If you were looking for a reason to feel a whole lot of pride in L.A.'s food scene, the KCRW UpClose event held Sunday at New Roads School's Moss Theater was the place to be. The panel discussion, moderated by ex-L.A. Times/New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, explored the topic: California Cuisine -- What It Is and Why It Matters. Panel members were chef, food writer and restaurant consultant Joyce Goldstein, who has just released a book about California cuisine, and L.A. chefs Nancy Silverton (Mozza), Sang Yoon (Father's Office, Lukshon), Roy Choi (Kogi, Chego) and Eduardo Ruiz (Corazon y Miel). The event was hosted by KCRW's Good Food host Evan Kleiman.
Much of the discussion centered around that term -- California cuisine. What is it? How has it changed? The stage was divided down the center, with the original generation of California food people (all female) sitting on the left of the stage, and the newer generation (all male) sitting on the right. And through the program it became clear that while the early food revolution that took place in California was a political movement, the phase we're in now is a cultural movement. We're still enjoying the benefits of the local, fresh food ethos that was the cutting edge of the California restaurant scene in the early '80s, but the new generation of L.A. chefs can take that gift and also focus on a different kind of bounty -- the vast and varied ethnic diversity of Los Angeles.
Early on in the program, Reichl declared that "L.A. is the most important place in America to eat right now," and much of the discussion thereafter centered around why that's the case. As Sang Yoon observed, "If Ruth says it, it must be true."
So why is L.A. having its moment right now? Here are the three big takeaways:
Produce: It may seem like a no-brainer, but produce was not always Los Angeles' strong suit. Reichl talked about how at Michael's, one of the first restaurants to be dubbed a purveyor of California Cuisine, part of the appeal was that the restaurant flew in delicacies like "raspberries in December, from Australia or New Zealand."
But now, according to Yoon, "Our worst day at the farmer's market is better than anything you'll find at New York's green market on their best day." He went on, "So you're inspired to make salad. In the rest of the country you're forced to have to manipulate the food more, because the ingredients suck." (Always the diplomat, that Sang Yoon.)
Audience: This is the answer Reichl provided for why L.A. is so important right now -- the youth and curiosity of the diners in this town. We are more diverse, and less attached to tradition.
"L.A. has a different perspective from the rest of the country," Choi said, "and the main difference is that it's not a European perspective."
Reichl added that "the rest of the country looked to Europe, but California looked east and south," to Asia and Mexico.
Yoon spoke about how our culture breeds interesting innovations and acceptance of change. For instance, "we live in our cars, so why shouldn't our food be served out of one?"
"Because we chill like that:" This was part of Choi's answer about why his story couldn't have happened anywhere but in L.A. He spoke about how the laws take some time to catch up here, about how street food has thrived, and how "we aren't chained to any history or past."
But Reichl, Silverton and Goldsein added some historical perspective, pointing out that California was the birthplace -- 30 years ago -- of a lot of the casual trends that have swept the country only recently. The first open kitchens were in California, and as Reichl said, "Wolf[gang Puck] and Barbara [Lazaroff, Puck's then-wife and business partner] really redefined what a restaurant could look like with Spago. They proved that rich people would want to come and spend their money somewhere a little raucous."
All this adds up to a city that's finally taking its place in the limelight. "L.A. is finally getting its due as a food city," Yoon said. "People finally come here to eat, not NOT eat. We've stopped trying to chase New York, we've stopped trying to chase Michelin stars and embraced our casual sensibility ... you go to New York, and it used to be a stigma to be from L.A. Now I'm like, 'Fuck you, I'm from L.A.'"
See also: 15 Best Places to Drink in Los Angeles