Californian cuisine put down its roots at a crossroads, where the Far West borders Latin America along the Pacific. Such gastronomic gallivanting has gambolled further still in the multitude of food trucks roaming the streets of Los Angeles, like the Vizzi Truck. But it also flourishes in high places, like the plush comfort of the city's five star hotels. At the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, Chef Ashley James is more deliberate in interpreting this street-born culinary crossbreeding.
CALIFORNIA IS LIKE FRANCE’S PROVENCE, BUT ON AN AMERICAN SCALE, WITH ITS VAST MEXICAN BACKCOUNTRY AND THE PACIFIC STANDING IN FOR THE MEDITERRANEAN. A PLACE WHERE THE FARE IS DOWN-TO-EARTH, SPICY AND MIXED. It springs from an expressive landscape dominated by olive trees, vegetables, prickly pear fruit, citrus and wine grapes. It sways in the breezes of the seasons, fashion trends and overseas influences; it frolics with dietary agility and seasoning sensitivity, effervescing upon the tongue like so many champagne bubbles.
YOUNG CHEFS AT THE WHEEL
This terroir is hardy enough to have sprouted up through the dense asphalt of Los Angeles, as evidenced by the spontaneous eruption of a street cuisine that is swiftly becoming one of the defining gastronomic characteristics of this global megalopolis. In recent years, the city’s fleet of taco and hot dog trucks has drawn a new flock of adventurous young chefs at the wheels of their own gourmet food trucks.
These masters of controlled culinary craziness don’t hire a staff to whip up their inspirations... their goal is to sandwich as much dining experience as possible into a minimum of space, cutting everything down to the bare bone: menu, prices, prep time, service, even the distance between culinary allegiances. There are countless startling convergences, continental drifts colliding into recipes swayed by Sino-Peruvian, Franco-American or proletarian-gourmet influences. It’s like a diner’s version of charades, the semantic gesticulations that eventually inspire someone to shout out the right word. Here, perhaps, we are witnessing the genesis of a burgeoning, sewn-together cultural genre that just needs its stitches removed. These micro-restaurants generally make do with just one cooking station: steam, frying, smoking, wok, griddle... one can sense that talents are stretched to extremes by such confinement, like stadium rock bands that got their start in a garage, the musicians composing with the means at hand before seeing their careers take off, before the cutting-edge gear overwhelms them on stage, before the sold-out concerts for tens of thousands.
Though these mobile kitchens are mushrooming everywhere across the States, they have long had their origins in Los Angeles. Back when this vast web of freeways was still a border town, the pioneers rolled in from the East Coast in covered wagons, including the rolling diner, the chuckwagon. This type of nomadic housing came back into fashion during the Great Depression, to the point that a Californian firm had the nifty notion of turning the covered wagon into something civilised. The Airstream Trailer Company created an entire lifestyle from a world that had thus far been marginalised by introducing ergonomics and the comfort of modern materials, like aluminium, vinyl or Bakelite. Deep within the soul of Los Angeles there is still undeniably this penchant for an “aesthetic drifter” experience. While most food trucks tend to crisscross L.A., some have settled in Venice Beach, near where Route 66 craftily tips the masses of Go-West pilgrims into the Pacific. Quite a few mobile restaurateurs actually park directly on the sand, eyes glazing over as they dream of the success of Kogi, the Latin-Korean fusion barbecue enterprise run by Chef Roy Choi, who now has a fleet of food trucks and even managed to secure a permanent eatery in Chinatown. Among the newcomers is David Fuñe, the gastronomic genius behind the Vizzi Truck, adding his own California twist to its Far East-Far West double helix. Truffle popcorn. Sliders made of Wagyu beef (a heavily marbled Japanese cattle breed) and chimichurri-creme sauce (from Argentina), all tucked into small, sweet Hawaiian buns. And confit potatoes: spuds steeped in garlicky oil, fried, then topped with horseradish-bleu cheese sauce.
This diversity, so characteristically Californian, is thriving just as well along the Los Angeles pavements as it is on the red carpets at five-star hotels. Take the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, with a team of 60 chefs, which has its own wheeled version of the cuisine that never sleeps, this from an institution strong enough to withstand the impact of the glitzy premiere banquets that are so routine in Hollywood. During the Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys, an average of 150 breakfasts briskly and simultaneously rise to the rooms, without more than 30 minutes ticking by from order to delivery. Oversight of this military discipline falls on the shoulders of Ashley James, an English chef who, having spent five years in France, three in Spain, two in Singapore, another three in Mexico and three in Buenos Aires, hailed Angelenos’ spirited taste for fusion cuisine, as it gives him the chance to mix and match his international experience. The brunch he fussily presents every Sunday is a culinary Tower of Babel with dining dissonances that are harmonised with truly symphonic sensitivity.
WORLD CUISINE WITH CALIFORNIAN CHIC
The brunch boasts fish from the four oceans: raw in the form of sushi or gravlax style, marinated Peruvian ceviche-style, smoked with alder wood; plain, garlic or chipotle-sauce shrimp; a juice bar looming across from a breakfast station that will whip up waffles or omelettes or grace your plate with homemade pastries and eggs Benedict with Choron sauce (a tomatoey Hollandaise sauce) of such aesthetic perfection that one would think they were hothouse-raised under grow lights. A meat station groans beneath steaks, ham on the bone, rotisserie porchetta, a leg of suckling lamb straight from the oven and a pot of beef braised in red wine that’s so tender you could eat it with a spoon. Farther on are stacked baskets of steaming dim sum, a Cantonese breakfast staple, while those who like waking up briskly, mariachi style, head for the made-to-order corn tortillas served with sauces from chilies forcibly amalgamated by a traditional lava-rock mortar. Not to mention gluten-free dishes, a flowing chocolate fountain, a veritable donut carnival, a salad bar with market-fresh produce, a cereal banquet, and even a kids’ section, where one comes across a few adults surreptitiously loading their plates with fresh macaroni and cheese and elaborately frosted cupcakes.
The scope of the banquet leads hurried sorts to sprint a hundred metres before stopping, breathless, at their table, brushing past connoisseurs who approach the buffet like a longdistance contest, demonstrating the patience of a marathoner. The restaurant menu pushes the envelope further still by interpreting these faraway foods with the universal condiment of Californian chic. A vitamin-packed, seared tuna salad with watermelon radish, prime rib and red wine sauce spiced with Mexican peppers and served with parmentier potatoes, grilled corn and tomato chimichurri. Crispy tortillas with a vegan filling of red onions, guacamole, lime, jicama and sesame seeds. And then there is the affogato, which the pastry chef used as an excuse to order a Nespresso machine: coffee served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with Mexican bitter chocolate, cotton candy and a few still-warm churros.
By Julien Bouré - Photos Jean-Claude Amiel - Production Sandrine Giacobetti