Some Thoughts on French Cuisine

France Map

French cuisine is, once again, a popular topic of discussion these days. Actually, anything controversial about France seems to foster a lot of heated debates. On one side are the folks decrying French-bashing, complaining that the French are unfairly picked on. Then there are the others who eat up books about how superior the French are, because they are better at parenting, they miraculously stay thin, they don’t have plastic surgery, everyone enjoys months of vacations, and Paris is a magical place where love, fashion, and fine food, flourish on the cobbled streets of the city. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between and, like any where, there is the great, the ordinary, and a bit of the not-so-good. I want to play the referee but there’s usually a bit of truth in most compliments and criticisms, and the reality is more complicated.

French cuisine gets its share of praise and criticism, some deserved, some not. One truth I’ve learned after living here for over a decade is that people really like to eat. The outdoor markets are crowded, lines snake out the door at bakeries, and cafés and restaurants are packed – even on Tuesday evenings – in spite of la crise (the economic crisis).

But what is French cuisine? Traditionally, cuisine du potager (cooking from the garden) or cuisine du marché (cooking from the daily market) were the foundations of French cuisine. Cuisine du potager was born out of economic and common sense; you cooked and ate what was closest to where you lived. Part of it was out of necessity (there was no Chinese garlic or avocados from Peru way-back-when), but mostly because the food was either free, picked from your own garden, or grown nearby. So you were always eating seasonally and locally. In France, you were cooking and eating local products; fresh cream, butter, and cheeses made in your region, peas from your garden, eggs from the neighbor’s chicken coop, and bread from the village bakery.

As times changed, modernity affected French cuisine, and how people cooked and ate. People migrated to cities, supermarkets sprung up to make shopping more efficient, and imported goods became cheaper and easy to obtain. Along with the development of canned food, as private homes acquired refrigerators and freezers, frozen and pre-prepared foods became more appealing. As the world moved forward, people stopped having as much time to cook and eat: with both parents working, and working longer hours, facing heavy commutes, there was less (or no) time to go to the markets and cook.

apples

France also became hospitable for fast-food restaurants, most notably McDonald’s. It is commonly reported that France is the fast-food chain’s second most profitable country in the world. (The one that Jose Bové heroically bulldozed back in 1999 to much cheering and adulation, is now just like all the other McDonald’s, serving les Big Macs and featuring a McDrive window, to pick up food while never leaving your car.) Most recently, the opening of Burger King in Paris saw long lines of people waiting up to two hours to chow down on le Whopper, and because of the crowds it was (perhaps derisively) dubbed by some foreign press as The Hottest Restaurant in Paris.

Outsiders are often perplexed by the popularity of fast-food chains in France, but they are convenient: They’re open all the time, between traditional meal times, when other restaurants are closed. Service is fast and efficient. Restrooms are sparkling clean and offer free WiFi. (Which, anyone who lives in Paris knows, is a godsend when your Internet service goes out at home.) And, as other countries, they allow families who don’t have a lot of money, to have the experience of going out to eat.

(If you have four kids and you make minimum wage – €1445/month in France – you’re priced out of most restaurants if you want a family night out. And while it’s often pointed out that folks could make a far more nutritious meal for their family at home for the same price, many want the experience – and enjoyment – of dining out in a restaurant. And McDonald’s is affordable.)

grapes at the market

So what does that mean when defining French cuisine today? Similar to asking “What is American cuisine?”– there isn’t an easy answer. The foods most-often associated with America are hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza – foods that originated outside of America. Nowadays we have farm-to-table restaurants cooking products from local markets and specifically sourced, creating dishes that show off the food to its best advantage. I am not sure if the mix of foods served in America could be easily classified as “American food.” I haven’t seen nettle focaccia or kale pesto on any menus in Italy. But they have roots in Italian cooking. Is chocolate pudding, a take on crème pâtissière au chocolat, French cuisine? Is that sherbet you just churned up Arabic cookery? Someone recently told me that the Italians invented coffee, which I think people from Africa, or the Middle East, might have something to say about. The lines on who owns what, or where things come from, are regularly blurred.

Many of the foods in America have been brought by immigrants and are now considered part of our culture and cuisine. Some foods we enjoyed abroad (and through cookbooks), have become popular in America because they fit our lifestyle and taste. Today in Paris, and across France, restaurants – and tastes – reflect a similar mix. There are sushi bars, French bakeries, Chinese take-outs, bistros, American fast food restaurants, bento boxes, Michelin three-star restaurants, couscous restaurants, burger joints, and in almost any neighborhood or village, you’ll find meat spinning on a broche, carved up to make le sandwich Grec (gyro). While they may not sound like “French cuisine,” they are among the foods that the French eat today. The reality is that France is experiencing (and, in many instances, resisting) globalization, evolving as cities, and the world, invariably do.

menu

The New York Times recently published an article, Can Anyone Save French Food? The story featured only one French chef (who had trained in England and America), which irked a number of people. I didn’t mind because I credit many of the people featured for jump-starting this next wave of cooking in France. It is in our nature, as Americans, to be open to change and to be more fluid and entrepreneurial in our approach. (Entrepreneur is indeed a French word and there are French people who are entrepreneurial. But on the whole, it’s a quality very closely associated with Americans and other cultures.) Being relatively new cultures, Americans and Australians (and others) don’t have the same history and fixed ideas that the French have cultivated for centuries.

Non-Frenchmen – myself included – don’t often comprehend the cultural differences, which include attitudes toward bureaucracy, strikes, customer service, education, etiquette, and immigration. But change is approached, and success is defined differently, in France, and there are many fixed ideas that are hard to move away from. (Roughly one-third of French people want to be fonctionnaires, or bureaucrats, who work for the government.) That many people don’t really want to do anything but continue on with the way things are, may take a few generations, as we’re seeing now with the younger crop of French chefs, who are willing to strike out and do something different on their own.

