Last Thursday we had the great pleasure of hosting California food luminary, Joyce Goldstein. The occasion was Nopa’s bi-monthly staff and purveyor lunch, Complete the Circle. These lunches are a long-standing tradition at Nopa. It’s our way of facilitating meaningful engagement between producers and staff in a way that our normal schedules will not permit.
Alongside Ms. Goldstein, our special guest of the day was Philip Paine, the enduring (almost 40 years) Sonoma County squab farmer. Their relationship is a special one, rooted in mutual admiration for the others dedicated ethic to doing food the best they can. In fact, it was a prerequisite for Joyce to attend, that we host Philip. He doesn’t get out much.
The family-style lunch was appropriately rustic, an intimate convening at the communal table. Two of the 16 seats held two California food pioneers, revolutionaries really. As Joyce – she of 26 cookbooks with the 27th on the way – says, “If you ever get squab from anywhere else you will see they’re not as juicy as Philip’s.” She would know – she’s been buying them for the last 30 years. Perhaps the speech she’d given us is one she’d given many times (she’s written a book on the topic), but her fluidity in recounting California’s “early days” of food was captivating. The early days of California, of course, is in reference to California’s food revolution of the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Going “back to the land” was a popular theme of the day, exemplified by many of the food and farmer trailblazers of the era. Joyce deemed the common thread among them all was that they were self-taught. Her contemporaries, Bill Niman, Warren Weber (farmers) and Judy Rogers, Jeremiah Towers and Alice Waters (chefs) are all self-taught. They all learned by doing and Bay Area residents were willing – and lucky – guinea pigs.
From 1980 to 1984, Joyce Goldstein was the Chef de Cuisine at Chez Panisse. After itching to further explore Mediterranean cuisine, (“I was taken for a walk by Alice’s father anytime I’d stray from the path of Provence or Italy”), at age 50, Joyce opened Square One Restaurant in 1984. It was there she brought diners on her exploratory international food voyages. When she talks about those days, she speaks of her diners as one would of travel companions, “I’d usually take them around the Mediterranean, Morocco, sometimes to Brazil with feijoada. We were the first to offer chermoula, we were the first (non-Spanish restaurant) to serve romesco. Our mezze plates changed everyday and we were doing tapas and regional Italian antipasti with 8-10 choices.”
The self-taught sentiment seems to have come full circle since this generation. “School can’t give you a palate or passion,” Joyce says. After the 90’s saw an explosion in “classically trained” chefs, increasingly a new generation, emboldened by well-chronicled tales of mountainous school debt with uneven results upon graduation, is beginning to adopt Joyce’s way of thinking. The aforementioned classically trained chefs have also evolved, willingly and necesarily loading their kitchens with enthusiastic or practiced talent, rather than merely educated talent.
While some of the philosophies of the era have gone circularly, supporting local food, especially in California, has gone nowhere. In fact it’s spread worldwide. Now 80 years old, Joyce Goldstein, a preserving fanatic, is herself well preserved. Without missing a beat in between her storytelling, she jokes, “By working I preserve myself. Otherwise, I’d shrivel up and fly away.”
Photo: Monica Semergiu