Why French Food is Always Coming Back Into Fashion Without Ever Having Fallen Out of It
The longest love affair we've ever had.
August 17, 2015
By Cassandra Landry | Art by Nicole Rifkin
Depending on who you are, where you are, and how much you give a shit, French cuisine is one or both of these things:
Accordion music playing in a bistro with red awnings and marble countertops, piles of salty fries with a steak, and piles of barely-dressed greens with an omelette, OR: waiters with accents that make you feel like an idiot, white linen, high ceilings, toques, hierarchy, cursive writing, intricate sauces, and synchronized lifting of cloches.
Either way, we love it. Then, we feel stifled by it. Then, we miss it. Then we’re watching Ratatouille on the couch in our sweats and tearing up a little (C’MON) when a rat garnishes his creations with a single chive scape, ripped straight from a Nouvelle Cuisine playbook.
We are imprinted with a deep fondness for French food, whatever form it takes, because it’s the restaurant world’s Big Bang.
Jason Berthold did not enjoy high school.
He didn’t do well, which he felt guilty about since both of his parents were school teachers. When it began to really look like he wouldn’t graduate, he was terrified. Strangely, it was Auguste Escoffier, king of chefs and chef of kings, who saved him. Well, partly.
“To me, French cooking has always been a very personal thing,” he says. He’s seated in the dining room of his most recent project, Monsieur Benjamin, a French bistro on a leafy street in San Francisco. The decor is modern—slick geometric shapes collide with rough natural elements and Edison light bulbs—but the menu is like reading a well-loved book; blanquette de veau, gratinée, plateaux de mers. They’ve been open just over a year, and Berthold is happy. “I think about the times that I've traveled France, and I can remember the light and the smell of certain markets, or walking into certain restaurants. I can have those kind of experiences with French food and wine. That's what's really exciting for me about it.”
French rules still applied at the small cooking school in the Detroit suburbs where Berthold found himself after high school. Traditional French rules still dominated in any serious restaurant, anywhere. The codifications, the mother sauces, the derivative sauces, the brigade—it all gave structure to the fathomless terra incognita of cooking. There was a right way to do everything. Finding he suddenly craved this framework, deeply, he memorized the textbooks of Escoffier and The Culinary Institute of America that his teachers assigned. This was food he had never experienced in his small blue-collar town in Michigan, and he desperately wanted to understand it.
By the time he arrived in New York City in 2000, he revered the great French restaurants that gripped the dining scene. He didn’t get a taste of the real thing, though, until he landed on the line at Karen and David Waltuck’s Chanterelle, in Tribeca. It was the first time he’d seen French food on a plate, instead of a page; even now, he admits he didn’t realize the importance of his time there until much later.
It was Karen, after all, who said Berthold should work for Thomas Keller, on account of how clean his uniform always was. On his last day—bound for a trip abroad that would include a meal at Michel Bras before coming home to work on Keller’s yet unnamed restaurant project in New York City, which would lead to stints at The French Laundry and RN74—David was the one who gave him a copy of Waverly Root Food of France, along with Richard Olney's Simple French Food. There was a note tucked inside: “There will be a quiz,” folded in with several hundred Euros. Berthold still takes Waverly with him on vacations.
Despite his early francophilia, Berthold’s career in fine-dining has strayed far afield from the traditional. Over the years, he’s put hamachi crudo with hearts of palm and yuzu on the same menu as cavatelli with pork cheek and pecorino, rode the vegetable ash wave that was going around, paired hibiscus with beets. It was fun, at first.
“I found myself being awake at night thinking, I have to do something new every day. While there's merit to that, there's also a lot of unnecessary pressure,” he says. “This project I find really freeing because I don't feel like I'm pushing myself to come up with ideas out of thin air. If I'm looking at something that's available right now, it’s through a clearer lens.”
A clearer lens doesn’t have to mean a French one. And yet.
“There's a familiarity that I think is important. Those flavors and that look is comforting. We crave the simplicity of it,” Berthold says. “It felt right to be able to come in here and think about food in a simple way and review the greatest hits of French dishes in a modern setting with modern equipment.”
And writing the menu this time was easy. “There was no pressure, and there was no timeline. I would just fill up sheets of paper with things that were representative of the kind of French cooking that I had known, and that I wanted to learn.”
The thing with French cooking is, Berthold adds, there’s a persistent appreciation for what came before you. It’s the most well-documented love affair we’ve ever had.
David Waltuck, Berthold’s former boss and the gifter of that worn copy of Waverly Root Food of France, ran Chanterelle for 30 years until closing its doors in 2009.