I found the article, or at least the idea of people cooking very good food in Paris, optimistic and positive. Not just because I am friendly with some of the people featured, but because I like and admire them for what they are doing. I don’t really care what country a chef is born in; I like foods from everywhere, no matter who is cooking it, from the men stretching flatbreads in a flour-dusted Lebanese bakery to a determined young man cooking in a remote part of Sweden. But you don’t have to be Italian to cook good Italian food, nor do you have to be Spanish to prepare a fine Spanish meal. If a cook happens to be Australian and cooking good food in Paris, or a French chef is cooking inspired food in Berkeley – well, I’m all for it.

camembert cheese

Though it’s true there have been some lulls and missteps in French cooking I’m not sure it needs to be “saved.” People ask me why Parisian chefs are still using foam, and maybe I am just being close-minded, but I don’t think that mushrooms and chocolate go together. For lunch the past Saturday I had a knock-your-socks off dish of fresh peas, sheeps’ milk yogurt, tiny leaves of sautéed Swiss chard, and some herbs I’d never heard of, accompanied by the best (French) rosé wine I’ve ever had. It was prepared by the talented Canadian chef at 6 Paul Bert. The freshness of the vegetables reminded me of the simple mound of vegetables that wowed me at Le Meurice, cooked by a French chef. Those restaurants are completely different from each other, but they use French products, served in France. So maybe it’s time to stop striving so much to classify foods according to which country it’s cooked in, and just say that they’re making good food. And maybe it’s just becoming less and less possible to define a cuisine by the country where it’s being cooked.

I think the conversation might be better served if it can move away from asking (or arguing) if French cuisine is in need of rescuing, or can it be saved. People in France are still making Coq au vin, omelets, crêpes, gratins, mousse au chocolat, tartes Tatin, and eating French cheeses. I think everyone can agree that those are, indeed, examples of French cuisine, with deep roots in the soul of the country. And while many restaurants have dropped the ball on some of those items, and you don’t find them very often on menus nowadays, quite a few people still prepare all those things at home and they’re still popular. There are a number of French restaurants whose food could certainly use rescuing, but no one could argue, after a walk through Paris, that the pastry shops, bakeries, butchers and charcuteries, aren’t doing a pretty good job upholding the standards of la cuisine française.

Yes, the single-subject restaurants serving everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to meatballs are un peu trop (a little too much), but they are signaling a new way for a younger generation of cooks to present foods at a lower costs, as it’s cheaper to do one thing and do it well. True, many of these places were started by Americans or Australians, then adopted by the French, but if the result is better “fast” food than fast-food outlets, and better coffee, I’m for them.

wine

Rather than saying this talk about the changes in French cuisine are anti-French, I find the reality just the opposite. I’ve seen a refreshing openness over the last five years in Paris to new cuisines, and ideas are coming from inside – and outside – the country, by a mix of French-born chefs and cooks, and folks coming from elsewhere. I am optimistic when I see that the lines at the producteurs stands are the longest at my market. And people flock from across the city to go to the vibrant Batignolles and Sunday Raspail markets, which feature organic fruits and vegetables, and sustainably raised meats and fish.

Interest in natural wines has exploded. Such young, talented French people as Henri from Glazed, who is churning out wickedly good ice cream with unusual flavors, Nicolas Berger crafting bean-to-bar chocolate at La Manufacture de Chocolat, and Nico doling out dripped coffee, roasted up the hill from his café, Hollybelly in Belleville. The dining room staff at such places as Caillebotte, Septime, 6 Paul Bert, and Bones are showing how friendly and knowledgeable French service can be. The sweet young woman at West Country Girl, who always give me double bisous (cheek kisses) when we stop in for dinner, (which may have something to do with the cheesecake I brought her a while back), before racing back to the kitchen to flip the hot crêpes simmering on her griddles. I’m not sure if you could say these folks are saving French cuisine. Or if what they’re doing is even French. But I hope whatever they’re cooking up, they’re saving some of it for me.

84 comments

  • Hi David! Great post, I’m curious to know if you could share with your readers the name of the type of Rose you had at Le 6 Paul Bert yesterday? I’d love to know more recommendations you have on your favorites types of red, rose, and white wines please. Can’t wait for your next book to become published, hopefully you’ll have a signing in NYC!

    • The Rosé is called “Cardinal” and was produced by Valentin Valls. I couldn’t find any information online about it, but that’s the name and the producer. (Note that it’s not a super-dry rosé, but is a little different. I loved it, although everyone has their own tastes and likes.)

  • I really appreciate your insights on the subject and providing nuisances!

  • Bonjour David. I command you for this informative piece on the status of the French (Parisian?) food scene today. You took a step back and a good look around to praise what needs to be praised – no matter what the nationality or training of the chef who prepared it. Having lived in the United States for over 18 years now, I only get a glimpse of what is happening in my homeland during my [always too short] annual visits to France. I will be looking forward to visiting some of the places you mention here. I agree change – and evolution – are often beneficial. I believe many French people would agree too. What gets tedious and unnecessarily annoying are the provocative headlines, such as the one in the NYT article you mention this week. No, France and French food do not need saving. But life in France – and French food – will evolve and change, as they always have. Yet some traditions – and traditional dishes – will remain as well, because that is how the French like it. The NYT & Co will just have to get used to it ;-) — Well done. French Girl in Seattle

    • I thought the article was quite good, although I think you’re right about the title. It’s a hard subject because, as I was reaching to figure out, is “What is French cuisine?” There are the wonderful classical foods and dishes, but nowadays, a bunch of young chefs in France (French, and otherwise) are cooking and I’m not entirely sure they could call it French cuisine. But like I mentioned, are the farm-to-table chefs in America cooking “American” cuisine? Perhaps with globalization it’s just becoming harder and harder to label things from a certain place.

