“We All Had the Same Acid Flashback at the Same Time”: The New American Cuisine

How the scruffy kids of the ’60s youth movement turned cooking from a shameful job into a lauded profession.

Andrew Friedman | Excerpt adapted from Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession | Ecco | February 2018 | 17 minutes (4,560 words)

* * *

He spent his last pennies on brown rice and vegetables, cooking them for strangers who shuttled him around. Just in time, people started feeding him.

You could begin this story in any number of places, so why not in the back of a dinged-up VW van parked on a Moroccan camping beach, a commune of tents and makeshift domiciles? It’s Christmas 1972. Inside the van is Bruce Marder, an American college dropout. He’s a Los Angelino, a hippy, and he looks the part: Vagabonding for six months has left him scrawny and dead broke. His jeans are stitched together, hanging on for dear life. Oh, and this being Christmas, somebody has gifted him some LSD, and he’s tripping.

The van belongs to a couple — French woman, Dutch man — who have taken him in. It boasts a curious feature: a built-in kitchen. It’s not much, just a set of burners and a drawer stocked with mustard and cornichons. But they make magic there. The couple has adventured as far as India, amassing recipes instead of Polaroids, sharing memories with new friends through food. To Marder, raised in the Eisenhower era on processed, industrialized grub, each dish is a revelation. When the lid comes off a tagine, he inhales the steam redolent of an exotic and unfamiliar herb: cilantro. The same with curry, also unknown to him before the van.

Like a lot of his contemporaries, Marder fled the United States. “People wanted to get away,” he says. Away from the Vietnam War. Away from home and the divorce epidemic. The greater world beckoned, the kaleidoscopic, tambourine-backed utopia promised by invading British rockers and spiritual sideshows like the Maharishi. The price of admission was cheap: For a few hundred bucks on a no-frills carrier such as Icelandic Airlines — nicknamed “the Hippie Airline” and “Hippie Express” — you could be strolling Piccadilly Circus or the Champs-Élysées, your life stuffed into a backpack, your Eurail Pass a ticket to ride.

Marder flew to London alone, with $800 and a leather jacket to his name, and improvised, crashing in parks and on any friendly sofa and — if he couldn’t score any of that — splurging on a hostel. He let himself go, smoking ungodly amounts of pot, growing his hair out to shoulder length. In crowds, he sensed kindred spirits, young creatures of the road, mostly from Spain and Finland. Few Americans.

Food, unexpectedly, dominated life overseas. Delicious, simple food that awakened his senses and imagination. Amsterdam brought him his first french fries with mayonnaise: an epiphany. The souks (markets) of Marrakech, with their food stalls and communal seating, haunt him. Within five months, he landed on that camping beach, in Agadir, still a wasteland after an earthquake twelve years prior. He lived on his wits: Back home, he’d become fluent in hippy cuisine; now he spent his last pennies on brown rice and vegetables, cooking them for strangers who shuttled him around. Just in time, people started feeding him, like the couple in whose van he was nesting. Food was as much a part of life on the beach as volleyball and marijuana. People cooked for each other, spinning the yarns behind the meals — where they’d picked them up and what they meant in their native habitats. Some campers developed specializations, like the tent that baked cakes over an open burner. Often meals were improvised: You’d go to town, buy a pail, fill it with a chicken, maybe some yogurt, or some vegetables and spices, and figure out what to do with it when you got back.

Marder might as well have been on another planet. “This was so un-American at that time,” he says.

He was supposed to become a dentist, but his heart was never in it; it was just one of those non-dreams foisted on him and his friends by tradition-bound elders. Back in L.A., he’d been a stoner, but a motivated one, laying the groundwork for independence —  caddying, pumping gas, anything for a buck. And so he was primed for a course correction when he dropped acid that Christmas and a new, previously unimaginable path materialized: “I’m sitting in the back of the van and I’m whacked out,” Marder says. “I’m always thinking about my life. What am I going to do? Obviously I’m not going to be a dentist. I can’t go back to school and take organic chemistry. I just sit up and go, ‘God! I know what I want to do. This is what I want to do. I want to learn. I want to be a chef.’”

