The origin of California pizza

On Viceland’s LA episode of The Pizza Show, I was pleased to see the founders of California Pizza Kitchen, Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, give credit to Alice Waters for inventing California-style pizza (i.e., individual-sized with non-traditional toppings) at Chez Panisse Cafe in 1980 and to Ed LaDou for bringing it to wider attention at Spago before Rosenfeld and Flax hired him away, making it clear that Wolfgang Puck’s contributions were to knock off Waters’s business model and hire Ladou. The relevant bit is around 9’30":

But apparently LaDou was making pizzas like that perhaps as far back as 1975:

Alice Waters may have introduced the concept of individual size pizza to California, but it’s nothing that wasn’t available in Italy. Though individual pizzas may have been groundbreaking here at the time, that does not qualify it as a “California pizza”. Wolfgang Puck is the one that redefined pizza in California and then the rest of the world, especially with his smoked salmon pizza.

That is what California-style pizza means to me, a step away from traditional Italian or Italian-American pizza: playfulness and inventiveness. And I think California Pizza Kitchen, with its brilliant bbq chicken pizza, helped spread the concept across America by making it affordable.

Of course CP Cafe was a California adaptation of a place Waters ate at in Italy. She was quite open about that at the time, and it was obvious to anyone who had eaten well in Italy.

Puck didn’t invent most (maybe any) of the Spago pizza combinations, or come up with the general idea, or know how to make good pizza.

I concede your point about Chef LaDou, but not Alice Waters. She can barely make a grilled cheese sandwich, however, she has a talent for bringing in chefs that can interpret her often vague ideas of what she wants.

Wolfgang Puck has the same gift of being get able to find and nurture talent, but he is a talented chef in his own right.

1 Like

Waters can (or once could) cook well enough that she filled in as chef for six months in 1972. I don’t know if she ever made a pizza herself, but the vision for the cafe and its pizzas was entirely hers. There was nothing like it in the US in 1980. Downstairs and up, Chez Panisse was still the only restaurant in the country that had ingredients like you could find in France and Italy. In those days she still had to have foragers to be able to do it.

She has always given the chefs who work for / collaborate with her a lot of freedom, but to some extent they’re always working within her vision. That’s why the restaurant has stayed so similar in style over so many years and personnel changes. Her role is something like the artistic director of a theater company.

Puck had some talents but he had little or nothing to do with Spago’s pizza program beyond knocking off Waters’s ideas (he even hired the same German bricklayer, who didn’t know how to build a proper pizza oven) and hiring LaDou. Puck wouldn’t have found the ingredients that were essential if not for Waters hiring foragers to develop sources such as Chino Farm.

1 Like

Did Waters do smoked salmon or duck sausage?

Chez Panisse Cafe made duck confit pizza in 1980. LaDou made duck sausage and smoked salmon pizzas at Prego in 1981. I think he came up with the BBQ chicken pizza while at Spago.

I wish I’d thought to call Ed LaDou and interview him about this stuff. I had a perfect excuse, a few months before he died I wrote about this stuff in a review comparing CPK with Pauline’s (an SF institution).

In “Jeremiah Tower Cooks” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 2002), JT takes credit for inventing small pizzas:

It’s hard to believe he even skimmed the Jacques Médecin recipe, since it calls for you to cut the panisses into strips and fry them, and says nothing about toppings.

To my knowledge, they got no publicity.

In this version of the story, he says that was also the night they started the cocaine-in-the-kitchen fad:

1 Like

I really like that cookbook