  • Only one thing to say: “Here, here”.

    That NY Times piece was hilariously outdated and based on an utterly false premise.

    Looking forward to the new book, David.

    M

  • While I second many – if not all – of your observations, I also was really irked by the article in the NYT. I’m so glad that there are people – French and non French – cooking up new things in France. I enjoy diversity and am glad that there are more opportunities to eat good mexican, vietnamese, or burgers. I’m also annoyed by the frozen-food bistro trend and the loss of some good traditional restaurants.

    But the undertone of a lot of these articles are “oh the French are so damn lazy and unrefined, letting their culinary culture die while eating at McDonalds, old Europe is dying anyway blablabla. Thank goodness we Americans/ Brits/ Australians/ whatever are coming in to save them from themselves (and bring them kale!)”. It feels like cultural appropriation and is very condescending. It also ignores the fact that there are many French people (or even just non anglo-saxon folks), whether they are chefs or housewives, who are working very hard to keep culinary culture alive and evolving.

    Still, I echo a lot of your observations, about the cost of life and the popularity of fast food, etc, and always enjoy reading your point of view.

  • Excellent article! Loved the photos too.

  • I loved reading this. Thanks so much for sharing!
    Caitlin

  • I’d have to agree, with some reservations, that French cuisine – whatever that is, as you said – doesn’t need saving, unless it’s from self-appointed food nazis. But I would like to see – and taste – a bit more inventive cooking: finding a decent restaurant meal around these parts isn’t that difficult, but getting an exciting one can be tricky.

    What does worry me a bit is that at least here in province the clientèle at the markets tends to be older – like 60+ – and unless you’re really lucky the tomatoes on the stall come straight from a genetics lab in an underground bunker in Holland, not ripened in the sun in someone’s garden.

    And it still alarms me to see what goes into the shopping trolleys at Carrefour. I mean, how can people eat that many frozen pizzas and Paul Bocuse happy meals?

    I do get the odd French-thing trying to tell me that American/British/[insert country of choice] cuisine is crap. Pointing out that trying to judge a tradition as rich and varied as, say, US cooking with all its diverse cultural influences on the basis of a hot dog usually keeps them quiet, and then to add insult to injury I will mention that what we think of as “French cuisine” is a bastard hybrid of all the French regions and foreign cooking. Let’s face it, the glories of patisserie owe their existence to the Italian pastrycooks that came in with Catherine de Medicis.

  • Great post David. Thought I do think that there has been a decline in the average quality of restaurant food in Paris (I have had way too many obviously-thawed-from-frozen meals at neighborhood bistros), I do think that there is still a steady stream of great French restaurants. Some are new and unassuming (like the phenomenal Aux Deux Amis on rue Oberkampf – go for lunch, you won’t regret it) and some are traditional and neighborhood fixtures (like the Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes on rue Folie Mericourt where they tutoyer all their customers and the cassoulet is as old style as it gets). French cuisine, especially in Paris, is just evolving, like the cuisine in any city in Europe.

  • Great post, thank you David

  • David,
    Another great post, thank you so much. We have been in Paris for the past month, and have taken your suggestion to heart. Hollybelly was our first (well three times) stop…great food and super staff. Heading back to the Pacific Northwest thus week. Keep up the good work, and hope Seatte is on your book tour.

  • As a “time traveller” in France – I lived there for some years in the early 1970s and ate at the first McDonald’s to open in Paris, just off the Champs-Elysees, when it was considered interesting, American food and hadn’t yet acquired the reputation it has today – I find the French taste for chain restaurants and fast food alarming, if understandable! The street markets do still sell fresh, seasonal and local produce, which is more than ours do (ours tend to sell the same things all year round), and while you may complain about the “sameness” of the fresh produce in the supermarkets, compared to what we get, they are a riot of diversity! But when you are eating in the same places all year round, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and it may or may not be seasonal….

    One thing I miss from back in the day is the lunches you used to be able to buy in any corner café. Every café would serve you a croque-monsieur (in those days a ham sandwich with toasted cheese on top, made fresh, no nonsense about white sauces and microwaves), a “hot-dog” (in a baguette, with mustard, and with Gruyere toasted on the top (yummy, especially if they didn’t overdo the mustard), fried eggs either by themselves or with ham or bacon, various omelettes, and various sandwiches: ham, cheese, mixed, salami or rillettes were the normal choices.

    These days it’s rare to find a café that serves these, at least in Paris, but they made delicious and cheap lunches!

  • Congratulations! The April issue of Bon Appetit reports, “It’s Raining Cookbooks, and these seven titles are our favorites from the flood of spring releases.” The
    second book listed is: My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz “an opinionated expat”!!

    Best wishes for your continued success.

  • Given your perspective and knowledge, your thoughts on this topic are invaluable. What is happening within a culture is always more complicated than what outsiders can glean. Essays such as this that share the complexity of it all give us all a platform on which to relate as real people advancing all together one step at a time toward an unknown but (I’m an optimist) brighter future. Thanks for sharing.

  • Good article. I think the hardest thing for Americans and I can’t really say this for any other country is to not define the country of origin for food. We love to label to put a neat box around something. Though looking at foods items do you say that a pasta with red sauce is Italian, when tomatoes came from the Americas?

