This essay was originally published in the Breakthrough Journal. It is reprinted here, in edited and condensed form, with permission.
“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook, Coi. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it, before dusting it on a cylinder of grass-fed tenderloin and cooking it sous vide.
Patterson’s pal and contemporary, René Redzepi, also has a new cookbook out. Redzepi’s restaurant, Noma, was recently voted the world’s best by the London-based Restaurant magazine. Redzepi shot to fame by running a fine restaurant using only local ingredients in a place everyone assumed was devoid of interesting local flavors: Copenhagen. Redzepi’s recipes are just as exotic, oceanic, deep woods-y, and uncookable as those offered by Daniel Patterson. Think “dessert of carrot and sea buckthorn” and “silken fresh cheese and crispy beech leaves.” And as with Patterson’s, if you hope to cook from Redzepi’s book, make sure to plan ahead: The latter recipe requires you to pickle beech leaves in a vacuum pack with apple balsamic vinegar for at least a month.
The food portrayed in these books takes the locavore ethic far beyond the garden-variety farm-to-table ethos that has become commonplace in recent years, pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by the creators of the then-revolutionary California cuisine. A meal cooked from the recipes in these cookbooks, or served up at Noma or Coi, tastes deeply wild. Ingredients are dragged straight from the forest or high-tide line to the kitchen, where their wild essences are amplified—think earth, tree, and smoked hay flavors, live shrimp and ants. But though fundamentally new in its aggressive wildness, Patterson and Redzepi’s cuisine is nonetheless a reflection of, and a response to, the underlying culinary milieu in which their tastes and creative impulses have been forged and refined.
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In 1965, at the age of 19, culinary legend Alice Waters went to France and had a gastronomic epiphany. Once, she ordered trout à la meunière and was treated to the sight of the fish hoisted on the chef’s rod, gasping for breath, before it was cleaned, prepared, and served to her. “I think I just absorbed that love of fresh ingredients through osmosis,” she told an interviewer. “When I came back to California, I wanted those same foodstuffs here.”
Waters came home to Berkeley and opened Chez Panisse, where, together with Jeremiah Tower, she invented California cuisine. Over the years, dishes at Chez Panisse became increasingly simple, showcasing high-quality ingredients with as little mediation as possible. Waters’ “Zucchini Ribbons With Lemon and Basil,” for instance, consists of cleaning and slicing a raw zucchini and sprinkling it with salt, pepper, basil, lemon juice, and olive oil.
By focusing on the local, Chez Panisse sought to establish itself outside of, and as a challenge to, the industrial food system. Sensitive to the charge that hers was a cuisine for the rich, Waters launched programs to bring organic gardens to schools serving underprivileged youth. More recently, she and Michael Pollan have led efforts to cut federal subsidies to conventional agriculture and to increase public support for organics and farmers markets.
By the 1990s, fresh, local, and organic had moved out of hyperelite circles into the wider world of upscale dining, and even into chain restaurants. Every food prognosticator, from industry consultant Technomic to NPR, is predicting that “local” and “authentic” will be key values in every dining demographic this year. Fast-food chains are jumping on the local and sustainable bandwagons, and sales are soaring at early adopters such as Chipotle. (Not that Waters would approve. In 2010 she criticized In-N-Out Burger, even though it relies on fresh and local ingredients. “It’s probably better than any other chain,” she said to the Los Angeles Times, “but it’s not real or authentic. I’d rather eat from a street vendor in Sicily.”)
Today, it is Waters’ world: We all just cook in it. So successful was her recipe for authentic food that the values she braided together into Chez Panisse’s winning formula—fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable, traditional, and simple—now seem inseparable.
It is difficult not to see the high-tech, highly processed food offered by Patterson and Redzepi as at least in part a reaction against the new culinary mainstream that Waters has created. Not long before he opened Coi, in 2005, Patterson suggested as much in the New York Times:
Alice Waters … has become to us what Beatrice was to Dante: a model of righteousness and purity, reminding us of our past sins while offering encouragement and inspiration on the path to heaven. The only path to heaven. So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark.
Patterson and Redzepi use tools and techniques that are unavailable to the home cook, including Pacojets, which blend frozen things; Thermomixes, which heat and puree simultaneously; commercial-grade food dehydrators; and dry ice. Their claim, embodied in their dishes, is that these nontraditional, advanced technologies can take us closer to the essential experience of an ingredient.
Where Waters’ cooking conjures French and Italian pastoral cuisine, the food prepared by her younger counterparts aims to replicate the pasture, or wild nature, itself. A Redzepi dish uses milk skin, grass, flowers, and herbs. “The garnish came from the field, where the cow that had supplied the milk had walked, grazed and defecated,” he writes in Noma. “The plate itself was a small closed ecosystem.” Similarly, Patterson cooks local matsutake mushrooms with pine needles because the mushrooms grow and are collected in pine forests.
While Waters seeks to return cuisine to its rustic roots, Redzepi and Patterson have no room for even the most modern interpretations of traditional food preparations like pasta puttanesca, beef bourguignon, or steak and eggs. Rather, the new generation revels in being rootless. “We’d made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands,” Redzepi writes triumphantly of his dehydrated scallop chips on boiled grains with winter cress, squid ink, and beechnuts.