John Godfrey: Your Editor’s Letter in the recent “California Way” issue of Food & Wine references your strong ties to the state. Can you touch on that a bit here? What does the state mean to you on a personal level?
Hunter Lewis: Well, my grandmother grew up in Los Angeles and my grandfather grew up in the East Bay. They met at Cal-Berkeley back in the 1930s while my grandfather played football and basketball for the Bears, and my mom and her sisters where born there, too. They moved east in the 1950s, and California always loomed large in my mom’s side of the family like some kind mythic origin story. Once I visited for the first time when I was 10 years old and saw the towering redwoods of Muir Woods and touched the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach I was hooked, too.
JG: What prompted you to dedicate an entire issue of Food & Wine to California?
HL: Several reasons: For our readers, California is the No. 1 domestic travel destination every year. This was our spring wine issue, and there’s an incredible amount of innovation happening with viniculture up and down the coast. And no other state has the agricultural bounty, abundance of cultures, and diversity of culinary talent that California has, so it was a no brainer.
JG: The “Obsessions” section opens on a somewhat surprising note—with an ode to Golden State pastries. The authors suggest that a multicultural generation of cooks plays a significant role in California’s culinary appeal. Do you see it that way?
HL: Of course. Everything that’s good in California is made by diverse groups of people.
JG: Then, of course, there’s the product: Whether it’s olive oil or oysters or a dizzying array of produce, how does California’s abundance play out in terms of attracting and inspiring great chefs?
HL: This is what led me to Sonoma County as a restaurant cook in 2007—the ingredients. From the seafood and livestock to the cheese, wine, and produce, California has the best raw products for chefs to use. The food is more alive and has more energy because the ingredients are so good and so fresh.
JG: Your piece on Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena touches on another California culinary contribution: the intersection of car culture and burger culture. It really goes beyond ordering a Double-Double from In-N-Out, doesn’t it?
HL: Yes, think about the incredible signage and the architecture. Think about restaurant design and eating outdoors.
JG: You can’t really talk about California food without addressing Mexican culture and cuisine—and you do just that in “Yo Soy Tijuanera,” which features Claudette Zepeda and goes deep into the food that thrives along the U.S.–Mexico border. What did you like most about that feature? And what did you learn along the way?
HL: To me, California is Mexico and Mexico is California. The border is a line on a map and a mechanism to control people. What I loved most about this feature is getting to know Claudette Zepeda better and to learn more about her food and people and ingredients that inspire her. I urge you to cook her recipes from the story—those birria tacos on the cover are the best homemade tacos you’ll ever make.
JG: We’re all stuck inside to some degree right now. Are there any particular California restaurants you wish you could enjoy right now? Any dishes in particular?
HL: Can’t narrow it down. Tacos right off the plane from LAX at El Ruso. Everything on the menu at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, including a frosty Anchor Steam. And a long, leisurely dinner with friends in St. Helena, including the most perfect pot of buttery rice served in a cocotte.
JG: Are you heartened to see the innovation within the culinary community? Dominique Crenn is offering takeout, after all. Niki Nakayama is selling a $38 bento box….
HL: Leaders like Dominique and Niki give me hope. The restaurant business has so many tough and innovative people who love to share their gift of hospitality, and many of these small business owners will find a way to reimagine how we dine out in the future.
JG: Ray Isle, your executive wine editor, calls California “America’s Greatest Wine Region” in this issue. Do you agree?
HL: Sure do.
JG: Ray salutes Merlot in the piece, noting that it is having a moment—do you have a go-to varietal or blend?
HL: I tasted an earthy 2015 Mayacamas Merlot at the winery last summer that woke me up and made me rethink any dumb pre-conceived notions I had about the grape. Same goes with Massican Chardonnay made by Dan Petroski—I’ll never ever again make broad, sweeping generalizations about a particular varietal.
JG: He also points to the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA as an appellation worth celebrating. Do you have a favorite wine region to explore, or perhaps is there one that’s high on your to-do list?
HL: I spent some time in Santa Barbara County to kick off a monthlong “residency” in California last summer, and now I want to go taste my way through Sta. Rita Hills and other nearby AVAs to get to know more of the people making these incredible wines.
JG: “Santa Barbara Rising,” which celebrates that region’s maturing wine culture, took me back to Alexander Payne’s film Sideways and also reminded me of my favorite restaurant in the state—Bell’s, in Los Alamos. The bounty of California’s Central Coast is almost unfair. Do you have any tips for navigating the region?
HL: Well, first, go to Bell’s! You’ll see more about Daisy Ryan, the chef and co-owner of Bell’s, in an upcoming issue. Use our guide to help you navigate the county. It’s a big region, so give it more than a couple of days. I want to spend a whole month there soon.
JG: Finally, I know you wrote the Editor’s Letter for this issue before the coronavirus took hold, but it’s worth pointing out that you end the note with a teasing, “See you there this summer?” I’m curious—when do you plan to get back to the Golden State and what might your itinerary look like when you return?
HL: I’m fantasizing right now about renting a Sprinter van and driving out west as soon as possible, camping, fishing, biking, and visiting friends and family. I can’t wait to go back and see all of the chefs, farmers, and winemakers who make California such an incredible place to visit.