    When I think of making Ramen, I have never been to Japan, Do I have insights to ideas to stretch the food to different lengths. Does that now make it American or does it make it Japanese. That is do you still even call Ramen Japanese and not possibly look at the history where China was involved. The questions are endless

  • Hi David, Great article as a follow up to the NY Times piece recently published.
    Really enjoyed what you had to say. I’ve only visited Paris once, in 2012 for 4 days. We made meals in our rented apt. and also grabbed food from markets, bakeries. We had one restaurant meal, I think the name of the place was Ville de la Marine, and I had Tete au Veau which was very tasty. Anyway, the food everywhere was always good, in fact during our whole vacation in France we never had a bad meal anywhere.
    Salut!

  • A wonderful read, as always, David. Many of the changes you mention are being realized here in the states too. The economy has created an atmosphere and attitude of change that alters the way we spend our food dollar and how we utilize our purchases. Many of us are open to foods we never would have considered in our childhoods, not because we were food snobs, but simply because they were not ‘mainstreamed’ into our diets. Living in a more global society has opened doors to culinary delights and the opportunity to experiment within the realm of so many possibilities. And, we are still blessed by the comfort foods within the regions east, south, west, north and mid-western in the States. Food, what a blessing!

    Salude and Cheers!

  • Absolument d’accord!

    We moved to France in the 1980s for love of food, wine and travel and moved back there in 2005 for similar reasons – the markets, the restaurants, the vignerons and the sheer delight in good food – wherever it comes from. Some people have always been selective, looking for good products and cooking them in ways that provide wonderful meals. Other people don’t, as some amazing supermarket trolley-loads will confirm. France – producers, cooks, and eager eaters and drinkers – continues to delight in quality food and wine. And no, French cuisine doesn’t need saving!

  • Astute observations, with regards to French cuisine, but as has been stated here, the same could be extended to US cuisine and what is considered ‘canon’ in terms of signature dishes–and perhaps as importantly (or not)–who does the cooking?

    America, much like France one imagines, is a great culinary melting pot where immigrants over the years have brought their foods and preferences with them. Time was if I saw a non-Asian serving or cutting sushi behind the counter, I’d be aghast thinking ‘how can a non-Japanese person make sushi?’, an odd reverse chauvinism.

    We don’t question that Americans can cook French or other European cuisines, but we (do we?) draw the line when it comes to ‘race’ and cuisine. Here in Berkeley is the new, precious Ramen Shop, serving up ‘genuine’ Japanese noodles and broth etc., all by a bunch of young chefs who cut their teeth at Chez Panisse and then spent a few months in Japan doping out how to prepare ramen and its broth, though with its twist from California cuisine.

    I oddly find it quite presumptuous that even with such a cooking pedigree as they have that they could lay claim to any measure of mastery of such a cuisine–not only because of their short time studying it, relatively speaking, but is it because of their race? Am I prejudiced?

    Then there’s the white American in Portland who is considered the end-all, be-all of Thai cuisine. Guy spent years in Thailand, but…he’s a white guy. There is still a disconnect,at least for me,

    It’s still a process for me. I’m of European extraction, mostly Croatian, so does this only qualify me for Croatian cookery and American BBQ? I think not. I need to keep an open mind.

    • A Chinese-American friend of mine in San Francisco asked me on my last visit, why the Asian food wasn’t very good in Europe, since the ingredients and the people are there. (Or here, I should say.) I couldn’t really answer that except to say that there hadn’t been the mixing of the cultures, until recently, so much of the Asian food isn’t authentic, although I see that changing. When I arrived in Paris, I went to a ramen shop on the rue Saint-Anne, a street of Asian restaurants (which has become very popular) and the waiter wouldn’t give me tofu noodles. When I asked, he said, “You won’t like tofu. French people don’t like it.” I told him I wasn’t French, and I do see people eating tofu in those places.

      When I asked around about the Asian food, someone said to me that they thought it was because there wasn’t a vibrant middle class of Asians, when tended to bring up the quality of the food in the restaurants. I’m not entirely sure about that, but it’s an interesting theory. But also I think with people traveling more and globalization, I’m seeing more and more “authentic” restaurants in Paris, that don’t tone down the food for local tastes. And they’re frequented by French, as well as other, diners.

  • I think we often see that the headline writers often have different ideas and goals than the writers of the actual articles.

  • Great post!

    As a Canadian living in Nantes I still have to explain that we don’t eat exclusively caribou and maple syrup, and that one of the things I miss most about Toronto is the food (Ethiopian inera, Korean bulgogi, jerk chicken and beef patties) that comes with being a city of immigrants! I love the changes that are happening in the restaurant and food industries in France; sure, some are not great but others are fantastic. We had some friends up from Poitiers this weekend and had magret de canard, sauteed potatoes and a mâche salad for dinner, classic French food and all from local producers. Lunch on Sunday was cheeseburgers (ground by me) with British white cheddar on the grill. A great mix of French and North American!

    One thing; I’m not entirely sure but I think le sandwich grec might be a Parisian name, what you described are called kebabs in the west of France.

  • I like what you say about poorer families wanting the experience of eating out. They want a treat too, and macdonalds can provide that.
    I feel anglo-american cuisine is fun but it is terribly fashion-led. French food is built to last, classic dishes that will be eaten a hundred years from now.
    They still know loads more about genuinely good food than we do.

  • Thanks for commenting on the article David, I had wondered what you thought when I read that article. I had a couple of months in Lausanne at the end of last year and was surprised that the type of forward thinking casual interesting bistro food that we take for granted in Melbourne Australia is rare in France/Switzerland. Obviously one doesnt travel to have the same things away from home – but a lot of what we had was lacking a bit of flair. Sounds like the flair is appearing in Paris. Having said that , I suspect that the level of home cooking and respect for good ingredients is better in France.

