Or, how we learned to love ingredients that are local, seasonal and sustainable.
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“California Canon” is an ongoing series that looks at legends in various sectors in the state. In this installment: Some of the culinary legends with ties to California who, in different ways, made a significant mark in the world of food. California’s cuisine is among some of the most renowned in the world. These people helped make it so.
Claim to fame: The first name on this list is somewhat obscure today, but was significantly influential both in life and death. Upon Helen Evans Brown’s death at 60 in 1964, Newsday eulogized her as a cookbook writer and American cuisine authority.
More than this, Brown was ahead of her time. A 1993 retrospective in the Pasadena Star-News noted that while Brown pioneered the concept of California cuisine in the mid-1930s, she died before television could make her famous—as it did with another Pasadenan we’ll look at further down, Julia Child.
Brown also helped to expand international influences in American cooking, with Newsday noting in her obituary, “Her interest in cuisine not only encompassed that of American derivation, but embraced foods of France, China, Mexico and Japan. She traveled extensively in Europe and three years ago embarked on a tour of the world in search of recipes and food lore.”
California connection: Born in Brooklyn in 1904, Brown made her way to California in 1936 after the end of her first marriage. She lived out her life in California, dying in Pasadena.
Claim to fame: One of the first people to become famous through television for their cooking prowess, Julia Child also wrote books such as the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and eventually became one of the most celebrated names in American cuisine of the 20th century.
While Child isn’t necessarily thought of as a major name particular to California cuisine, she was one of the people who helped normalize styles of cooking that paved the way for the more sophisticated offerings today.
California connection: Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams in 1912 in Pasadena. Her father, John McWilliams Jr., who worked in the financial sector, was president of the local chamber of commerce.
The McWilliams family enjoyed a degree of affluence, with the 1920 and 1930 U.S. censuses listing multiple servants at their home at 1207 S. Pasadena Ave. This house still stands, though the Orange County Register noted in 2018 how it had fallen into disrepair after being acquired many years before by Caltrans for a canceled freeway expansion project.
Child left California to attend Smith College in her mom’s native Massachusetts and lived in New York and abroad for a time thereafter. Eventually she returned to California, dying in Montecito, an elite enclave just outside Santa Barbara, in 2004. Child had summered in that city as a child.
Claim to fame: After the founders of The French Laundry, Don and Sally Schmitt, decided to sell, Thomas Keller scooped it up in the mid-1990s. He has since shepherded it through many years of success, winning a James Beard Foundation Award and receiving three Michelin Guide stars for his restaurant. The French Laundry was named best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2003 and again the following year.
“Don and Sally initiated this concept 19 years ago,” Keller told the Napa Valley Register in 1996. “Food at The French Laundry is always evolving—that’s the great thing about my food.”
Keller has expanded beyond The French Laundry now. A biography page on Keller’s business website notes that he’s “the first and only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings from the prestigious Michelin Guide.” A travel website explaining the concept of Michelin stars noted that it’s “universally agreed that California’s The French Laundry's three-star status is thanks to the talent of chef/owner Thomas Keller.”
California connection: Keller was born at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, left the state after his parents’ divorce, and returned to California as an adult.
Claim to fame: A PBS bio page for Jeremiah Tower captures his impact on the American culinary world, stating, “He’s one of the giants, a chef who carved a path so innovative and so important into American culinary life that today’s chefs still follow it without perhaps even knowing about Tower himself.”
California connection: Originally from Connecticut, Tower was hired at iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1972 and became a partner in the restaurant before leaving in 1978.
Tower has been involved with a variety of Northern California restaurants since then, with the PBS bio noting: “It was his San Francisco restaurant Stars, from 1984 to 1998, that brought him nationwide recognition as the founding father of California cuisine, as a chef with a glamorous clientele and the country’s buzziest restaurant, and as someone who constantly pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the kitchen.”
Claim to fame: Since founding Chez Panisse in Berkeley in1971, Alice Waters has become one of the forerunners of the farm-to-table movement with her deep cpmmitment to fresh and local ingredients. In the 1990s, she also founded the Edible Schoolyard Project, which now helps students at more than 6,000 schools worldwide learn about food.
At 78 as of this writing, Waters remains a force in the culinary world. She is currently working on a legacy project, the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education, which will be located at Aggie Square in Sacramento.
