California Cuisine. What exactly does that mean? We’ve all heard the term, but can you define it? Ask 20 chefs and you’ll almost certainly get 20 different answers. What makes one dish a French preparation, while another is French-Californian? Is it as simple as eating food that is grown or raised in California? Well, not quite. But that’s not terribly far off. Before you start thinking of California Pizza Kitchen as the incarnation of this style of dining, let me point you in the right direction.
You may be eating at a restaurant that serves California Cuisine if:
- You ask the Chef how they classify their food and they say something like, “You can’t really put it into one box. It draws from so many types of cuisine.” In terms of technique, there is not 1 culinary tradition in which California-style cooking is based. Much like the state itself, this type of cuisine is a melting pot, using multi-cultural techniques to combine seemingly disparate ingredients, creating a harmony of flavor and texture in the process. Call it fusion, call it Mediterranean, call it New American, call it whatever you want, but it falls under the scope of “Californian.”
- As you’re reading the menu, you notice the names of local farms listed next to many of the ingredients. Those wild mushrooms you’re eating? They came from 40 miles down the road. They’re local. They’re fresh. They’re seasonal. They’re California.
- You go back to a restaurant after a few months and the menu has almost totally changed. Or, even better, you go to a restaurant the next night and the menu has changed. What makes this indicative of California Cuisine? Similar to the situation above, it means that the kitchen is using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Don’t expect to see corn in the winter and an abundance of root vegetables in the summer; the menu is market-driven and often times created on a daily or weekly basis.
- Flavors and ingredients are paired in ways that simply don’t seem like they belong together. If you look at a menu and think, “I would never have put those ingredients together, but it works,” there’s a good chance you’re diving into the world of California Cuisine. Mango Salsa? May sound like a relatively normal option nowadays, but this dish is taking something classically Spanish and turning it into something unique through the use of a local, seasonal fruit. This idea, of taking something traditional and updating it using regional ingredients is at the heart of this style of cooking.
I know what you’re thinking. Defining California Cuisine by listing many situational statements doesn’t exactly package it up in one nice, neat, easily digestible definition. But, like this style of cooking, the definition is nebulous, evolving, and can take on different meanings for different people. For me? I know it when I see it, and when I see it, I’ll let you know.
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