    • Part of the difference is that we (and I speak not just about the U.S., but about other anglo-saxon countries – for lack of a better word..) are more adaptable because our cultures are newer and more fluid. And while France has a history of immigration, hence the widespread North African and Middle Eastern foods, there aren’t many middle-end restaurants servings those types of food. Mostly they are quick-food stands or inexpensive restaurants. (Notice to eagle-eyed folks that I said “mostly”, because there are a few.) It is very hard to change things in older cultures and countries, and while not everything needs changing, some do. And not all cultures are self-critical. I know in the U.S., we’ve had to take a long, hard look at what has happened to our cuisine, our health, and our buying and eating habits. I remember when things like “salad mix” was unheard of, with tiny greens and radicchio, and now they serve it on airplanes and at fast-food restaurants. So many things have changed – mostly for the better!

  • Interesting article…. I recently got Gregory Marchand’s (Frenchie’s) recently published cookbook and loved reading about his life, restaurants, and of course the recipes. He was trained in Britian and America, then went home to cook in France. That would have been unheard of thirty years ago.

    Cuisines have to evolve I guess because lifestyles are continually changing, like you mentioned. Young people moving to cities, commuting, the lack of time to prepare meals — both parents working, many time a single parent trying to raise a family alone.

    I’m grateful to people like Patricia Wells who wrote cookbooks during the last 30 years and recorded many French recipes that might otherwise have been lost to us. One of my favorite cookbooks of hers is Bistro Cooking. French cooks and chefs shared their recipes and cooking methods with her — invaluable.
    I noticed that her last few cookbooks have included many Asian recipes reflecting the food scene in Paris and her travels to Vietnam. Globalization has changed us all….

    • When Spring opened, I remember back (about ten years ago) they always made a big deal that Daniel Rose was an American chef. I don’t know why people think that because you are from someone else, you can’t make the food of where you are living, because I’ve worked with excellent French, Italian, Mexican, and Asian cooks in California who were incredible cooks, and not necessarily the cuisines from where they were from. (That said, just because you’re from a country, doesn’t mean you’re a good cook of that country’s food!) It’s interesting that French chefs who are well-known in America are not known in France, such as Jacques Pépin, Dominique Ansel, François Payard, Jacques Torres, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. And they doing very well in the states.

  • I love the map of France in the first photo you published — is that a cookbook and can you please tell me the title?

    • It’s from Traditional Recipes from the Provences of France by Curnonsky. It’s a fabulous book although there have been several editions and printings. My copy is from 1961 and was published (in English) by Les Productions de Paris, which I found here.

      (The cover looks like this one on the Amazon page, but you may need to search around online for an available copy at a place like AbeBooks, or through another vintage book seller.)

      • Thank you! It would be interesting if you posted about cookbooks published through the years that are about traditional French cuisine.

  • Great post! But, what I’m really interested in is that book at the top. :) Can you tell me the title? The artwork is lovely!

  • Great post. It’s informative and has some serious, deep insight. I too believe that sometimes we fail to acknowledge the fluidity of culture and how that fluidity is the base of what we may now consider the pillars of our cultures. Could you imaging Europeans not eating potatoes, tomatoes or smoking cigarettes? Or how about Hispanics not eating rice and beans? All of these things, and many, many more were introduced products just a few hundred years ago, and now, they are staples. All of our cultures are intertwined, and food is the best example of how trends of the past define who we are today, and today’s will impact how the future generations will be, and how they’ll eat.

  • Dear David , what little leaves we’re served with the fresh shelled peas? And was the sheeps jog hurt added at thei end of cooking or was it stirred in earlier on? Thanks for great Article! Caroline

  • Dear David,
    NYT article put me on edge. There is no need, no need whatsoever, to rescue French cuisine. Your reply is so well reasoned and to the point. I have been cooking in the French style since following Julia Child at Savenor’s in Cambridge when I was a student and then picking up Richard Olney at the bookstore. Both are superb teachers of the many regions of French cuisine. The discipline of French cooking is a great way to learn. And the pleasures are many. Let’s take the simplest: Roast chicken seasoned with garlic and thyme served with a bouquet of watercress, the peppery leaves softening in the warm juices, in short, a wilted salad. Add sauteed potatoes. Doesn’t French cooking rule?
    All my best,
    Anne

  • Have you read the book Au Revoir to All That about the decline of French food? This post reminds me of that. There’s some optimism involved too despite the title. I found it riveting actually.

  • Thoughtful post. We’re looking forward to your new book and seeing you in Dallas.
    I’m tiring of all the trendy menus; farm egg topping everything, bacon and weird food combos ( mushroom gelato?).

  • Hi, Wonderful post! People need to remember, that chefs who come from anywhere can cook great food, because they really care & take the time to prepare the best, using local sources when possible. Thanks, Milt

  • Euro 1445/month minimum wage? Using the minimum wage in England is £6.50 x 7.5 hrs per day x 5 days x 4 weeks = £975.00. The French are well paid in comparison!

  • Great article David…Thanks.

    joy

  • FYI, avocados are from Mexico and potatoes from Peru. Other than that, great article!

  • Noel, I think David was referring to the fact that avocados are currently being imported into France from Peru, not that they were from Peru originally.
    Here in NYC we get Peruvian avocados at certain times of the year but I find them less flavorful than their Mexican counterparts :)

  • Nicely written. I remember being so surprise over ten years ago seeing so many McDonalds in Paris. You hit it on the target for the reasons. Peru is poised to become larger player in U.S. avocado market in coming seasons. It truly has become a global market place with growers. The US meals at one time was more fresh market but because of imports it is no longer the case but I like both. I love my bananas, avocados and other fruits and frankly here in Kansas you cannot grow many items I love.