* * *

One of the comparisons I make today that illustrates the difference between then and now is back in the day you never would put your uniform on or anything that made you look like a cook on the way to work.

The dawn and rise of the American chef commenced when Americans, from coast to coast, and in large numbers, began voluntarily, enthusiastically cooking in restaurants for a living — a once forbidden and unrespected professional course — screw the consequences. Many started like Marder, spontaneously, rebelliously, often in isolation, with no idea there were others like them Out There. A few stuck their toes in the water in the 1960s, a few more in the 1970s, and then hordes jumped into the pool in the 1980s and ’90s, after which there was no looking back.

These weren’t the first American chefs, or even the first prominent ones. There had always been exceptions, like the astounding Edna Lewis, who for five years ending in 1954 had been the chef and a business partner at Café Nicholson in Midtown Manhattan— that she did this as both an African American and a woman in the 1950s is nothing short of miraculous. But those stories were few and far between, not part of an overarching national phenomenon. And the lower kitchen ranks were more often than not populated with lost souls who lacked ambition or the aptitude for a traditional career, weren’t pursuing a love of food and/or craft, or acting on Marder-like epiphanies, a version of which became a rite of passage for an entire generation. Professional cooking was viewed as menial, unskilled labor performed, often in unsavory conditions, by anonymous worker bees. The United States Department of Labor categorized chefs as domestics through 1976 when — after lobbying by the American Culinary Federation, who themselves required nudging by Louis Szathmary, the Hungarian American Chicago chef, writer, and television personality — it recognized them as professionals. Domestics suggests chauffeurs and housekeepers; most Americans regarded cooks as something grittier.

“One of the comparisons I make today that illustrates the difference between then and now is back in the day you never would put your uniform on or anything that made you look like a cook on the way to work,” says San Francisco–based chef Jan Birnbaum, who started his career in New Orleans and New York. “Because it wasn’t a proud thing to be. You’re that guy behind the door who has no skill. He’s certainly not intellectual, and he probably is either a criminal or he’s amongst them. There’s just a whole lot of undesirable stuff. Today the streets of San Francisco, man, they proudly walk down the street all the time in full uniforms.” Even in France, historically the Western capital of fine dining, this stigma attached to the profession through the 1960s. Chefs were not renowned or celebrated; at best, they were regarded as craftsmen. Alain Sailhac, who grew up in the mountain village of Millau, France, and would go on to become the chef of Le Cygne and Le Cirque in New York City, remembers the moment he first became enticed by the kitchen, in the mid-twentieth century: At age fourteen, at his brother’s wedding, he struck up a conversation with the chef, which sparked an interest he couldn’t shake.

“Why do you want to be a cook?” demanded his father, who wanted his son to take up the family’s glove-manufacturing business. Sailhac persisted until his dad relented, walked him into the town’s only one-star restaurant, where the chef was a World War I buddy. “Do you want to take my son?” asked the senior Sailhac. “He wants to be like you, a stupid chef.” (Even after he became a cook, Sailhac hid his profession from women; if they learned he worked in a restaurant, he told them he was a chef de rang [dining room captain], which was more prestigious.)

Consider, too, Auguste Escoffier, whose crowning achievement, Le guide culinaire, first published in 1903, was the kitchen bible of its day. The book codified basic recipes and techniques, set forth a system for organizing the kitchen brigade, and recommended a front-of-house structure. Yet Nathan Myhrvold, author of a defining tome on modernist cuisine, unsentimentally dubs Escoffier “the Henry Ford of the conventional kitchen. . . . His masterwork was fundamentally motivated by gastronomy as a manufacturing process rather than as an art. . . . He was an artisan striving to run a factory rather than be an artist.”