California connection: Waters told California Local in a 2023 interview related to her work at Aggie Square that she thought she loved New Jersey tomatoes because she’d grown up there. She came to California in the 1960s to attend UC Berkeley and essentially never left.
Claim to fame: Sally Schmitt co-founded The French Laundry with husband Don Schmitt in Yountville, near Napa, in 1978. At first, it was just another venture in a long career of food-related ventures for the Schmitts. “This was the dream,” Don told the Napa Valley Register upon the restaurant’s opening that February. “Our kids told us we’d retire to smaller and better things.”
In time, the restaurant became so much more, helping to pioneer Northern California’s farm-to-table movement. And Sally Schmitt played no small part in it, a regular presence at her restaurant according to a piece written by chef Cindy Pawlcyn.
“What she did, what she achieved made her important to me and so many others,” Pawlcyn wrote, according to Schmitt’s obituary in the Napa Valley Register when she died at 90 in 2022. “She did the impossible ahead of her time and on her own terms.”
California connection: Schmitt was born in Roseville in 1932 to parents Robert and Helen Kelsoe, who’d gone to high school there and married in 1928.
Schmitt’s Wikipedia page says she grew up on a farm; her maternal grandfather was a grain farmer named William Francis Conroy, who died in 1922. Schmitt’s father, meanwhile, was associated for 50 years with one of the major businesses in the Roseville area, the Pacific Fruit Express, according to his obituary in the Roseville Press-Tribune in 1978.
After childhood, Schmitt attended UC Davis and UC Berkeley, earning a degree from the latter. She married Don one year after graduation.
Claim to fame: Like Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck is a fairly ubiquitous name in the culinary world, known well beyond California. Go to a Costco or supermarket frozen section and a pizza bearing his name might be found there. He also has restaurants in locations as diverse as Las Vegas, Bahrain, and Singapore.
California connection: Puck opened his flagship restaurant, Spago, in Beverly Hills in 1982, one year after publishing Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen. Within months, it was already a gathering spot for celebrities like Johnny Carson, Rod Stewart, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, according to an Associated Press article that year.
“We refuse about 300 reservations a day,” Puck told the AP then. “I thought it would be maybe two or three months of this and then it would normal out. But it just gets more and more.”
Claim to fame: Nobu Matsuhisa is a celebrity chef who’s made his mark by combining Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. A winner of the James Beard Foundation Award, the 74-year-old Matsuhisa has operated restaurants in various parts of the world since 1973.
California connection: While Matsuhisa, who is a native of Saitama, Japan, is now a big success, it wasn’t always this way. One of his first restaurants burned down, with Matsuhisa telling ABC News in 2010 that he contemplated suicide in the immediate aftermath. He pioneered his fusion cooking technique out of necessity—he couldn’t find Japanese ingredients when he moved from Japan.
Matsuhisa finally broke through after opening a restaurant in Beverly Hills when one of his regulars, actor Robert De Niro, suggested they do business together in New York City. They opened a restaurant in Tribeca in 1994 and the rest is history.
Claim to fame: The Egypt-born Michael Mina runs Michelin-starred restaurants bearing his name in San Francisco and Las Vegas. In total, his Mina Group operates more than 40 restaurants in different parts of the world.
California connection: Mina grew up in Washington state and came to California as a young man, initially working at a hotel in Beverly Hills before making his way to San Francisco in 1990 to help open a restaurant, Aqua, the following year. “Gradually, our clientele was more comfortable with us,” Mina told the San Francisco Examiner in 1996. “They believed in us more and were willing to take chances.”
Claim to fame: When Suzanne Peabody Ashworth died in late 2021 at 70 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, the Sacramento Bee remembered her as a supplier of choice produce to some of the top restaurants in the region from her organic, 68-acre West Sacramento farm. “If there was a Yoda (of Sacramento farming), it’d be her,” one local chef told the Bee. “She was definitely renowned as somebody more specialized than anyone else we’d known or come up with. There was nobody in that league.”
California connection: Born Suzanne Peabody in 1951, she grew up on the farm she later operated, which was located at 20030 Old River Rd., according to her obituary. She and her husband, who met at UC Davis, lived in South Land Park before moving back to the farm.