As the curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are indeed in interesting times. France started another lockdown on Oct. 30. We aren’t supposed to go out except for essentials–work, exercise, appointments, groceries. Basically it means life goes on except for fun. This was brilliantly captured in a German public service announcement (scroll to the one with subtitles–you shouldn’t miss “lazy as racoons”!). The main hiccup is that we have to fill out a form, un attestation, swearing on our honor that we’re really going to work/the doctor/the supermarket/on a run or risk a €135 fine.Read more
Butter, Cream and Wine
“I like butter, cream and wine,” and not “peas cut in four,” wrote Paul Bocuse, the French “pope of gastronomy,” who died Saturday, just shy of his 92st birthday.
The father of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse influenced how most of us eat today. Despite his penchant for butter, cream and wine, he gave dishes a lighter twist that is now taken for granted. Lighter doesn’t need to mean bland; he also said that good cuisine isn’t about fancy products but about seasonings, which should be added using one’s fingertips: “Touch is fundamental.”
The story about the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine (New Cooking) is that Henri Gault et Christian Millau, of the restaurant guide that carries their name, had dined–very well–at lunch at his restaurant and it was so good they came back for dinner, asking for something light. Bocuse served them a salad of green beans, cooked but still crunchy, with shallots and olive oil, followed by lightly cooked rock mullet. Gault and Millau were smitten, and declared Bocuse’s style of cooking “Nouvelle Cuisine.”
While the world’s press has given honors to Bocuse’s obituary, the French are, understandably, even more detailed. Here are some nuggets you might appreciate:
Nouvelle Cuisine was one thing, molecular cuisine was too far. Asked in this excellent interview from 2007 what modern thing he refused, he said, “Nitrogen. I don’t see the point. All this foreign food where you have to explain what’s in the dish to the point of indicating in which order it should be eaten: it’s not my thing.” SLAM! Which is kind of too bad, because I’ve talked to Ferran Adrià and he is completely charming.
He added that he liked to cook by instinct, smelling when the meat is done rather than using a thermometer.
Bocuse learned to cook from his father, who taught him to make veal kidneys when he was nine. After serving in the French army during World War II (where he got the tattoo of the coq gaulois on his shoulder, something he liked to show off), he took on several apprenticeships before returning to his family’s inn, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in a suburb of Lyon. It was owned by his maternal grandfather, and where he was born Feb. 11, 1926.
He got his first Michelin star in 1958, his second in 1962 and his third in 1965, which he always maintained. He eventually renamed the restaurant “Paul Bocuse.”
He was a showman who appeared on television as early as 1976. In 1987, he created the “Olympics of Gastronomy,” the Bocuse d’Or, an international cooking competition that was televised from the start. He was one of the first French chefs to expand overseas: to Japan in 1979 and Disneyworld in Orlando in 1982, followed by many more.
He was out as a trigamist–that’s bigamy plus one. He met his wife, Raymonde, before the war when she was 16; they married in 1946 and had a daughter. Raymonde runs the original restaurant. He added another partner, Raymone, who bore him a son in 1969; the son, Jérôme, has headed the family empire since last year. All I can say about the names is: ?!?!?!? How did he keep that straight? Or maybe it simplified life.
In 1971, he brought in companion No. 3, Patricia, who had a daughter with him. Patricia runs Paul Bocuse Products and handles his image.
It is not clear how he juggled all the restaurants, not to mention women. Although his companions (? partners? lovers?) had serious business roles with him, he had a reputation as a male chauvinist, with a raft of appalling quotes.
One of his signature dishes is Soupe V.G.E. Bocuse made it in 1975 for President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing–VGE–for the dinner celebrating Bocuse’s award of the Legion of Honor; how about that–win an award and you have to cook the dinner! You could call it a chicken pot pie, BUT….
It’s a chicken and beef soup, with foie gras and black truffles replacing potatoes, covered with puff pastry. I found a number of recipes for it:
This one uses 60 grams of truffles, whereas this one uses 80 grams. That’s a difference of €14 euros just for the truffles. This one also uses 80 grams, but I doubt Bocuse used bouillon cubes. You can watch the master himself make his Soupe V.G.E. here.
It is extremely rare that I use any photos but those I took myself. However, I don’t have any of Bocuse; these are from the press packet on his corporate Web site.
Parting words from the master chef: “Classic or modern, there’s only one cuisine: the good one.”
I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.
A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.
Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.
Parking lot location: check.
Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.
Upbeat pop music: check.
Soaring ceilings: check.
Roaring decibels: check.
Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.
Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.
Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.
Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.
The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.
Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.
The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.
It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?
Few things are as French as steak tartare. Raw ground beef. With a few additions.
On one of my early trips to Paris, I ordered steak tartare from some stately bistro. I barely remember now, but… There were flowers. Everybody was older than me. It felt very formal and grown up. There were different levels in the restaurant–not floors but groups of tables that were reached by stairs, which had brass handrails. It was the ’80s, and brass was very classy.
