Joyce Goldstein Looks Back on a Food Revolution
Joyce Goldstein is one of the godmothers of California cuisine, having influenced dozens of chefs at her iconic San Francisco restaurant, Square One. She spoke with us about being part of the Bay Area food culture.
On getting her start cooking in restaurants at Chez Panisse
I never thought to go into restaurants; at the time, I taught cooking classes. But Steve Sullivan, the baker at Chez Panisse, was going on a vacation, and they asked me to fill in. I made bread, pizza dough and pasta we rolled out by hand. After he came back, they asked me to stay on, and I became a cook in the café, which was run by a committee of three people who were not restaurant people, and so didn’t understand the volume and physicality of the work. As they dropped out, I picked up the job of running the café. I stayed for three years, but I wanted my own place. They were doing mostly Provençal food and a bit of Italian, and I wanted to focus on Mediterranean cooking. California is like a Mediterranean country.
On opening Square One
It was an extraordinary time. When most of us opened in the ’80s, I’d say 80 percent of us—farmers, cooks, ranchers, cheesemakers, winemakers—were self-taught. No one said you couldn’t do it because you hadn’t gone to school. Most of my cooks didn’t go to school, but they were passionate. We changed the menu every day. I didn’t realize that was insane, but changing the entire menu daily was an incredible amount of work.
You have to realize that in 1984, most people didn’t know what Mediterranean food was, or what countries were included in it. We educated the diners. Now, everybody knows romesco and chermoula. But you have to understand how they’re used. Before you do a new cuisine, educate yourself and the diners. Otherwise, we do them a disservice.
On how the restaurant world has changed
In the ’80s, when you opened a restaurant, it was personal. The chefs were there, cooking, and had a rapport with staff and customers. I had people who worked with me for 10 years or more. We were recognizable to the customers, and there was a connection. Now, because of economics, people have to open multiple restaurants. You keep info on your regulars and what they like in a computer. It’s good, but it’s not as personal. There are so many new restaurants, and customer loyalty is not as strong. The business has gotten harder and harder to make it work.
On whether you can define “California cuisine”
No, you can’t—absolutely not. You can’t define it, but you can say it’s local, seasonal, and we know the people growing or raising the ingredients. We are fanatics about ingredients.
One of the things that California cuisine did in general was expand the idea of what makes a salad and an appetizer. That’s become the most interesting part of the menu. And there’s a strong sense of community here. People here share information on purveyors; it’s amazing. It’s an incredibly supportive community.
Joyce Goldstein was the chef/owner of San Francisco’s Square One from 1984-1996 and is the author of Inside the California Food Revolution, among several dozen other books.