustainable tavern food. Kind of like a gastropub but with a greater focus on hot sauce?

It’s even possible a place like this already exists in the Finger Lakes. Then it’s bad on me for not doing a better job finding it. But I tell you, if someone can get this off the ground, you won’t be able to get me to shut up about it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2013 11:15 am

    I think the consensus over the years has generally been that the moniker “California Cuisine” simply denotes a way of cooking with local ingredients that is simple, non-pretentious, and reliant upon allowing diners to simply savor the flavors of those ingredients instead of transforming them through what might be considered excessive technique. That is – eat a tomato in summer; have a few asparagus spears at the right time. I believe the famous story runs that Alice Waters served a simple, perfect peach to President Clinton upon his arrival in Northern California.

    What Jeremiah Tower did was a bit different. I had dinner at Stars a few times quite a few years ago, and it was more of a fusion experience. (Yes, Alice Waters had a French fusion sensibility also – I believe she cooked her way through an Elizabeth David cookbook starting out – but she was more ingredient-focused.) Tower simply made sense for The City at the time, just as Cecilia Chiang did for a new form of Chinese cuisine a few years earlier. He elevated, I think, what Waters originated into a more stylized cooking style.

    I don’t know about some sort of elevated upstate/Capital Region cooking style. It seems to me that people here know what they like, and that’s fine. There are some great Hudson Valley restaurants, but they relate more to downstate trends than to anything happening up here. Isn’t part of the charm of living in this area that, as you’ve frequently pointed out, that there are some great specialties that don’t break the bank, like mini-dogs? And if you want a truly luxe experience, you take 2 1/2 hours out of your day or weekend, and drive down to NYC or over to Boston?

    Sometimes the pleasures are simple. My girlfriend and I stopped in Northampton yesterday, where I lived for a while, on the way back from Cape Cod. She couldn’t wait to go to the Friendly’s on King Street there. I could have taken here to numerous great restaurants, but that’s a tradition she missed when they shut all the locations around here. I think this area has a lot more to worry about, in that sense, than whether it’s going to be a major dining mecca anytime soon. It needs to build from within, and cherish its traditions, and build on them. And I think you were essentially saying much the same… just a slight quibble over details.

    • July 10, 2013 1:25 am

      More on some of this in the morning. But I wanted to clarify one point tonight. I too had a few chances to eat at Stars before the fall. However, when I was referring to chef Tower’s influence on California Cuisine, I intended to attribute that to his transformative influence on Chez Panisse during his time working with Alice Waters at the start of his culinary career.

  2. July 9, 2013 7:32 pm

    I always thought “California food” = “throw some avocado on it.”

    • July 10, 2013 1:06 am

      “California food” = “what you’ll be eating in some other region of the country in a few years.” But as for avocados… if they’re in season, they go wonderfully on just about anything, of course…. except possibly pizza. (I remember the abominations known as “Hawaiian pizzas” people occasionally ordered when I was a kid… pineapple just doesn’t belong on a baked crust! ;) )

  3. docsconz permalink
    July 10, 2013 10:06 pm

    It is quite interesting that unlike some parts of the country, upstate NY and inland New England have never really developed a strong culinary identity, unlike, say, coastal New England, California and parts of the South. I think that the reason for this is that other than maple syrup we lack unique food products and/or a strong ethnic identity. Coastal New England has its lobster, clams and cranberries amongst other products and the other areas have stronger associations with flavorful ethnic traditions as well as locally identifiable and unique traditional products (e.g. shrimp and grits). That is not to say that there isn’t good food in this area. Clearly there is, as you are quite good at discovering. As for the connection to Germany, I believe that they really are in a similar boat. There is truly wonderful food to be had there, but on the high end, at least, they are still searching for a national identity that differentiates their cooking from other European or even global cultures. BTW, thanks for the plug!

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