I had decided to be daring and get steak tartare even though I had grown up with extra-well-done meat. Some people drive fast for thrills; I did gastronomy.
The waiter was dressed in black dress pants, a black vest, a perfectly pressed white shirt (the crease on his sleeve was so crisp it looked as if it could draw blood if you ran a finger along it) and an immaculate white apron. He was around my father’s age at the time–50s–with gray hair. That was surprising because I had never seen anybody older than 30 waiting tables.
He wheeled over a cart with a large stainless steel bowl and showed me a lump of ground beef in the bottom. Then he asked me which garnitures I wanted: onions? chives? or was it shallots? capers? parsley? Tabasco? Worcestershire sauce? There were other possibilities, I’m sure–it was difficult to decide. I asked as politely as I could for a little of everything. How to say no to onions in favor of chives, or vice versa? It all sounded good.
The thing about being young and eager and excited is that you can ask what would ordinarily be a slightly impolite request, but it’s taken as what it is: enthusiasm, not greed. The waiter flicked a bit of everything into the mix, added a raw egg yolk, then vigorously mixed it all with a fork. He then coaxed it onto a plate and formed it with a few quick gestures, making a little volcanic crater, where he deposited another egg yolk.
With perfect timing, another waiter arrived with a hot serving of crispy fries.
It was heaven. The texture, the flavors. I loved it. I didn’t eat meat very often. When on one of our early dates, the Carnivore asked me whether I was vegetarian, I answered no–to me that’s like asking whether I’d walked on the moon or whether I was pregnant–there’s no “kind-of” answer. It’s straight yes/no. I ate meat at least five or six times in the previous year, therefore, I wasn’t a vegetarian, much less a vegan (I can never give up cheese). I’m not against vegetarian or vegan diets, but I am just too lazy and I do like meat…a few times a year.
In fact, when I was living in Belgium, I would head to the brasserie across the street from our office for a steak tartare when I felt the oppressive damp dragging me into a cold. A nice big shot of protein to get back on track! Meat for medicinal purposes only. Seriously, I lived on salads and chocolate and cheese otherwise. OK, mostly chocolate.
In Belgium, they have another version, called steak américain, which unknowing Americans continually order only to send it back to be cooked. Steak américain is similar to steak tartare as both are RAW, but with a dollop of mayonnaise (because: Belgium) and even more seasonings. Go into any butcher shop or grocery store there and you will find raw beef seasoned in a huge variety of ways. Heaven.
Steak américain around here means a ground beef patty, fried, served without a bun, but with fries and possibly a green salad. Just so you know!
We are picky about where we have steak tartare. It’s the French version of sushi–raw and risky. There are restaurants we trust. But in general, we DIY, going to our butcher when we start jonesing for some raw meat. It’s pricey (I think I paid €16 for 700+ grams for the three of us), but we don’t splurge often. Go big or go home. (An aside: It is typically French to say “MY butcher.” Who has “my butcher” at a big supermarket? They don’t even cut up the meat in those places anymore. It arrives sealed in plastic.)
If you have a butcher you trust, then go for it!
I browsed a few dozen recipes to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Us? Onions, capers (on the side because our kid doesn’t like them), Worcestershire, Tabasco, egg yolks. That’s it. Keep in mind that you can do whatever the heck you want here. Tons of Tabasco and no Worcestershire? No problem! Capers? Schmapers if they aren’t your thing. Consider this like a pizza menu, where these are the usual possibilities and you can take them or leave them. There is no right or wrong….except for the base of raw ground beef. (I’ve even had Thai-seasoned tartare.) You can add whatever you like, in whatever quantities you like. The French are rarely so accommodating, so profitez-en (enjoy).
Freshly ground or finely minced very lean steak. Count on 125 grams (4.4 oz.) or more per person, depending on appetite. (The American Heart Association says 2-3 oz. cooked is a serving size. This is raw, so you get to have more.)
one egg yolk for three people plus any extra egg yolks as desired for decoration
A teaspoon of:
–Dijon mustard (sorry, not in ours)
A tablespoon of:
–minced onion OR
–minced shallots OR
–chopped fresh chives
–chopped fresh parsley
–some say ketchup (your call, remember). Also olive oil, but that seems to me like gilding the lily.
Plus a little salt and pepper, and a few drops of Tabasco…or many drops. Your call!
Mash it all together. Refrigerate. Can be done a few hours ahead.
Prepare a green salad (lettuce, vinaigrette).
Prepare French fries.
Just before the fries are ready, get the salad and tartare on the table. If you want to get fancy, plate the tartare and stick an egg yolk on top of each mound of meat.
Another time we will get the Carnivore to divulge the secrets of how to make perfect Belgian French fries. Warning: It’s not vegan!
Restaurants in France
From what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.
Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.
First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.
But if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.
The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.
Things to look for:
Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.
This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.
On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.
Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.
Pre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.
Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.
A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.
Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.
Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.
Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.
Seriously. This IS France!
On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.
The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.
But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.
This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.
Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.
I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.
The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.
Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)
When we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!
He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.
But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.
Also, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.
So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Bon appétit!