So what happened? To impose biblical simplicity on the narrative would be dishonest; there was no Garden of Eden, no aproned Adam and Eve from whom all future American chefs descended, no single moment that lit the fuse. The movement was scattershot but not coincidental, produced (Big Bang–style) by a confluence of events and phenomena: the Vietnam War and the resistance at home; the counterculture; easy access to travel; the music, movies, and literature of the day; drugs, including “the pill”; and a new approach to restaurant cooking, to name the factors most often cited by those who were there as the ones that propelled them into the kitchen.

“It’s a universal mind,” says Thomas Keller, chef-owner of a restaurant empire founded on Yountville, California’s The French Laundry, of the national reach of those influences. “We all talk about universal minds and how people come up with the same idea relatively around the same period of time without having had conversations about it personally. They’re just doing the same thing.”

Jonathan Waxman, a California chef who has toggled back and forth between the coasts throughout his career, puts it slightly differently: “We all had the same acid flashback at the same time,” he says. “But each of us did it differently.”

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It was a mission. I felt like we were discovering something. It was certainly important to us. This is very California and it can sound very pretentious and very hippy dippy, but our generation was about changing things, whether it was antiwar or whatever. Some people discovered that you can change things through food.

For those who could afford it, international travel beckoned. Some needed a break from the turmoil; some craved new experiences and perspective, on the United States and themselves. An accidental by-product was that exposure to European attitudes toward food proved transformative to many.

“When you travel, you eat, and you’re eating preindustrialized food,” says Los Angeles chef Evan Kleiman, who today hosts the current-events radio program Good Food. “In Europe during the seventies, there was no such thing as frozen food. There was no such thing as industrialized products. There weren’t even supermarkets. So you were eating food that is akin to what people who grew up in America were eating pre–World War II. So you go there and you have this unbelievably pristine experience for very little money. There’s so much that’s evocative about it. And we’re all young so we’re all either finding people to go out with — I’m using the words go out loosely; everybody’s hooking up, right? You’re out there, you’re either traveling with a boyfriend or girlfriend or you’re single and you’re meeting kids that are traveling from all over the world, and you’re having this sort of seminal experience that’s filled with sensuality. So you’re experiencing your own sexuality. You’re drinking wine. You’re eating food that’s two steps from the field, in a totally joyous, non-Puritanical, nonjudgmental way. For a lot of us it’s the first time that we’ve ever experienced food in this context. When we came back, I went to my mother: ‘I want to make the broccoli different but I need fresh garlic.’ And she’s like, ‘Fresh garlic? I have this garlic powder.’ And then what happens is slowly we start doing it.”

Overseas culinary epiphanies could be more or less divided into two categories. The first was everyday food as it was woven into daily life in France, Italy, and other popular European destinations of the time, the market culture that drove home cooking and unfussy, soulful bistro staples, all of which dovetailed perfectly with the hippy movement toward pure, “real” food in the United States. Much of the historical blood flows to Berkeley, because of the confluence of factors there, but similar strains were present elsewhere: “Among our friends who had nothing to do with the restaurant world, people were interested in cooking,” says New York City chef Michael Lomonaco. “And it wasn’t just that they were going to recipe swaps. I think a lot of this dates back to the hippies of the sixties, communal living, and the back-to-the-land movement, the back-to-the-farm movement. This purity of the late sixties, the early seventies. You have to look at it through this prism. People were weaving. People were making things with their hands. Texture. Ceramics was huge. Pottery classes. We were living in Brooklyn at the time. Park Slope had a kind of a Greenwich Village vibe to it. It had ceramic shops, and small bakeries were making breads and cakes and brownies and things that were more natural, with natural ingredients. There was a lot of talk of naturalness in food. I think that rippled through the culture. And everybody was kind of interested in food.”


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“I think that the hippies had a lot to do with it,” says former Stanford Court pastry chef Jim Dodge, who grew up in a family resort and hotel business in Vermont. “They weren’t the best cooks but they were looking for pure, pure ingredients, organic ingredients, good quality. They wanted to know how things were grown. I remember going to the organic farm with my father every day to pick up select produce, and the pride that this young hippy family had. They had long beards and dressed extremely casual. They lived in a very modest house. There was a lot of focus on organic. I think the biggest thing was that they were making their own breads, which nobody did at that time. Just for themselves, although some of them would sell breads. In New Hampshire and especially Vermont, I think there were a lot of organic restaurants and cafes. They were opening organic food stores at that time so they were bringing awareness to it.”

