I have a few friends who quality for that title: Aglaia Kremezi whose newest cookbook Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts I am looking at more than any other right now when, at the height of the summer, we are getting the best fruits and vegetables available in the mid-Atlantic. Aglaia lives on the island of Kia, an hour-long boat ride from Athens where she teaches people who make the pilgrimage to her home and school there.
But Aglaia is a relative newcomer (most of us are) compared to her close friend Paula Wolfert whose explorations of Mediterranean food began in Morocco before I was even fully aware of Mediterranean food. When Paula published The Foods of Morocco in 1973, it was the first American cookbook to explore that cuisine – and it is still the standard – and it was the first of Paula’s explorations that came to include Southwest France, grains and greens in Mediterranean cooking, the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean, and many more.
In 1973 when Paula published that important first book I was spending some summer times in Corsica and there is certainly no place more firmly in the Mediterranean than that. But I didn’t know enough even to see the distinctions among the various French cuisines much less the commonalities of the Mediterranean ones. My culinary brain – such as it was – was then focused on mastering the art of French cooking – as if mastery were possible.
But my candidate this week for the queen’s crown is Joyce Goldstein whose 80th birthday last week sent me yet again across the country to San Francisco. Goldstein is so well known in the culinary community that chefs all over the country refer to her simply as “Joyce” just as we used to speak of “Julia.”
Few people in our Washington world achieve such distinction. Indeed I know of no one in our legal/journalistic/political city other than Barney and Cokie who are known by their first names alone. But Joyce is.
She could have been a great lawyer or journalist but she didn’t have to be. Because her father adored her. “He was a feminist,” she says, “but he didn’t know it. He gave me the courage to do what I wanted.”
And so Joyce Goldstein lived in Rome in the late Fifties, fell in love with Italy, began studying Italian food, moved to San Francisco and began teaching cooking in her home and then in San Francisco’s first school of international cuisines, the California Street Cooking School that she opened.
In 1980 she became the chef of the new café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and stayed there until she decided to open her own restaurant, Square One at Pacific and Front Streets.
Opened in 1984 Square One was America’s first Mediterranean restaurant, offering mezze when the word wasn’t known, making sauces, spreads, and dressings like charmoula, romesco, and skordalia that were unknown to most restaurant diners in America.
Joyce featured lamb, a meat far less popular here than beef, did stews and braises, risottos that were unfamiliar here, and introduced fried kasseri cheese and bitter greens not then congenial to the American palate. It was a big restaurant, 124 seats, and the menu was very ambitious, huge and it changed every day.
The recipes were complex, the kitchen jumping all the time. So of course the restaurant attracted the young, the bright and curious cooks many of whom went on to establish their own restaurants, their own cuisines always affected by their experiences at Square One.
I was introduced to Mediterranean food at Square One and fell in love with it there. I was a customer not then in the food business and didn’t meet Joyce until 1992 when on a chef and journalist trip to Rome to which we had both been invited, we sat one evening on a sofa in the lobby of our hotel smoking Havanas and getting acquainted. We became friends and I saw her on subsequent trips and even more frequently when I began in 1995 to commute to Napa Valley as the baking instructor at the new campus of the Culinary Institute of America. I nearly always stopped in the city to have dinner or lunch with Joyce and we worked together on the extraordinary conferences the school held each autumn.
I made a special trip to San Francisco to bake bread for a party in 1996 when Joyce decided to close Square One and retire. Retire indeed.
You have to picture: Joyce is a small woman with large glasses. She She dresses as a hippie would dress if the hippie had taste and had grown up. She moves fast, her head leaning in the direction in which she is going, slightly slouched in a familiar urban Eastern European Jewish way.
She talks fast and after all these years in California still with a New York accent. She is opinionated, salty, articulate, active, restless, impatient – she is Brooklyn amazingly untouched by the contrary California styles.
The birthday party on Sunday was held at her son’s and daughter-in-law’s home and Joyce’s collegiate granddaughter was the bartender. Food was cooked there by Laurence Jossell of Nopa Restaurant and was (of course) mostly Mediterranean and drawn from Joyce’s books. The guests were practically all food people, not celebrities but working people and all (except me) 30 years or more younger than Joyce. They included chefs from all around the Bay area, from, for example, Delfina, Manresa, Greens, Bar Tartine as well as wine merchants, fishmongers, teachers, and journalists.
Aglaia, far younger than Joyce, is spending her summer as she always does receiving guests and teaching classes. (http://marilenaskitchen.com/2015/06/20/culinary-vacation-on-a-greek-island/)
Paula with an undiminished gusto has transformed herself into an Alzheimer’s activist. (http://www.sfgate.com/recipes/article/Sonoma-cookbook-author-Paula-Wolfert-embarks-on-5430755.php) In character,
Joyce began her birthday week by drafting a letter to friends announcing that she has finished her latest book, her 27th, this one on Mediterranean Jewish cooking, and is now available for other projects. The day after her birthday Joyce preceded her party by teaching a public food class at the Ferry Plaza Market. Since her 75th birthday she has written three books including Inside the California Food Revolution, a history of “California cuisine,” taught at the CIA in Napa Valley, conducted classes at Draegers Markets, consulted to a bunch of restaurants. She won’t stop. She looked queerly at me when I suggested slowing down, “I’m a shark,” she said, “If I stop swimming I die.”
Some people don’t know when to retire.