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A Surprising Guide to French Cuisine

To many Americans, French cuisine seems ornate and outdated. Yet France deserves credit for everything from mayonnaise to California Cabernet. An unapologetic Francophile takes stock.

I'm an insufferable francophile. My cellphone settings are in French. I still use the metric scale I bought when I lived in Paris, which requires me to convert from cups to grams when I make brownies. In my opinion, those indestructible woven rags swished by housewives throughout France are infinitely superior to throwaway wipes.

So when I say that I believe most Americans know virtually nothing about whose kitchen clogs we have stepped into, it sounds like more of my France worship. But in fact, Americans have certain prejudices against French food and wine when much of what we take for granted at excellent restaurants in the United States (French and not, fancy and not) and home kitchens (mayonnaise!) simply would not exist without the French. And French influence continues to shape the way Americans eat and drink.

To illustrate how much we owe the French, I've created an alphabetized listing of a few of the greatest Gallic contributions to American gastronomy. Turns out we're all a little more French than we'd ever admit.

AOC

The French love of codification has had a profound effect on its system of winemaking, and that in turn has had a huge impact on the American approach. Through the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the French government mandates where vignerons (grape growers) can plant vines, and what varietals they can farm in a particular place. The goal is to protect what is inherently special about a wine. By designating American Viticultural Areas (AVA), the US has taken the same giant step.

Brigade System

Working as a line cook in a top American restaurant is like being a foot soldier in Napoleon's army. That's because we've adopted Escoffier's hierarchical brigade system, modeled on the military. From dishwasher and tournant (swing cook) to garde-manger (cold food cook) and saucier, every job is also a place in the pecking order. Whatever the position, cooks tuck kitchen towels efficiently at the waist; all is rigor, cleanliness and discipline. "We know that the finest results only occur when there is slavish, obsessive attention to every detail," says Greg Lopez, the chef at Urbane restaurant in Seattle, "and that is, indeed, very French."

Canning

Ultimately, we have Napoleon Bonaparte to thank (again) for America's new wave of DIY and artisanal pickles and preserves. It was a French chef who developed the method for sealing food in airtight jars during the Napoleonic Wars to feed the troops, even before Louis Pasteur explained why it worked.

Chefs as Celebrities

When Newsweek put Paul Bocuse on the cover in 1975, it legitimized the profession of chef in America. Today, kids are glued to cooking shows and middle-class parents feel proud of, not embarrassed by, a son or daughter who chooses a career in the kitchen. Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, and a maverick chef of the 1980s says, "If you told anyone you were a cook a generation ago, they'd have said, 'What's the matter with you? I thought you had a future. No one should have to do menial work.' "

Food Processor

It's no wonder that, in 1960, the French created the Robot Coupe, as its designers called it: This tool makes short work of labor-intensive basics in the French canon, like pâtés, mousses and duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms and shallots). For similar tasks, I actually prefer a food mill, another French invention, which combines pureeing and straining.

French Grapes

"We would still be drinking whisky and beer if the French hadn't arrived on the scene," says Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley wine importer whose discoveries, such as Henri Jayer in Burgundy, helped transform America's wine industry. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc—they're all French varietals.

Kitchen French

In many American restaurants, chefs and line cooks of every nationality speak a kind of shorthand French. "It's so obvious, people forget," says Colin Alevras, service director at The Dutch in New York City. "Different people can't communicate without a lingua franca. English may be the language of the Internet, but French is still the language of cooking."

La Présentation

Where does craftsmanship end and artistry begin? With their deeply rooted culture of aesthetics, French chefs have arranged the elements of each dish with an eye for maximum beauty, going back to Antonin Carême's architectural masterpieces of the 19th century. American cooks picked up the tweezers only recently. "Artful plating really is better than protein to the front, starch to the left and vegetable to the right," says chef Christopher Cipollone of Tenpenny restaurant in New York City.

Le Guide Culinaire

Auguste Escoffier's 1907 codex of cooking summarized and organized all the accumulated knowledge of French cuisine, from sauces and eggs to fish and roasts. It's still the foundation of ambitious American restaurant kitchens. "No matter how out of the box you get on your menu, everything traces back to French technique," says Quinn Hatfield, chef and owner of Hatfield's in Los Angeles.

Locavorism

Thanks to a revelatory trip she made to Provence, Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse laid the groundwork for a garden-to-plate culture of food in the United States in the 1970s; later, American chefs like Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco and Barry Wine at the Quilted Giraffe in New York City would refine and recast that vision. "The French model is based on the market, on freshness," says famed French chef Daniel Boulud, who has helped push American food forward, partly by training a new generation of chefs in the US. "Then you apply technique."

Restaurants

Making the ordinary into something exceptional has always been the Gallic approach. "To eat" is English; "to dine" is French. Not surprisingly, the word restaurant derives from the French. Restaurants, with individual tables and à la carte menus, were invented by the French in the 18th century.

Rigorously Sourced Ingredients

Sea salt from California's Big Sur, Washington state Dungeness crab, Oregon morels: They were largely unknown until French chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin, who worked mostly in Washington, DC, began seeking them out in the late '70s and '80s. In New York City, Gilbert Le Coze of Le Bernardin went to the fish market and worked with David Samuels from Blue Ribbon to get high-quality seafood. He taught the fishmongers how to handle and pack the fish properly, so it would arrive in the best condition.

Soufflé

The French are master chemists (Marie Curie, for example), and French chefs used kitchen science long before the immersion circulator to create a venerable tradition of culinary disguise and transmogrification. What could be more wizardlike than folding whipped egg whites into a béchamel sauce to make a magical soufflé rise?

Sous Vide

The French didn't invent cooking at low temperatures in an airtight pouch (the Swiss did), but they are responsible for making sous vide standard in most serious professional kitchens. Its use has helped forge the American ethic of rustic yet precise food, calculated to show off impeccable ingredients.

Terroir

The French coined this untranslatable term for the essence of a place—its geography, soil and climate— as a descriptor for wines and, by extension, foods like cheeses, hams and oysters. Geological quirks made France, a country the size of Texas, one of the most fruitful, diverse and dominant agricultural centers of Europe. The French define themselves by the soil under their feet; it's patrimony over patriotism.

Best of French Cuisine

Published October 2011
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