Left: Mary Sue Milliken (left) and Susan Feniger (right) | Right (clockwise from top left): Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Ken Frank, Michael McCarty
We're going back in time, to the 1970’s and the beginning of the American restaurant revolution. It was a time when young, talented chefs started opening restaurants that didn’t feel bound to tradition. It was when cooking first became cool, and writer Andrew Friedman says the energy at that time was palpable. Friedman runs a website about chefs called Toqueland and wrote the book Chefs, Drugs, and Rock n Roll, which documents this special era in American culinary history. Contributor Russ Parsons talked to Friedman about it. You can read an excerpt from the book titled "He Offered Me a Job as a Hatcheck Girl and I Cried."
Russ Parsons: In the book Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, you focus primarily on the restaurant scenes in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Each of those share some similarities, but each is also very different. What were the similarities and differences that you found?
Andrew Friedman: Being focused on the chefs more than anything, I think it's very easy to identify what we might call the archetypical New York, Bay Area and Los Angeles chefs of the time.
In the Bay Area, food or the pursuit of food was largely something that grew out of the politics of that region; it grew out of the free speech movement. The number of people who had either graduated from UC Berkeley or dropped out of UC Berkeley, had marched for free speech, had marched against the war, and naturally migrated from other pursuits into wanting to cook, it makes up a disproportionate number of the early professional cooks in that area.
In Los Angeles, I think it was by far the people who were the most creative, who were the least tethered to traditional food – traditional French food for the most part – and the people who were doing the most exciting, groundbreaking food. The restaurants were the most radically different in their design and tone. I don’t think it’s untrue to say that this notion of restaurants as entertainment is because of the proximity to and the involvement of Hollywood, both in the seats in the dining room and eventually some of those people became investors in the restaurants.
And then in New York, I think there were two populations. I think there was this largely blue collar, agricultural class of young cooks. These were the people who went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and wanted to master French cuisine. They were less concerned, at least early in their career, with the idea of creating a personal repertoire and were more concerned with pleasing their French masters, to be honest. A lot of them eventually became more creative. Then there was this very small subset of chefs in New York who I think were very similar to the Los Angeles chefs of the time. I refer to them as The Five Couples. Barry Wine and Susan Wine, who had The Quilted Giraffe, would be a very prominent example. David and Karen Waltuck who had Chanterelle would be another prominent example. These were people very much influenced by nouvelle cuisine, who were doing much more expressive, personalized, creative cooking.
That's how I break up those cities, broadly speaking.
Andrew Friedman Photo: Evan Sung
RP: Who were some of the key players that paved your way in telling this story?
AF: The most useful interviews for me were people who got around. This was a time that’s very hard for people to understand today, with all the tools we have literally in all of our pockets like Instagram and Twitter, and even the ability to go on websites and look at slideshows for restaurants anywhere in the world. Most people, at least in the first half of the story I tell, were very much bound to their area. They didn't travel much and/or didn't have the money to travel much. A lot of them weren't aware there was this kind of thing happening in other cities around the country. So, people who did get around were the most useful to me.
For example, the first interview I did for this book was Jonathan Waxman, who today is still a very prominent guy. He has Barbuto in New York City and other restaurants around the country and in Canada to which he is mostly a consulting chef. Jonathan had cooked early in his career at Chez Panisse. He then migrated down to Los Angeles and cooked at Michael's in Santa Monica, which is a hugely important restaurant. He then came to New York and opened what many consider – I don't love this term myself –the first California cuisine restaurant in New York. So, he lived and worked in all three of those hubs, and I think he was in each of them at the time they were each popping and becoming what we now look at historically as the cities that they were at the time.
Along the same lines, Michael McCarty, the owner of Michael's Santa Monica and later Michael's New York. He came from the East Coast, moved to Los Angeles, and was very much on the move in those days, traveling around the country to see what was happening in American food and wine. He was very much a connector. In 1983, he put on a very important event that happened at Stanford Court Hotel, one of the first collaborative chef dinners of its kind. Michael, again, was able to speak from a bird's eye view of what was happening around the country.
And then, on the East Coast, or starting from the east coast, someone like Drew Nieporent, the restaurateur who, again, was very well-traveled, who had an insatiable appetite for information. And still does today; he's still out just about every night of the week at whatever event or opening is going on. These people were all able to contextualize what was happening, not just around the country in food and in the restaurants, but by being fairly sophisticated people, generally speaking, they could put a lot of this stuff into a historical context for me – which was invaluable.
RP: What role did privilege play in the great American culinary boom?
AF: For those who did come from a privileged background, or a relatively privileged background, there were a couple of things. It’s easy to romanticize it now, although then I think it's just the way it was. There's a chef by the name of Stephanie Lyness; she's now mostly a writer, but she cooked in New York for Jonathan Waxman at Jams and I think some of his other restaurants. In our interview, I remember very distinctly sitting with her and she said to me, “Has anyone brought up with you yet the notion of people taking time to find themselves?” And she hit those two words – find themselves – with a lot of emphasis. There was this notion in the 1970s that you would take time to find yourself, to knock around, to go backpacking around Europe, to just dabble in a lot of different jobs, to take the luxury of time. It’s something that I don't think we necessarily think of today; everyone today seems to be in a mad dash for the finish line of their career. I have young children who are already being guided by a lot of advice columnists and bloggers and what-not to figure out what they want to do really early, and where they want to go to college, and to be consumed by their GPA. This is not the way the world was. So, that was one thing.
