I’m often asked what style of food I cook at One Market. My stock answer, “Contemporary regional European,” is as hokey as it sounds. The truth is, I cook American food.
So why do I cringe when I write that?
Sadly, “American” has many connotations that I don’t like to associate with my way of cooking. It’s a catch-all term, which at one time or another has implied a lack of culture, a lack of soul, a lack of focus especially. “American” doesn’t evoke romantic memories, like that summer on the French Riviera when I discovered the wonders of a true Bouillabaisse. It doesn’t begin to suggest the emotion I felt when gazing out over the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv, as I feasted on Israeli salads and braises. And it doesn’t conjure up the mastery of a precisely crafted meal of sashimi in Kyoto. No, American food implies hamburgers, hot dogs, and other ballpark snacks. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good burger, of course. It’s just not a pinnacle of culinary accomplishment.
I’ve spent a decent portion of my career abroad. I’ve been a cook in the U.K., in France, Israel, Italy, and Japan, but at no time during my travels did my American passport earn me any respect in the kitchen. I got no credit for having been brought up in a melting pot of a country. Being American was always another hurdle to overcome in proving myself to the team. Not until the “Yankee” hazing had slowed down was I ever regarded objectively. By contrast, expatriate chefs in the u.s. are the rulers of their own cuisines. I will not go to any sushi restaurant with a non-Japanese chef. I prefer Italians cooking my tagliatelle, Mexicans preparing my mole, and Punjabis griddling my paratha. Somehow the food seems more legit. I can taste it. It is, as they say, in the blood.
So what am I doing serving coq au vinin my restaurant?
I hardly have it in my blood. My grandmother, a Lithuanian Jew, taught me a lot, but she never showed me how to make coq au vin. In fact, my parents raised me vegetarian for my first thirteen years (my brothers and I ate a lot of millet). Though I never had much exposure to French country fare, I’ve thought a lot about it. If I make coq au vin, there will be more than chicken on a plate. There will be buttered noodles, or creamed potatoes. I will put a bit of cocoa powder in the marinade. By the time it ends up on the plate, it will be a composed presentation with crisp bacon, lacquered chicken leg, and a sauté of local wild mushrooms. What you have is no longer the venerable dish of old France—this is something decidedly American. In fact, this Burgundian classic could easily show up on my menu as SLOW-BRAISED BELL AND EVANS FREE-RANGE CHICKEN WITH ORGANIC PEARL ONIONS, APPLEWOOD-SMOKED BACON, AND AN ETUDE PINOT NOIR REDUCTION.
One summer in Burgundy, I tasted a genuine coq au vin, prepared by the mother of my former pastry chef. I’m only sorry I wasn’t witness to its preparation—the dish was indeed beautiful, down to its very soul. The wine for simmering came from the few vines in back of her house. The sauce was enriched with a splash of homemade Cassis. As for the bird, its time was up. Here was French cuisine de terroir, saturated with culture and tradition. Practicality, too: Medieval Burgundians had to find a way to make the tough rooster edible. Add red wine—a local specialty—and the rooster would keep longer through marinating, and braising would tenderize the meat. Add bacon, another local preserve, and you’d have a dish. Coq au vin truly wasn’t something to be fussed over—just great big flavors resulting in a hearty, nourishing meal.
Yet I didn’t learn how to make the dish properly until I arrived in Tokyo, four years after my trip to France. I found work at a seventeen-seat French restaurant in Shinjuku. The owner was a middle-aged Frenchman who had fallen in love with a Japanese woman and decided to stay. He served food from his memory, from the time when, as a youth, he had cooked at home with his mother. He taught me how to prepare coq au vin, as well as some other menu staples. The rest of the menu was mine. I wanted to put a country pâté on the menu, so we worked together on it until the pâté struck the right chord in his memory. We served pig’s trotters, frog’s legs, crêpes, and a wonderful combination of chestnut puree with fromage blanc that his mother had prepared for him as a child.
Now, at One Market, the menus are all mine. I cannot recall memories I never had, nor can I pretend to serve bona fide European food. This is San Francisco, after all—it wouldn’t go over very well. So I take what I’ve learned and try to stay as true to the original region and culture as possible. If I’m serving a dish inspired by the cuisine of Normandy, it will undoubtedly offer some combination of butter, cream, shellfish, Calvados, or apples. If the dish is Provençal in concept, olive oil will replace butter or cream as the preferred fat. But by the time the food ends up on the plate, it will be thoroughly American.
I once met a California chef of Middle Eastern origin, who prided himself on his French cuisine. I asked whether he had traveled to France or learned from any French chefs. “No,” he replied, “Why should I? We’ve got everything they’ve got, and more.”
I do believe that in the u.s., we have more resources than anywhere else in the world. We have an enormous variety of products at our disposal. But what’s made America a great food country is the inhabitants: all of the grandmothers and cooks from around the world who have taught us how to eat; all who have demanded the same products they used back home; all who have brought their skill and their culture to our soil. God bless them.
What, then, is American food? Our copious resources have spawned many great (but many more poor) chefs, purveyors of an anonymous or forgotten culture. In California, we have local asparagus, corn, sake, olive oil, oysters, and wine. We grow bok choy, lotus root, and haricots verts. We enjoy fresh wasabi, yuzu, and local farmstead cheeses. It would be easy to get lost in the maze of food cultures represented here. An American restaurant needs focus. At One Market, I cook American food inspired by regional European techniques and combinations. In my kitchen you will not find soy sauce, sesame oil, or lemongrass. We do not use a tandoori oven for roasting. Nor do I sell hamachi, no matter how outstanding the quality. I do my best to keep the menu as focused as possible, lest the awful, generic term “continental” be revived and applied to California cuisine. While the food I cook is very different from authentic European cuisine, I try to respect the culture and traditions I am borrowing from, at the same time paying homage to the local farmers and artisanal purveyors who provide me with such superb ingredients.
At One Market, I cannot deny that I am an American chef. I am learning to be proud of it. That’s what I was hired to be, and now I realize that’s who I am.