I happened to be in all the right places in the development of the modern food palate. I knew nearly all the people involved. It bothers me to see the history of modern cuisine written, incorrectly.
Hippies started the revolution that led to modern cuisine. They started it with the communes they were living in that needed to be supplied with food. In the first communes that I saw in San Francisco, in the mid-1960’s; members were looking for reduced food prices. Unlike other institutions looking for lower prices in food, the hippies had a few prejudices. They didn’t want to buy from large commercial businesses (even if they could have) and they weren’t trying to impress the people they were feeding with packaging glitz.
The consequence was that hippie commune food shoppers went to wholesale markets and directly to farmers. This is first visible in hippie food stores where all the produce was sold from open bins and boxes. A style that remains to this day. The food was also often ‘imperfect’ and occasionally still had dirt on it. I saw it. I was a business consultant to some of these hippy food stores and I saw how busy they were.
The first one that was well managed was Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, run by a religious collective at the time. It moved twice to bigger quarters and is still thriving.
Rainbow and similar hippy businesses throughout the country were a first step in increased local sourcing and farm to table food. As hippies began developing all the sources for this food, they also began commercial trucking of food from California to the rest of the country. Radically changing the diet of young Americans everywhere. Tomatoes and squash in January in Aspen Colorado.
At about the same time a fellow named Ed Brown, arrived on his motorcycle, at the bottom of a canyon near Carmel-Monterey. It was 1967, the new Zen retreat center of Tassajara was fully underway. Ed joined and was soon working in the kitchen. Zen meals were simple and never heavily seasoned. But the bread Ed was baking became known around the world. It became a motif of Tassajara and a few years later became a bakery coffee shop in San Francisco (on Cole and Parnassus) and a bread cook book.
I was at Tassajara often because the abbot, of the zen community, Dick Baker was a close friend of mine. Other than the great bread, it is hard to pinpoint the way Tassajara influenced the food movement. Nearly every important person of the period visited the resort. The food was always vegetarian, simple and delicious with a Japanese influence, imagination and brown rice.
Great bread became a staple of the Bay Area food scene and a dozen good breads flourished, commercially from the late 1970’s. They are still here and still good.
One of the key outgrowths of the hippy communes and open wooden box groceries was the cheese selection. Cheese was a key source of food experimentation that grew out of the hippie food explosion. Hippie cheese buyers bought and displayed a wide variety of cheese and many retail stores opened, focused solely on cheese.
One significant retailer and maybe the most important was the Cheeseboard on Shattuck Avenue Berkeley just across from what would become Chez Panisse and a block away from a coffee store long before its fame, Peet’s, the source of Starbucks coffee. The Cheeseboard had plenty of exciting cheeses and wonderful breads. A magnet retail store (and coop of workers) for the entire U.S.
The Cheeseboard was one corner of the axis of what was to become the 'Gourmet Ghetto'. The other end was the Buttercup Bakery on College Ave.
Buttercup Bakery (and later Pizzaria) started as a breakfast place. Nice decor with good food. By the early 1970’s it was famous for the high quality of its breads, other baked goods and the hippy food. That meant a wide range of garnishes, ground roasted sesame and the beginnings of organic non-bacon substitutes.
The hippy era also had the macrobiotics of Michio Kushi as part of it. Kushi emphasized grains, seaweed, miso soup and very careful selection of vegetables. It was one of dozens of exotic focuses on food by the hippy culture. All of which encouraged local, exotic and fresh foods. Of course local and exotic are antonyms.
This is a good place to point out that radical food exploration was part of the great earlier baby-boom post-civil war. By 1900 the Kastania Commune near Petaluma California had opened the People’s Bakery in Oakland.
The significant part of the 1960-85’s hippy food exploration is that many successful businesses grew out of it and the growth of commerce turned hippie exploration into a popular movement. Commerce was the key ingredient and hippies loved business (small business). The most famous business was Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. Bakeries abound as did grocery offshoots including Whole Foods.
A good example of commerce as the hippie promotional vehicle was Bill Shurtleff and his partner Akiko Aoyagi who wrote the book on tofu and traveled the hippie paths of the U.S. promoting the book and tofu in hundreds of hippie stores and restaurants.
Beer craft breweries must be considered part of the movement, an outgrowth of Fritz Maytag’s early 1960’s Acme Steam brewery in San Francisco.
Another notable was Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, run by the San Francisco Zen Center. (It was my idea, I organized it, starting at Buttercup Bakery). It was the first high end veggie food, still thriving. The first chef was Debbie Madison who was trained by Alice Waters.
I personally know or knew all these people and all the people involved as well as consulting with the businesses and many of the organic farms. Each of these innovations in food and many related to them were personal to me.
I have spent 45 years visiting Japan for months at a time, annually. That is the source of my food tastes. I had Parisian bread early in my life in the late 1950’s and never forgot it; either.
I watched American food improve steadily in San Francisco until 1994 when Thomas Keller opened at the French Laundry north of San Francisco in Yountville. I ate a Saturday lunch there which was an order of magnitude better than any American restaurant food. I ate there every 60 days (minimum time until the next reservations opened up) for the next six years.
In 2001 I went to eat in New York to compare the food. I chose the four favorite restaurants of Ruth Reichl who had just quit as the food critic of the NYTimes. Except for the Japanese, Nobu, none of the other three compared to the best of San Francisco. New York has long been over rated for food related issues. And New Yorkers like gravy on their food.
In 1994 I walked from the Chelsea district to the Metropolitan Museum and never found an espresso coffee shop. At the same time Au bon Pan was expanding from Harvard Square West and Starbucks was expanding East. They met in Washington D.C.
No discussion of modern cuisine would be complete without the mention of another man I met at Tassajara in 1995. I don’t remember his name and can’t find it in Google. He had just succeeded in finding a polymer film to package vegetables that could hold nitrogen gas for long periods. This is important because eight years later his polymer made it possible for Walmart to ship fresh Romaine lettuce from Salinas California to Ft. Lauderdale Florida for a fresh shelf delivery in February.
Fresh lettuce and other vegetables everywhere in America have been the third great revolution in cuisine in my lifetime. (Local organic, French Laundry, fresh veggies.)
I saw everyone of them first hand and up close.
I forgot to mention I regularly had an espresso from an Italian espresso machine in 1960 at a tiny Italian shop on the corner of Columbus, Kearny and Pacific Ave, San Francisco. along with most of the beatniks of the era. I got to know the woman who ran the shop 35 years later over dinner at Greens, the Zen Center restaurant. There was a brown rice monks bowl restaurant a few hundred feet away on Pacific.
Because the Beatniks, unlike the hippies, didn't embrace commerce they didn't have a comparable impact on American society.