The other thing, if we're being honest, is something that has been talked about a lot recently. It's less so now because of labor laws and regulations, but a lot of early jobs in kitchens are jobs that you literally don't get paid for or get paid next to nothing to do. So, a rite of passage for a lot of people of this era, especially those from Chicago east to New York and Boston, was to go overseas or to come to New York to work what was called a stage – an unpaid term in a kitchen – and the notion was that you got paid in knowledge. Well, not everybody can work for free. You do need to eat! So, I think that's something that's very overlooked. It’s one of the things, in some respects, that accounts for the preponderance of Caucasians in the story. I think you had to have been able to indulge yourself in that way. Although I'm oversimplifying slightly. I alluded a moment ago to those blue collar and agricultural kids who populated the Culinary Institute and the French kitchens of New York in the early 1980s. Those people were basically poor. Charlie Palmer, who today has an empire of restaurants and hotels, has freely said that he was a poor kid from Smyrna, New York, who fell in love with cooking in a home economics class. So, there is that group who were willing to work for almost nothing and were used to living on almost nothing; they were really scrappy and made it work.
RP: The whole notion of celebrity chefs has been controversial almost from the beginning. I found a clipping by Ruth Reichl from 1989, and she wrote a story headlined, “Goodbye to the Celebrity Chef.” She wrote that the dinner party is over, and the season of the celebrity chef is coming to an end. It was a phenomenon of the 1980s. The era of adulation is over. Almost 30 years later, why does the notion of rock star chef remain so attractive to us?
AF: I do have to say that I brought that piece up with Ruth and she was very up front about saying, “How wrong was I?” It is funny to hear that now because things were just getting warmed up.
First of all, for the chefs, the idea of fame is a commodity. We’re in a time when the public is more fickle than they ever have been; they take what restaurants have to give and then discard them as soon as the next crop comes along the next season, and maybe never go back. I think it's almost irresponsible these days for a chef who's capable of being famous to not be, because it will extend the life of your restaurant and may very well literally extend your career.
In terms of the public, we lost Tony Bourdain this spring. This is a world that he first shined a light on, one with these very distinct characters that run the gamut. Earlier, I was talking about that group that did a dinner at San Francisco years ago that Michael McCarty put together; I've always privately referred to that group as The Avengers of Cooking because the personalities were so diverse. I think people are still very drawn to that. I also think there's an element of why we're drawn to athletes or why we're drawn to singers. There's this element of you see a chef do what they can do with a knife or create what they can create on a plate, and to most of us, there's something almost superhuman and unattainable about that. It remains fascinating to people.
Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll
by Andrew Friedman
RP: Of course, given the title of the book Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, we have to address the elephant in the room these days, and that is that all of the recent revelations about bad behavior in professional kitchens. Why do you think this has been so prevalent, and how much does the whole ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ attitude have to do with it?
AF: I'm of a dissenting or minority viewpoint on this whole topic. That title, which seemed so damn clever at the time and now it seems like an albatross, is based on the phrase ‘sex and drugs and rock & roll,’ and that is not a reference to harassment or abuse. One of the terms that comes around in this era that I wrote about was free love – it was the sexual revolution – and that was my reference point. I think a lot of people have connected the swagger of the rock star chef to these stories that are coming out now. I don't necessarily think these things are unique to the kitchen. To me, it's a Rubicon to cross between being a supremely confident, swaggery, maybe arrogant chef, versus forcing yourself on somebody or treating somebody in a horrible way. It’s the combination of alcohol or drugs – let's call it substance – and power – which sometimes comes with fame, but sometimes it just comes with being the boss – that is responsible for a lot of these stories we're hearing, not just around the restaurant business but in all industries. Maybe I'm naive, but I do not directly link somebody being one of these chefs who was all of a sudden getting famous automatically with the rest of it. A lot of these people are good people, a lot of them are some of the most generous people you will ever meet, some of them are on the right side of this issue today. I think it's a very complicated topic that should almost be looked at on a case by case basis.
RP: Earlier you talked about differences among the three main culinary hubs in the early days of American culinary revolution. Do you find the same range of difference now or are things becoming more similar than they were before?
AF: No. I think it's the exact opposite today. I think the idea that, back in the day, you needed to travel somewhere to experience a restaurant. I can't tell you how many people said to me that they got on a plane after hearing about Jams in New York city, where Jonathan Waxman was; or they heard about Stars in San Francisco; or they had heard about what Alice Waters was doing up at Chez Panisse; or what Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were doing at City Restaurant, and later Border Grill in Los Angeles. They said they didn't know what they were going to experience until they walked in the door, and it was almost – in a good way – like a bucket of cold water as they took it all in: the design, the service, the vibe, the food, everything about it.
Today is just a different time. I don't like to sound cantankerous about this because I'm not. I know it's the nature of things to change. You can go on a website like Eater or Grub Street and other sites, you can see a slideshow of restaurants, you can see a menu, you can see a chef demo their signature dish, you can almost feel like you've been to the restaurant without leaving your desk in whatever city you happen to be in. And that's not just true of the three main hubs of the book; that's true around the country and that is now true globally.
A chef in Los Angeles can take a phone out of their pocket and see a new dish that just went up on the pass in Copenhagen and maybe decide to imitate it. And that – like I say, it's the way it is – but I think that is responsible for a lot of what I think of as the sameness in food that we're seeing around the world. I also think it's why the young chefs today who are mining their own heritage, or the heritage of others in some cases – like people who are exploring Korean food, such as Hooni Kim in New York City is, for example – it’s almost like a battle for the soul of the plate. I think these restaurants that are coming from a personal place, the way they did in this time I write about in the book, are in direct opposition to the people who are – whether or not they realize they're doing it – just ticking off the boxes of what's current.
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Russ Parsons was the food editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years. He is the author of the cookbooks How to Read a French Fry and How to Pick a Peach. He is a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, and has won awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Association of Food Journalists and the James Beard Foundation.