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Inside California's Food Revolution with Joyce Goldstein

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Watch the California Matters episode on fair restaurant wages here.

In the world of cooking, Joyce Goldstein has seen it all. In addition to working as the chef of the groundbreaking Berkeley institution Chez Panisse before going on to open the well-regarded SQUARE ONE restaurant in San Francisco, she also founded the California Street Cooking School, was the recipient of the James Beard Award for Best Chef in 1993, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 from the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs group. And that's just the beginning of her accomplishments.

Her new book, "Inside the California Food Revolution," looks at how California has changed the restaurant world over the past thirty years. Concepts like fusion cooking, farm-to-table, foraged menus, open kitchens, and putting women in positions of kitchen leadership all began in our great state. So, what is it about California that has lead to such innovations in the restaurant world? To find out, I gave Goldstein a call.

Why has California been at the center of the most important food innovations over the past forty years?

Joyce Goldstein: There were many reasons. First of all, we had very adventurous chefs, farmers, and ranchers, mostly self-taught, who didn't have any rules to follow so they could be quite independent in their work. California seems very tolerant of innovation and experimentation, so there was support from the audience. I mean, we had incredible diners who were really open minded and wanted to try everything new. But the thing is, we had people here who had an idea, had a goal, and really went for it. And there was no old fashioned "old boy network" like they had back on the East Coast saying, "you can't do that."

Why wasn't the "old boy network" here?

Joyce: On the East Coast they always looked towards Europe, and there were a lot of restaurants run by European chefs. Northern California didn't have many of those places, so consequently we were able to have a lot of women chefs. Northern California at one point had over 50 women chefs, more than any place ever in the world. And they didn't have to work their way up from this old boy, militaristic system. Whereas in New York, at the same time we had 50 women, they had three. And in L.A., they only had three. It was a very pioneering time.

Is California still the leader for female chefs, or has the rest of the nation caught up?

Joyce: There are way more women chefs now in every city than there were before. I was hoping by now there would be even more women chefs in California, but the number has not increased. It's sort of held its own, or dwindled a little bit. I think a lot of it is, you know a lot of us women went into this business because we cooked for people. It never dawned on us that it would be hard to have a family and do all of these things. A lot of the male chefs have an advantage because they have a wife who runs the household, whereas a lot of the women have major responsibilities for their children. And working in a restaurant is 80-100 hours a week, if you're a chef/owner. The hours are endless. I think people found that maybe it was not great for an overall well-balanced lifestyle. That doesn't mean women have dropped out of food. We have so many more women working the floor, winemakers, most of the food writers, photographers, so women have stayed in food. But have moved into other aspects of the business.


Did the state government laws boost innovation?

Joyce: Not really, no. But the fact that women could get financing and investors to open up a restaurant, that was amazing. And again it was because in the Bay Area we had so many mom-and-pop restaurants, it wasn't unusual for someone to open something. If you could raise the money and could run a restaurant, you'd be in business. New York was much more conservative as far as food. And also, they didn't have the advantage of long growing season and the abundance of produce we have. They still get produce from us.

What was the difference between the Bay Area and Los Angeles?

Joyce: Two different environments. L.A. led the way in restaurant design and style. They had way more style. The Bay Area visually is much more conservative. They fight every modern building that ever goes up. But the Bay Area had the advantage of encouraging the cultivation of ingredients and supporting ranchers. That was less important in L.A. In L.A., it was prestige, it was being in a glamorous place, it was hanging out with movie stars, it was getting into the next trendy place. Whereas in the Bay Area it was knowing who the chef was, finding out who the farmers were. It was just two different obsessions.

Does that difference continue today?

Joyce: It took L.A. a lot longer for the chefs to go to their farmers' market. People who were living there were going, but the chefs didn't start going there until the '90s, when Nancy Silverton started going and telling the other chefs about it. In the Bay Area, the chefs were the ones who told the farmers what to grow and what they needed. It was a kind of partnership. The chefs were very instrumental in helping the farmers here.

Your book takes us through the end of the '00s. What new revolutions have happened since?

Joyce: We're in an era now of media blitz. When I opened a restaurant, the first time someone asked me for a press kit I thought they were crazy. Why would I need a press kit? Now, before you even open, you have a press kit, you have a PR person, you blitz the Internet in all of these newsletters which weren't around in the early days. We worked and then got recognized, but now people are getting press before they even open their doors. It's a little backwards. And then a lot of these places open after all this big press and it turns out they're not very much.

What, to you, has been the most important food revolution?

Joyce: I think the improving and broadening of the larder of what could be grown in this country, and the education of the diner to recognize these products and want them, is a major revolution. The other one I think is what the open kitchen did, which sort of democratized the whole restaurant industry. In the '60s, if you went to a restaurant it was quiet, it was dark, you had to know French, it was a whole other social thing. And now everybody eats out. They eat out many meals a week. People bond with a restaurant and go there all the time. It's very encouraging. I think the fact that everybody can eat out in a lot of different places without having to be in the upper echelon social class was a huge revolution.

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