It’s easy to take for granted the bounty of restaurants we currently have at our disposal in America. The last few decades have seen the country’s food landscape drastically transform from a culinary backwater to a collection of thriving dining scenes. We love food in America so much now that we don’t just eat out; we sit for hours on end watching Netflix shows filled with gauzy shots of chefs wistfully strolling through farmers markets biting into vegetables. It’s almost hard to remember the bad old days, but author Andrew Friedman has no trouble telling you what it was like back in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Now you see these lists on Eater for LA or New York: ‘The 30 Restaurants You Need to Try This Fall,’ Friedman says. “There wouldn’t have been 30 restaurants in a year that you had to try in these places. I mean in all of LA and New York. There was just a handful of really important ones.”
What changed? As many would tell the story, America’s love affair with food starts with the advent of Food Network in the 1990s, in which Emeril Lagasse yelled “BAM!” in front of a hooting studio audience—and the now-disgraced Mario Batali cooked a dinner party for friends on Molto Mario. This development certainly helped supercharge the food movement and take it mainstream, but America’s food movement had been simmering on the back burner for years before that.
Friedman set about understanding how that small band of chefs—primarily working in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York—laid the groundwork for the food revolution of the last generation. In his engaging book Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll Friedman tells the story of why this group of young people bucked the industrialized food system they grew up on in post-World War II America in pursuit of a new approach to restaurants and cooking.
We sat down with Friedman to discuss how America’s mood after Vietnam and Watergate, and the counter-culture ethos that still permeated the country, helped fuel the movement’s early years.
Why did you want to write this book?
I really don’t feel like anyone had told the story of like how and why all these young American kids all over the country when they weren’t connected, when there were no chat rooms, there was no internet, there was no coverage or this, sort of independently started deciding they wanted to cook. Like no one had ever examined why that happened.
What made the timespan you cover so rich for telling a good story?
People I’d speak with in the industry would talk about this time like it was a totally different age, which I found interesting. Then the thing that kind of dovetailed with that and made it click was there’s a couple of books that I love that are about the same time period, and they talk about different mediums and how they’ve changed.
So, there’s a book called Please Kill Me which is an oral history of punk rock. And there is a book called Live From New York which is an oral history of Saturday Night Live. And there’s one of my favorite books of all time, Easy Riders Raging Bulls. It’s about the American film directors of the ’70s and how old Hollywood became new Hollywood.
And you felt the food revolution came from a similar place?
In the book I quote Tony Bill, the producer of The Sting, who also owned a restaurant in Venice and he said, “Some of us picked up movie cameras, some of us picked up guitars, and I think some people picked up a set of knives.” I think it was all sort of part of the same moment.
What was the culture undercurrent during that time that fed the transformation in the food world?
It was a couple of things that was like this perfect storm. That includes the Vietnam War and the protest culture of the younger generation. There were ill feelings toward the Nixon administration, and the hippie culture. I mean part of the hippie movement was up in the free speech movement. So there’s a ban on campus political activity, and the free speech movement in Berkeley started as a push back to that. You had disenchantment with educational institutions, parents, the government. We had a president who got impeached. People were afraid they were going to be sent off to die in a war, and so they very much didn’t want to grow up and be their parents. They didn’t want to put on a suit and tie—or whatever the female equivalent of that is—and go to an office and have that be their life.
You also mention in the book the influence of these young people heading to Europe had on shaping what food in America would become.
Yeah. At the same time, there was this huge travel thing happening. These were the years when it became relatively cheap to get a ticket to Europe and you could get a Eurail Pass, and you could go and knock around Europe, which a lot of people did as a rite of passage. And they were getting turned on to food that we didn’t have here. Not just the fancy Michelin three-star food, but just as often, or sometimes even in some ways more often, just the way people ate day to day.
What kind of food do you mean?
The food of the marketplace, the way people cooked at home, the food you could get in a simple bistro—compared to the sort of industrialized frozen TV dinners, canned food, frozen peas and carrots, not very good home cooking here. That’s what I think of as the perfect storm. You know, these people looking for something new and some of them got turned on to food as a means of expression and something else to do.
These cultural conditions were present across the country, so it allowed people to start doing similar things at the same time, even though they were relatively isolated from each other.
I’ve always been a little puzzled that like the casual observer thinks everything began up in Berkeley. Stuff did begin in Berkeley—and I write a lot about it—but not everything began in Berkeley. I definitely wanted to explain why Chez Panisse is important. But at the same time, I also make a point of talking about other places. It’s not understood that there was stuff happening at exactly the same moment. This notion that there was one place that lays claim to all this history is just completely off. That’s more likely to happen today when something can occur and be around world on someone’s Instagram feed literally in a second. But back then there was nothing, nobody knew what each other were doing.
Larry Forgione told me this story, that James Beard comes to dinner at the River Cafe in 1979 and he tells Larry, “Oh there’s this woman out West to you should know, you guys are sort of …” I don’t know if he said soul mates or something similar, and it was Alice Waters. And Larry hadn’t heard of Chez Panisse in ’79, in ’79. Eight years after it opened, that’s inconceivable today. You and I today know who Sean Brock is.
The New Yorkers and Californians weren’t keeping tabs on each other?
I really don’t think people understand how completely disconnected the two coasts were, certainly through the early ’80’s. The distance and the technology at the time really affected it. I’m 50. I started working in an office before email and internet, but even for me it’s hard to imagine how little awareness there was of what was going on, and how these areas were able to develop on their own. Nobody in New York was looking West, they were all looking the same place most of the people here were looking, which was France.
France really held sway over them?
Writing the book, I realized how much everybody was influenced by France. I don’t think that people like to say that anymore, but everybody was. Michael McCarty at Michael’s in LA was. Alice was in love with the little bistros. Wolfgang Puck was trained in French kitchens. And then all these Americans on the East Coast who went over and ate at three-star restaurants and loved that experience or the people with less money who went there and fell in love with baguettes and salads. So much of this movement started out of that at a time when nouvelle cuisine movement was taking food to a more personal place. The fact that some of those nouvelle chefs were ending up on magazine covers and getting famous, that was appealing.
But for many at that time, fame wasn’t much of a motivator or even remote possibility, right?
They got into cooking just out of a love of cooking. They did not see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they were just following an instinct. And it’s amazing to me.