    I truly believe that the weight problem in the US is because of all of the food choices. When you eat the same items daily it does not excite your taste buds as much causing overeating..

  • David, Although I love all your posts and always read the comments too, this was a particularly interesting post and prompted particularly interesting comments. Thanks!

    I agree with those who say that French cuisine does not need saving, and that globalization is happening everywhere. But while I think it’s a good thing, mostly, the thing that I think needs, not necessarily saving, but perhaps more emphasis are the deeply local food traditions and, well, local foods. For instance, the best meal of my life thus far was in a taverna on the Greek Island of Hydra in the village of Microlimino. The taverna was so small it didn’t really even have a name. Microlimino was so small at that time (1979 ish), that it was really only a beach and that taverna. We were early for lunch and so were the only people there. Lunch was a salad, fried red mullet, bread, and retsina wine. Everything, except perhaps the wine, was local to Hydra. The fish caught that morning by the tavern keeper’s husband, and we saw her go around back and come back a few minutes later with tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions that she was shaking the dirt off of as she went back in the kitchen.

    With all the traveling I used to do, and all the “expense account” meals I have had, that meal is probably the best… if not the best, it vies with one other similar meal as best. I suspect it would be difficult to duplicate that meal, even in the islands of Greece, today and I think that’s unfortunate… I’d like to see that type of food experience saved.

  • More years ago than I care to remember I spent a few weeks around France (as part of a European wander). While I did eat at some white linen table cloth places (good, but they tend to be in the USA as well) what REALLY impressed me were the others:

    What was obviosly a working class cafeteria in Nice had food that was really great… Chicken in wine sauce, various vegetables, desserts. All cheap.  All at a level that would make it a go to lunch place in every USA city I’ve lived in.

    Some grungy hole in the wall in Paris producing sandwiches that were worth getting. I mean WORTH getting, not just if you were hungry and needed fast food.

    And, weirdly, a MacDonald’s… In Nice. I decided to do the touristy thing, just to say I had. It was good! I’ve eaten in them in the USA since the ’60s, but even as a kid I knew they weren’t good. Other (local brand) fast food was better, but none of them (in those days) were good food as compared to “real” food. But this McD had food. The fries tasted of butter, the burger actually tasted like real meat (I know they SAY 100% beef, but the taste doesn’t) and they had put some sauce on it that was tasty.

    My conclusion: France did food right…

    As an aside (lest one think me a francophile): Other than topless beaches, food was about the only thing I thought they did better than the rest of Europe.

    While this blog does cheer (the NYT was depressing), I do worry that it talks about chefs and “real” restaurants.  What I would mourn is the loss of places that foodies would skip, but were SO much better than their USA cousins.

  • new book? how did i miss that ? looking forward to it.

  • I never usually comment but just wanted to say- what a refreshing post! Good food is good food and the people who cook it are good chefs. The end.

  • Thank you for a fascinating and thoughtful post. Since French cuisine’s classic dishes are so well-established, I’ve often wondered what French people themselves think about this – whether they resist change or alternatively would like to see what’s considered “French cuisine” evolve to take in new things. The answer, I guess, will be different for every French person, but the rise of new trends in Paris you mention sheds some light on the question. What matters is not, as you say, whether they’re started by French chefs, but whether French people take to them, and it seems that they do.

  • David, I have noticed that you are commenting in the comments more frequently. Your follow-ups add much to the blog. Thank you.

  • Great blog post! It’s unsettling to think that American born chefs can’t cook French, or that French chefs can’t cook “American”. It’s about the ingredients! Here in Austin we’ve got a bunch of new chefs experimenting with locally grown, seasonal items and creating great dishes with Asian, French, Indian, etc. flavors. Viva la difference!

    A question, because I can’t think of another way to reach you. I made your garlic dill deli pickles yesterday and they are in the cabinet fermenting. The liquid is cloudy and a bit bubbly on top. Is this a bad thing? They’ve been in the brine for 24 hours.

    Thanks,
    Claire

  • I agree with your overall assessment, a cuisine doesn’t have to remain completely stagnant for it to remain authentic. French cuisine of 100 years ago is different than the French cuisine of 500 years ago. Every country will absorb influences and make it their own and with the ebb and flow of invaders, immigrants and trade over history its impossible to delineate some things as truly authentic and others as not.

    In Brazil, despite our much shorter history, many of what are now considered typical foods originated from other cultures such as kibe an appetizer you see at virtually every Brazilian padaria (bakery) or birthday party even though it is Lebanese in origin. For Spain a lot of their food was influenced by the Moors who occupied Spain such a long time ago and brought many spices and foods that are considered very Spanish today.

    Anyways, really great post and interesting read.

  • Really an excellent post David. People need to relax a bit about food. If it is good eat it and don’t over think who made it and what nationality it is. There are also times when fast food is appropriate and there is actually good fast food if you choose carefully. So people calm down, experiment and enjoy.

  • This.

    I ate at a new restaurant in town recently and was telling a friend about it. They asked what cuisine they served and I couldn’t figure out how to answer. It wasn’t Spanish or French or Mod-Oz or any of the many Asian cuisines. It was just bloody good food mostly cooked over a wood grill.

    I could say that the food was modern, that it was simple, that it was grilled but there was not much else to say. Other than that it was good.

    People too often get hung up on the traditional paradigm that food sits within a set group of cuisines. Thank goodness the chefs are moving past that and we don’t necessarily need to think that way.

  • Food…food…food…and more food.

    And what’s wrong with that?

    Absolutely nothing.

  • A number of years ago I looked at the McDonalds international website. At that time it said that there were 1200 McDonalds in France, and 200 in Italy.

