When you think of surfers, you may not expect them to be gastronomically inclined. Adventurous perhaps, but in general just really hungry. It’s hard to imagine not being ravenous after a great session out at a break that’s working. The surfer’s art of talking “story” about the last session or adventure is likely to happen around a shared meal of simple food at day’s end.
But there is a connection. Like surfing, cooking can also be about adventure, seeking out new experiences and tastes. Cooks know that this is one of many reasons we enter the industry — for the opportunity to see the world and gain experience. After all, cooks can be as nomadic a tribe as surfers.
Jim Kempton, a lifelong, off-the-beaten-path surfer and former editor and publisher of Surfer magazine, has lived the surfing-food connection firsthand. As a surfer, he’s visited rare corners of the world searching for stoke and perfect waves. During his travels, his adventurous spirit encouraged him to immerse himself in the culinary cultures he encountered.
Kempton not only took notes of his experiences, but also along the way taught himself to prepare his culinary memories for himself, family and friends. That eventually led him to open a successful, award-winning Mexican restaurant in San Clemente in the 1980s called Margarita’s Village, which he later closed. Now he’s written a cookbook called “First We Surf, Then We Eat: Recipes from a Lifetime of Surf Travel” — a collection of his favorite recipes interspersed with some of his reflections and stories of his adventures along the way.
The book, populated with some excellent surf and travel photography from genre icons such as Jeff Divine, Art Brewer and Tom Servais, includes more than 80 recipes that span six continents. But it is not disjointed. It is naturally connected by the oceans, interesting stories of misadventures, famous surfers and Kempton’s musings on a lifetime of pursuit and travel. His personal connections with the locations bring the disparate recipes together. He seems to grasp the cultural context that food brings in understanding a true sense of place.
The recipes lean toward healthy and flavorful, with an open-air quality that seems to suggest that all the dishes would taste good eaten outdoors on a beautiful California evening. There are simple recipes and others with a bit more ambition, but nothing really beyond the reach of a curious cook wanting to dive in.
Recipes from the hothouses of the South Pacific and Oceana are well represented by Hawaii, Indonesia and Polynesia. (Kempton was born and grew up in Guam.) Examples of spicy pork and beef dishes and stir-fries of noodles on the more exotic side are balanced with more familiar banana breads and pancakes, pokes and luau-style dishes, short ribs and even some surfer smoothies.
The Basque surf country contributes such classics as a poulet basquaise (braised chicken) and omelets, a crab bisque and, one of my favorites, gateau Basque, a filled dessert pastry. Here, as in a good portion of the book, all sorts of seafood are well represented.
Mexico, an obvious inspiration for Kempton, and Central and South America and their crossroads of influences and Latin flavors play a role as well, with mariscada, the ubiquitous Salvadoran seafood soup; a tasty version of arroz con pollo; chiles en nogada; fish in a classic Veracruzana style; and even the story and recipe of the real Caesar salad, the greatest dish ever, combining fish and cheese and born in Tijuana.
The anchor, of course, is Kempton’s home base of California. A signature margarita and quesadilla recipe, an only-in-California pizza, and a classic technique for cooking fish on a backyard barbeque all are included. Vegetarian offerings abound.
The fusion aspects of the book make sense to us California natives, open-minded to new ideas and inspirations, especially when attached to our ideas of coastal living in our surf enclaves. It is not hard to imagine that the California mythology and dream of surf and sun, of the beach lifestyle, have played a part in creating a California cuisine that is healthy and flavorful, full of vegetables, fruits and olive oil, taking advantage of the bounty of our coastline.
The underlying simplicity to almost all the recipes in “First We Surf” gives a feeling not of a professional chef writing a cookbook but of an inspired and passionate amateur who understands and delights in the true meaning of the power of food and sharing with friends and family the conviviality of getting together.
Kempton’s book doesn’t break new culinary ground, but his true passions of surfing, travel and cooking show well throughout, and his desire to share is refreshing. On the fun side, it is a unique subject, and even a non-member of the surfing tribe can find the adventures tying it all together into a “story.”
Great books about California cooking
- “Cooking by Hand,” by Paul Bertolli (2003): Thoughtful and uncompromising, Bertolli offers his philosophy on getting the best out of ingredients with time-honored techniques and the pleasures of the gestures of cooking. A pillar of the California cuisine golden age.
- “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years that Changed our Culinary Consciousness,” by Joyce Goldstein (2013): Finely detailed and meticulously researched, with dozens of interviews that reveal the timeline and players of California food history.
- “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook,” by Alice Waters (1995): Where it all started. Though a bit dated, the menu format of the book shows how Alice and her team broke the mold and created the identity we all know today.
- By Jim Kempton
- 248 Pages, Prospect Park Books, $29.95