Bronx-born Barbara Lazaroff, who would go on to co-create Spago and other restaurants with future husband and business partner chef Wolfgang Puck, attended New York University, starting in 1970. On Friday nights, she participated in informal dinner parties with friends. She describes one frequent host, a well-funded Saudi student named Nassar, who had the biggest apartment, mostly unfurnished, with pillows scattered about. “We would put newspaper all over the floor and every Friday it would be a different cuisine. That’s the first time I tasted sashimi and sushi. One person was from Abu Dhabi, another was from Saudi Arabia, another from Japan, Argentina, Peru. One person was Bolivian. A number of Africans from countries I don’t think exist anymore because I can’t keep track of how many times they’ve changed. So it was absolutely everything I aspired to immerse myself in but couldn’t afford to: travel. I was traveling through the stories and the cuisine and the lives of these other people.”

Wonderful as it sounds, writer L. John Harris cautions against idealizing the era: “I was in the art department at UC Berkeley,” he remembers. “That’s when food became almost like theatrical performance art. There’s that whole side in the seventies of cooking with friends and making it visually beautiful. It was food experienced as a kind of ritual for artists to be interested in, but ingredients were kind of irrelevant. There was a side of food at the time that was performance — theatrical and visual — in addition to taste. We were living in communes. We were cooking for each other. There was a gourmet club we went to that cooked out of Julia Child and all of that. This is in the late sixties, early seventies. . . .

“It was a mission. I felt like we were discovering something. It was certainly important to us. This is very California and it can sound very pretentious and very hippy dippy, but our generation was about changing things, whether it was antiwar or whatever. Some people discovered that you can change things through food. You can create pleasure. You can create community through food. Food is community. This was the beginning of the breakdown of the American family. We were re-creating the family. We were living in communes. We were disgusted with the American system. I marched against the war, of course. But I didn’t think of food in that way at that time and I don’t think most people did. I think we ignore the fact sometimes that this discovery of good food was about pleasure. It wasn’t about changing the system at that point. I think that came a little bit later. I think we had discovered a great source of delight and pleasure and sensual gratification in a very sterile, corporate world. So we weren’t on a political mission at that time, I don’t think. History tends to compress reality into very simple sound bites. It was a vast period in the seventies where we were about food as pleasure, sensual awareness, and community.”

The new interest in food wasn’t limited to the counterculture. A proliferation of hobbyist cooking schools and classes materialized to meet the moment; a 1971 New York Times article listed no fewer than twenty-four Gotham-based businesses proffering cooking classes — everything from fantasy-camp instruction by the likes of writer James Beard and Mexican cooking priestess Diana Kennedy to crash courses in Chinese food, kosher buffet catering, and macrobiotic practices.

In their newfound fascination with food and cooking, many Americans were guided by a small group of writers and television personalities: James Beard, a failed thespian and opera singer of Hitchcockian stature who had lived for a short time in Paris, turned his attention to food full-time by 1940 and became a prolific author, television personality, commercial pitchman, and networker. He loomed large, as did Julia Child, whose first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, helped demystify the intimidating European cuisine to generations of home cooks. Child’s first television show, The French Chef, debuted in 1963, amping up the effort. There was also Englishman Graham Kerr, less well remembered than the others, but notable for the humor and bonhomie on display on his show The Galloping Gourmet (1969 to 1971), on which he took a thematic approach to cooking, combining travelogue footage, history, and instruction; sipped wine on camera, often running into a frame with his drink nearly splashing out of the glass; appeared in a variety of costumes (from a tuxedo to a knight’s armor); and charmed a live studio audience.