    During a recent visit to Paris (staying in the 5th) I was alarmed and disappointed at how few “French” Restaurants and how many Sushi, McDonalds, etc there were.

    In Italy, if Mama didn’t make it, it doesn’t exist. Increasingly, everywhere, Mama doesn’t cook. A waiter at Chez Panisse told me about a restaurant near Parma, prefacing it with, “Don’t tell her, but this restaurant makes Capellini than my mother makes.” And they were incredible.

    Things change. But none-the-less I am not going to Paris for Big Macs thought I do appreciate their toilets.

  • I just read your newsletter and the part about not being able to download your photos to your iPad. I bought a cable that connects directly from my camera to my iPad to download photos while traveling. You can share photos from your iPad, as you know. I don’t use this method because I shoot RAW photos, and can’t find out how to get the photos from the iPad onto my computer still in RAW format. You might check this out for your trip, though. I hope to see you in the Bay Area in April or May. Will you be having book signings in Paris? I will be there in June.

  • I look forward to hearing what that rose’ was as well. I’m also stuck on that minimum wage! Amazing. Thanks for an interesting read!

  • So disappointed you are not coming to San Antonio — I was going to drive to Austin for your cooking demo, but the class filled unusually quick after news spread from your tweet.

    • Yes, I’ll be in Austin. There will be a signing that is open to all at the Central Market store there – the time and date are on my Schedule page.

  • Your mention of Ramen, made me remember the a posting by sun noodle. They had sent a large shipment of fresh Ramen noodles from NJ to France. Not sure where they were going in France though.

  • You mention Asian restaurants. Back in the 1970s, Paris was full of Vietnamese restaurants – practically one on every street corner. Obviously this was because of the flood of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the war that was on then, but they provided the food to which they were accustomed, cheaply and deliciously. Are they no longer there? I suppose their proprietors have all retired, and maybe gone back to Vietnam….

  • Which was the Rose wine that was so good? You don’t mention it in your review of 6 Paul Bert?

  • Annabel, Thank you for posting about cafe food in Paris in past years. I’ve been looking for a croque-monsieur recipe and couldn’t get with the recipes I found that had bechamel on them. The one I had in Paris last year sounded like the ones you talked about — simple with cheese on top and crunchy — delicious.

  • Great post; as usual, rumors of the demise of French Cuisine are greatly exaggerated. It doesn’t need “saving,” and the fresh breath that places like Spring have brought to Paris are several years old now, so it’s interesting to see this NYT article now. And while Paris is the capital, in province we are still eating very well, and fresh and local, as usual. Nothing in need of rescue there either, if you know where and how to eat.

  • Hi David- Again you are someone who never leads me astray. Recipes, recommendations, now philosophical musings. The point that I am very happy to read is your realization that fast food restaurants allow families without many resources to have a meal out. It might not be my choice
    (spent much time in BK when my kids were young) but it is a lovely choice if a parent doesn’t have to cook, kids are happy, and the dent in the budget is reasonable. (even that is not true for everyone)
    I am also glad you are a man saying this. Much as I love Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan they both have somebody in a household spending a lot of time shopping, planning, cooking. There is a very real hard world in the US and France and we who are lucky and happy enough to worry and fret about what our food is should think about how many people are grateful to eat. (Oddly enough any one of my family or friends will tell you what a snotty food person I am but just for me).Most people seem to do the best they can, survive and are happy whether the “foodies” (hate the word) of us realize it or not.

  • Reminds me of Patricia Wells writing in Bon Appetit May 2001. I’m REALLY missing eating all the wonderful things to be found daily.

  • Very interesting take on the subject – I thoroughly enjoyed reading your perspective. I think many dishes and recipes are really from a multitude of places, and like you said, can be difficult to distinguish their true origins. We call hamburgers American food, but would the German agree? I think with the rare exception of a few foods (like sushi, for example), where the origins are pretty narrowed down to one country, most cuisines aren’t specific to one culture. I believe it has more to do with how the food is prepared. A hamburger can be claimed by many cultures, but an oversize, bacon-filled, cheddar cheese topped burger is what I would define as American cuisine. I think the French have their own quirks with cooking, whether it’s lots of butter and cream, or simply making their bread in baguette form (vs. flat, made with a brick oven, etc.), which makes French cuisine solely French.

  • Interesting conversations about McDonalds in France. We find them to be a gourmet version of McD’s in the US. In 2004 in Arles we were leaving for a long drive to the Camargue and needed to take a lunch. Short on time, we compromised, went to McDonalds and ordered a salad with chicken to go.

    Ooh la la! It turned out to be so good we took our friends there the next day. Imagine butter lettuce with warm, roasted, perfectly seasoned chicken with typically excellent French vinaigrette. No wonder there’s a long line at lunchtime. I wish our US McDonalds would take cooking lessons from their French counterparts!

    • Yes, one of the reasons they say they’ve had such success in France is that they’ve adapted their offering to local tastes, featuring burgers with French cheeses, macarons, etc. – but they’ve kept the American things, like clean bathrooms and speedy service, that locals have taken to. I do have to say that it does discourage me to see so many teenagers eating there all the time and the long-term effects all that soda and burgers, and fries, will have on their diets and health.

  • maybe what is truly french are certain habits and ways of doing things (both in food and in life), not the exact recipes or food styles; perhaps some crucial restraints and decision-making are uniquely french and account for the results in the ‘french culture and food’ we seem to observe.

    there is something in france and my wonderful experience of it that is only french, despite the large variation of food and taste i encountered there. (1985-2004-i am speaking from the country portion of france though, not that of the city)

    i hope that remains, because i love(d) it very much. i haven’t been back since 2004 and i hope i find that ‘feeling’ there still when i do return.

