What’s Your Ultimate California Food Experience?

Plate Staff

My experience is eating fresh uni right out of the water. Before we opened Ironside, I had not given sea urchin much thought. I was finalizing our fisherman, and one of our fish guys mentioned he had a guy who went out every morning diving for urchins, and that he could get them to Ironside by 11 a.m. every day. So the next morning we went to the docks around 8 a.m. and met Gary Harle, who shucked uni right from the water, and it was life-changing. I had only pre-shucked uni in restaurants, but there’s no comparison to a live animal being shucked and eaten right there. — Jason McLeod, Ironside Fish & Oyster, San Diego

Bruce Kalman PHOTO: Marie Buck

I had the opportunity to visit the Central Coast in August for the tomato harvest. Tomato packing typically happens from July to September, depending on the crops. I got to tour the fields, ride the machine that harvests and sorts the tomatoes, and watch the process of canning tomatoes and see how they’re kept consistent naturally. At the time, this facility was packing 1.3 million cans of tomatoes. — Bruce Kalman, Union, Pasadena, Calif.

CJ Jacobson PHOTO: Anjali Pinto

A big moment was when I started foraging. I realized all of these plants I grew up skinning my knees on can be used in my cooking. A special experience was when I met and worked with forager Pascal Baudar in the Angeles National Forest in the southern part of California. He showed me what was edible and how to work with them. Recognizing these smells and textures that had been ingrained in me since I was young, and to now be using them in my everyday life as a chef is what true California cuisine is all about. — CJ Jacobson, Ēma, Chicago

Mourad Lahlou

While California has so many amazing restaurants, my quintessential experience was a lunch I had at Star Route Farms in Marin County. I met the farmer, Annabelle, and she invited me to her farm. The first time I visited, we planted a bunch of crops. I returned a couple of months later, and we harvested turnips, greens and herbs at their peak and slaughtered a sheep we prepared for our meal. That was very emotional for me. We also foraged in the hills, picked herbs, and I cooked for the whole farm crew. We sat down for lunch together as a family. To be able to have a hand in everything from start to finish, to be so close to the source, is truly unforgettable. — Mourad Lahlou, Aziza, San Francisco

Gayle Pirie PHOTO: Melissa Barnes Photography

In 2000, we were invited to cook with chef friends, wine makers and food writers at an open barn in Bolinas. The menu was a collaborative, sumptuous, family-style feast in early summer. One of the salads was wild purslane, goat cheese and edible flowers. Our dish was fried young zucchini with fresh mint, thyme, lemon zest and Reggiano. Other food was as beautiful as expected; it all came from the area—grilled lamb, fennel, strawberries, so much bounty right from the area.

That’s what the California experience is all about: people uniting to celebrate what’s naturally around us, and in great abundance, representing and honoring the time, place, of where you are, at that moment, taking stock and appreciating what’s been given. — Gayle Pirie, Foreign Cinema, San Francisco

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