Richard Olney, an American expat living in France, also developed a cult following for his books The French Menu Cookbook (1970) and Simple French Food (1974), notable for their masterfully written recipes, chock-full of information, opinion, and evocative detail. A similar fandom sprung up around Brit Elizabeth David for her books such as French Provincial Cooking (1960). Craig Claiborne ushered in a golden age of newspaper food writing when he became the New York Times food editor in 1957; in the role, he introduced the paper’s standard-setting restaurant review system. And food magazines such as Gourmet and Food & Wine were beginning to make their marks, although they wouldn’t begin covering chefs until years later

* * *

Americans were seduced by nouvelle cuisine both for the personality in the food itself and the attention paid to the chefs, which altered their perception of the profession and put faces to the movement.

The other dominant genre of culinary experience available to Americans overseas during these years was restaurant food on a level beyond imagining, thanks primarily to the rise of a new style of cooking commonly referred to as nouvelle cuisine. The movement was first trumpeted as such in Le nouveau guide, the brainchild of food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who founded the Guide with André Gayot. The Guide debuted in 1969, in part as a response to what the authors saw as the staid Guide Michelin, which had been evaluating restaurants according to its three-star scale since 1931. Gault and Millau contended that Michelin had failed to praise an emerging new guard of French chefs who broke away from the timeworn canon of haute cuisine recipes first codified by Escoffier in Le guide culinaire in 1903.

“Michelin: Don’t forget these 48 stars!” screamed the first issue’s hand-scrawled headline accompanying an image of chefs including Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, and Louis Outhier, who were changing the construct of French cuisine, abandoning the Escoffier playbook in favor of a freer, more personal style. The best-known edition of the Guide was the 1973 issue featuring an article revolutionarily titled “Vive la nouvelle cuisine.” In it, the authors put forth not only the name of the movement itself, but also distilled it down, with religious undertones, into the “Dix [Ten] Commandments.” The list seems quaint, but at a time when food was tiptoeing away from platter service and table-side carving to the style of dishes plated by the chef in the kitchen that has endured and evolved through today, it was transformative. The ten commandments included such rules as simplifying where possible, reducing cooking times, cooking seasonally, employing lighter sauces, rediscovering regional dishes, availing oneself of modern equipment such as nonstick pans, cooking with diet and health in mind, and being inventive.

There’s just one problem: Like most culinary catchalls, nouvelle cuisine oversimplifies, emphasizing certain aspects of the trend while omitting the nuance and individuality that distinguishes any chef. Created by journalists to corral electrifying but disorienting change into a manageable construct, the term nouvelle cuisine was promotable but confusing. (Mimi Sheraton, restaurant critic for the New York Times from 1975 to 1983, suggests discarding the delineated elements in favor of the less specific, literal translation of nouvelle cuisine: “new cuisine.”) In the case of Gault and Millau, the name they assigned their movement conveniently echoed the name of their publication: In today’s parlance, nouvelle cuisine might have been considered a brand extension of Le guide nouveau. (The movement was also commonly — and unhelpfully — confused in the United States with cuisine minceur or “slimming food,” the specialty of chef Michel Guérard, also one of the chieftains of nouvelle cuisine.)

Despite these shortcomings, the name nouvelle cuisine stuck. One of its defining underpinnings was the visibility of the practitioners of this bold, new style, the chefs whose personal marks showed in their dishes. The inaugural cover of the Guide depicted close to fifty toques at a time when you’d have been hard-pressed to name more than a handful. Just as each commandment includes some version of the words nouveau, découvrir, and invention (often multiple times), many of them also illustrate their principles with preparations associated with specific chefs.

“Nouvelle cuisine carved out some independence for the chef,” writes Nathan Myhrvold. “Escoffier (and [Marie-Antoine] Carême before him) had explicitly sought to establish rules and conventions. Nouvelle cuisine gave more leeway to the individual chef.”

