The Wood-Fired Oven of the Vanities
When Prince William and Kate Middleton were married last year, reporters fawned over menu items like quails eggs and Scottish langoustine canapés. The summer before, anticipation about Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mezvinsky’s customized $5-million reception hit a fever pitch: would it be vegan? (Answer: no. Beef short ribs were served alongside risotto.)
But at the Zuckerberg–Chan wedding the other weekend, reporters could only note, as did the LA Times, that the food at the reception came from "budget friendly" restaurants like Fuki Sushi and Palo Alto Sol. Well, at least he wasn’t wearing that damn hoodie.
Depending on how you look at it, the Facebook IPO marked the beginning (or end) of an era. But the Facebook wedding stood for something else entirely: the ongoing democratization of California’s eating culture. In a state where any start-up might mint a millionaire, any meal (ramen not excluded) might be a rich man’s meal. Not all of us can eat like the Clintons; few of us can, on a whim, transfer sea bass from Chile to Martha’s Vineyard. But in the Valley, for just $6.95, you can order take-out nachos from Palo Alto Sol, and dine as the Zuckerbergs dine.
Food has long served as a symbol of status. Since our ancestors hoarded corn and set their enemies’ granaries ablaze, food has been used to showcase economic (and perhaps celestial) supremacy. Take the Archbishop of York’s 1465 enthronement: the six wild bulls, hundred oxen, and eight hundred swans and peacocks were more than sufficient to sate hunger. Although tea bricks and peppercorns have since given way to credit cards and coins, trade and food remain entwined as ever.
This entanglement reached its apotheosis in 1980s New York, with stock markets roaring and the day’s returns converted into steak, caviar and cocaine. Money ruled the day, and price dictated dinner: the more expensive, the better. It might smell like Kobe beef or be drizzled in white truffle or have succumbed to the molecular wizardry of Spain, but whatever it was, its status depended on cost and exclusivity. Lafitte foie gras was expensive and therefore Good. Maine Lobster was accessible to the middle echelons, and thus decidedly Less Good.
But across the country the tectonic plates pitching up the western edge of Interstate 80 had already begun to shift. In the late 70s, around the same time the Quilted Giraffe opened its gilded halls to the upper ranks of Wall Street, the San Francisco peninsula was lurching violently away from the rest of the hungering world. Armed with utopian dreams, crock-pots, and other 60s leftovers, San Francisco turned its gaze earthward, toward dinosaur kale and Jerusalem artichokes. California had engineered a gold rush, a political movement, and some silicon chips; it had democratized money, crowning every man an entrepreneur. Now it was time to open up the kitchen.
The revolution began slowly. An activist and a professor of Comparative Literature teamed up to open Chez Panisse in 1971. Eight years later came Greens, serving vegetables grown by local Zen monks. The R&D continued, broadened. By the year 2000, spring had sprung, the table was set. From the ashes of online-pet-food shares and the desk chairs abandoned in Menlo Park offices, arose a whole new recipe for dining.
We’re swinging open the doors, California proclaimed, and you too can partake of the feast! You too can do-it-yourself, in your garage, starting up, seed-funded, dreary-eyed. Learn to code and hack together an empire. Not of First Cru Burgundy or single malt scotch or beluga caviar, but of coffee, chocolate, and bread. TCHO (2007) is not just a candy manufacturer but a "chocolate start-up." In 2011, Sequoia Capital put $10 million into The Melt, a grilled-cheese start-up that promises not only jack on sourdough but the "technology platform" to support it. You can tweet with the twitterati at Sightglass Coffee, another 2011 enterprise. Ask your bartender for a cocktails made with small-batch, organic moonshine. Yes, vintage bathtub moonshine. Vanity of vanities: the addictions of the common man, scaled up to fit the Bay Area UX designer’s willingness to pay.
Elsewhere in the country, people believe that the best things never change. Like the wine list at Robuchon’s Atelier. But out here, where the sun sets over the ocean, we wear Northface jackets to the Four Seasons. Technology is an evolution, a process. Alice Waters painstakingly teaches you to make a garden salad. To source the lettuce. To drizzle lightly with Sonoma olive oil. Momentum rules. Get followers, get going, set loose the dream. It’s not about dollars (well, it’s not all about dollars); it’s about eyeballs and click-throughs. It’s the journey that matters. The 45-minute journey to a $4 artisanal cup of joe.
Take our dear Mark Zuckerberg, the boy who moved West to fashion success out of jealousies and thin air: Mark doesn’t eat meat unless he’s killed it himself . The newspapers roar with approval as "Facebook founder kills goat." Even third-tier entrepreneurs, washed-up from several bubbles past, can be sighted at the bistro du jour, purring over goji-infused sustainable fluke. The prevailing dogma of San Francisco’s restaurant scene today is democratic: you too can eat your way to heaven, one prosciutto crostino at a time. But first you must learn to preach an ever-changing gospel of pop-up pizza joints and secret sushi.
Witness the squirming masses at Dolores Park, cooing over BiRite ice cream, extruding disposal income and just-so appraisal of Korean tacos, waiting in Communist-Bread-Line formation to eat (but, first, to photograph and post) a potage of hyper-local hype. Pickle and preserve each digital crumb, sprinkle it over the network, lest it be forgotten, lest your presence on this earth, eating this bite, be relegated to the fleet-footed compost pile of memory.
In 2009, when the global financial crisis hit New York, Tom Colicchio closed Craftsteak, because "with the economy people aren’t really coming out for $100 steaks." Las Vegas was temporarily vacated. Wharton graduates filtered back from finance into consulting, the Goldman bonuses moved under the table, but atop the table remained Chateau Lafitte and beluga caviar.
But in Silicon Valley, the bubble never collapses. It just bobbles along from one great idea to the next. Your start-up’s out of cash? Start another! The best cure is hair of the dog. When the pickled oyster fad subsides, there will be chocolate-covered crickets from Belize, or gowalla berries, or bibimbap burritos to take its place. So long as you have the stomach and the pride of purpose to sustain it, you’ll always be on top. It’s a game with no losers, only followers. You, too, can ride the wave. You, too, can follow the crowd. And you, too, can cure the malaise of some 60,000 residents of the Mission and the Lower Haight. Success is just a hackathon away. Take that, Wall Street: we wear jeans and fleece to dinner!
Yet a nagging fear remains, in our foggy corner of the world. When the lights go out, when the network’s down, when the tweets subside: how will we navigate? Who will we follow? The food denizens of the old world know what’s most delicious: it’s what you can least afford. Even in the darkest night, they soldier onward, climb upward, compound their interest. What happens, here out West, when we wake from the latest yuzu-infused hangover, when the easy money dries up for a bit and the Social Media VPs have moved back to New Jersey, before the next bubble is concocted to bring them back, to clear the tumbleweeds from Valencia Street? Wherever will we go for brunch?