Some Thoughts on French Cuisine
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.