  • David, I enjoyed your article which is excellent and true. But I don’t think it addresses the number one issue with French cuisine, which perhaps we see more because we live in the French countryside, far from Paris. And that is the near death of the French bistro and brasserie, once you get outside of the big city.

    We live near a lively tourist town of 6000, in the heart of Burgundy which is said to be the food capital of France. There are a dozen eateries in our town and not a single one which does not rely almost completely on frozen and prepared foods from Metro. Apart from one pizzeria where the pizza is made by hand, there is not a single place to eat where you can get a freshly made meal. When we first visited France many years ago, the rural Bistro was one of the delights of traveling in the French countryside. Sadly, those wonderful bistro’s are disappearing rapidly. And this at a time when the US and England are embracing with great enthusiasm everything fresh and local. It breaks my heart to see it.

  • Being an Australian brought up by a French father and Chinese mother, seasonal and local has been the hallmark of our family meals. Great insight into modern Parisian cuisine, looking forward to returning again one day!

  • Wonderful article post here David. I especially loved “So maybe it’s time to stop striving so much to classify foods according to which country it’s cooked in, and just say that they’re making good food.” Variety is the spice of life!

    Just received your book in the mail, bravo and best of luck on your book tour.

  • To me, the problem is distinguishing “French ” food from “French restaurant” food, whatever the style of the French food the restaurant serves.

    Here in America we cook food at home based pretty much on how we are brought up. Same as any country. Most cookbooks, however, focus on replicating restaurant food at home. It would be refreshing, and extremely beneficial, to have one that shows how to replicate what actual French people, for example, eat at home, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

    I can pretty much cook the French classics. I have no idea how to prepare decent breakfast or lunch…

    • You wouldn’t really come across a book of French recipes for breakfast foods because people eat bread, toast, or pastries with coffee in France, and not much else. Any current books on breakfast foods in France would be knock-offs of American-style brunch foods, as le brunch has become popular in certain Paris quartiers. However an excellent book, that was recently translated into English – La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E.St-Ange – could be called the Joy of Cooking, for French home cooking. Another is I Know How to Cook, I haven’t read the translated version of this book, but it’s also a French classic of home cooking.

  • Thanks, David. Yes, I have those (in French and in English) and I am enjoying your book as well.

    Lunch is a meal I always struggle with. To go out here, is to either spend a lot of money for a lot of food, or go to fast food. Neither is preferable.

    I have been to France, and Europe, dozens of times, but never lived there, or stayed with anyone who did. I am hopeful their lunch choices are better than mine.

    On a tangential subject, anther lack in my repertoire is what used to be called garnishes. You go to a French restaurant, and there are all of those yummy vegetable and starch garnishes with the entree. Not a real course, just something to enhance the main attraction. And please (italics) do not put my entree “over” something. I detest this trend. “Sauteed xxx over (italics again) xxxx. Disgusting.

  • Ah, David. I so much want to agree, because you are a brilliant chef and food writer, and I am a fan… mais non. A national food culture evolves, of course, from what households and corner bistros cooked for generations, but also from the cuisine of kings and queens and such elites of the past. This is surely true of France and Italy (where I lived for many years). But most urgent for a sense of ‘national’ (or regional) cuisine is what one grew up eating in your mother’s kitchen, with family, in community. The power of food memory is very deep. You cannot deny this. Perhaps Americans who grew up with disgusting artificial, ‘convenience’ foods that are ubiquitous in many parts of your country cannot understand such profound and cherished food memories, but even in America there are regions where people deeply understand that there cultural identity is shaped and formed by traditional foods – the South is the obvious example, among others. Of course all cultures change, meld foreign and traditional influences into happy new forms. But I feel you are being oddly blind to the power – and goodness – of food history here. Perhaps you ate terrible food growing up and cannot relate? Most people around the world, however, can undestand France’s love and affection for its traditional foods and wish to preserve the most-loved traditions – along with the pleasures of new foods from other places and foreign cooks too. Eh?

  • Great article, I do enjoy your viewpoint and have made a number of your recipes and am looking forward to picking up your latest cookbook. Having recently visited Paris, everything we are was superb from daily fare to fine dining. I was very inspired to shift to a French style of cooking, more focused on great flavor combinations and fine ingredients. To us, it was the quality of food which was so impressive. No GMO’s and over pesticide filled foods. The basic ingredients are pure, compared to what we get in the US, this contributes hugely to the flavor and nourishment we can achieve on a plate. The over processed typical family meals many of us grew up with, are neither full of delicious flavor or nourishment. Americans have been so tainted by the marketplace, we’ve not developed a palate for real food. Being open to other foods, flavors and cooking methods is what makes meals enjoyable. Thank you. :)

  • Just got your new book. WHY aren’t you coming to Chicago????

  • I love your reflection on how our immigrant culture has shaped our national (“American”) cuisine. I grew up in the ultimate suburban household (I think “normcore” is the term now), with spaghetti, pot roast, steak, mac and cheese, and everything else you’d expect – except alongside it was a dish we called “chicken and rice.” My sister and I grew up thinking this was literally as American as apple pie – it wasn’t until we were in college that we found out that it was imported straight from my father’s homeland in Suriname, formerly Dutch Guyana. It’s delicious! And I’m still realizing that not everyone grew up eating it – it’s a constant player on my mom’s menu (which is funny, because she’s a seventh-generation American with roots in northern Germany and Sweden – she learned how to make it from my dad.) Good for us, I think – and I hope (as a resident) that Paris will continue to elevate immigrants (in the kitchen, on the menu, etc) and their cuisines here.