The simplified historical storyline is that the nouvelle cuisine chefs began the shift to a more personalized cuisine, but Fernand Point deserves much credit, not only for shifting to a new style before the nouvelle cuisine era, but also for mentoring many of the chefs who would congregate under its umbrella. Bocuse, Guérard, and brothers Jean and Pierre Troisgros all apprenticed for him in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Point devised a new menu each day — rendered in dramatic script by his wife, Marie-Louise “Mado” Point — a new approach for the time.

“If I take a little step back, I think Fernand Point is the beginning of the story,” says San Francisco chef Roland Passot, a native of Villefranche-sur-Saône in eastern France. “He was that figure, that man who was drinking Champagne at eight in the morning; by noon he’d already have had two or three bottles. People were flying in from all over the world. He had presidents of France and other countries coming to his restaurant.” (Point’s morning Champagne ritual has been romanticized by many. Less frequently cited is his short life span: He died at age fifty-eight in 1955.)

But there’s no doubt that Paul Bocuse was the visionary of his generation and understood the value of moving chefs into the public eye: “Bocuse was very street smart,” says Passot. “It came to him naturally. He was like the godfather of those chefs. He was the one who was leading the pack. I think he was the driving machine of getting chefs out of their kitchens. I don’t want to call them rebels, but they were my idols. And he got together in force with that group of chefs, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, even Gaston Lenôtre, to really expose themselves and to show chefs not just cooking behind the stove, but being businesspeople and celebrities. That was a turn.”

Bocuse, in addition to being an innate and master marketer, traveled the world, maintained relationships with chefs in many countries, employed Japanese cooks in his restaurant before others in France were doing it. He also went where no French chef of his stature had gone before, visiting the United States to perform cooking demonstrations and participate in special dinners that garnered press coverage and furthered the cause.

Americans were seduced by nouvelle cuisine both for the personality in the food itself and the attention paid to the chefs, which altered their perception of the profession and put faces to the movement. And some of those Americans could imagine themselves in kitchen whites. David Liederman, a New York City college student, was so dazzled by his meal at La Maison Troisgros that he made a bet with Jean Troisgros that if he could beat him in tennis, he could return and work in the kitchen. Jonathan Waxman remembers being in France in his twenties and seeing four nouvelle cuisine leaders on the cover of Paris Match magazine. “I said, ‘That looks pretty cool,’” he says. “Being a chef. Being on the cover of a magazine.”

A useful counterpoint is the experience of the late Judy Rodgers, best known as the chef of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, who spent a year living with the Troisgros family in Roanne, France, from 1973 to 1974. Though she never officially worked in their restaurant kitchen, she did occasionally help with rudimentary prep work there, tasted their full repertoire, received culinary wisdom directly from the brothers, and recorded every recipe in her notebooks. Despite such extraordinary access, she responded more to the food she ate outside the restaurant’s dining room: “About three weeks into my stay at Troisgros, I know that I preferred staff meal to dining in the dining room. I loved the experience of dining in the dining room, and it came off beautifully, and the food was frankly a lot simpler and more sort of easy and enjoyable to eat than a three-star meal in Paris or a three-star at Bocuse, but still, I knew that for me, the dining experience, the conviviality of the food that I was eating at staff meal or at Jean’s sister’s, where she was doing traditional Burgundian food for the most part, I just liked that better. My body liked it better, and I was a strapping sixteen-year-old. I could eat anything, but I knew I liked that better. Plus, it just struck me at that point in my life that my God, I was already sixteen, and there was no way I was going into food and the stuff that they did after seven o’clock in the kitchen was something that you had to begin training for at age fourteen, and I was over the hill.”

* * *

Andrew Friedman is the author of Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Bocuse d’Or, the World’s Most Prestigious Cooking Competition and coeditor of the internationally popular anthology Don’t Try This at Home. He has also coauthored more than two dozen cookbooks and memoirs. Friedman writes about chefs on his Toqueland blog and interviews them on his Heritage Radio Network podcast Andrew Talks to Chefs. He lives in New York.

From the book CHEFS, DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession by Andrew Friedman. Copyright © 2018 by Andrew Friedman. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Editor: Dana Snitzky