After a five-year hiatus, he opened élan in New York City's Flatiron district. Where Chanterelle was the arbiter of refined French taste during its time, élan is billed as New American with just a touch of French influence. To Waltuck, it’s the same cooking. Perhaps a little freer. There are potstickers on the menu, for one.
“I think French cooking tends to be rather conservative. It changes over time, and over the past 30 years it’s become more and more open to influences from other cuisines. Americans are very happy to play with things. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. “I like the idea of creativity, but I don’t think that means dispensing with the things that are proven to be good. French cooking is always cast as this upheaval, but it’s just an adjustment. Within itself, there’s always revolution.”
As if you need reminding, France all but invented even the earliest concept of a restaurant, which itself was an adjustment from a previously held ideology. A restaurant in 1708 was not a place, but a dish: food that could restore lost strength to a sick or tired individual. Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel recommends bouillon, extract of partridge, the juices of flavorful meats combined with soft white bread, wine, cordials. A restaurateur, then, was someone with the skill to make an off-the-chain consommé. Calling it a restaurant was a way to advertise what could be found within—restoration.
So if you were obsessed with the mythology of French cooking as a teenager in the 1970s, as Waltuck was, you passed through the culinary annals of France by default. It’s hard to argue with 300 some-odd years of foundation. The fact that something so archaic also nails it in the flavor department to this day excites us, even if it occasionally gets lost when something shiny catches our eye. When renewed interest in French cuisine peaked in the late 1980s, journalists attributed it to exhaustion. Constant hysteria over The New and The Original wore us out, so back we crawled to douce France.
When we buy into it, French cooking is unpretentious, provincial; when we’re being stifled, it’s fussy and heavy. No other cuisine contains such dualities.
“For a really long time, there’s been that impulse to create something new. It’s hard to say that this is the trend, because there are many different currents going on in the world of food,” Waltuck points out. There’s being creative. There’s shock-value. There’s preserving tradition. “Cooking and cuisine is never a static thing. It’s constantly changing. There’s a desire to make rules, even if that’s not exactly the way cooking works.”
Chanterelle didn’t follow the rules you were supposed to follow if you were a French restaurant. It looked fancy, but the menu wasn’t in French. There was no hierarchy in the dining room, and the waiters didn’t wear uniforms. There was an informality of greeting, with a formality of service. Head to Daniel or Le Bernardin today, he says, and there’s a friendliness that wasn’t there in the 70s and 80s.
Waltuck stops, remembering a conversation from 15 years back, when he was living in the Village. Babbo was nearby, and one day he found himself talking with Mario Batali about something he had noticed: interest in French food had plummeted, and no one seemed to be into it. Italian food was the thing. They figured it was about comfort, and perception. People think of French food and they think of 40 layers and not using the right fork. Italian food makes them think of grandmas rolling out pasta. It’s welcoming. The waiter’s going to joke around with you.
“People who are ‘true believers’ like to proselytize about French food only being done one way, and I just don’t think that’s true. I don’t think there’s any correct answer,” he says. “The result of whatever it is you attempt is truly subjective. It’s what you like.”
Above Petit Crenn, there is a petit apartment decked out in the same white as the dining room below.
White shades on the windows blow slightly in the wind; a white duvet lies on a bed under a white ceiling lamp; white sheepskin throw on a chair; white walls; “White is purity,” as chef-owner Dominique Crenn often says. The apartment currently serves as both the team’s office space and occasional crash-pad. The adjacent kitchen houses the pastry workspace.
A few members of the staff already buzzing around ask for opinions on a stamp that just arrived in the mail. It leaves a delicate raised logo, almost invisible, in the top left corner of the menu—something that might look fantastic in candlelight. They exchange a small smile.
“Candles…” Tiffany says.
“Dom doesn’t want anything on the table that you’re not using to eat,” Courtney explains. “So no candles.”
No candles. The whole team is trickling in now, and the wine fridge is arriving any minute. So is Crenn, apparently. She’s been texted! Promise! Construction guys are cutting the counter downstairs, and the screech of the saw and the dust and the smell has driven everyone up here. Mike needs approval for a shelf, Tiffany is answering emails, Tommy clutches an iPad under his arm.
The chef arrives, soft morning smudges of mascara under her eyes, short hair curling upwards in small slept-on tufts, in camo sweatpants—somehow still elegant, effortless, possessing that thing you will never possess because you, my friend, are not French. A small coffee cup dangles from one hand; the other she uses to occasionally offer up kettle corn, from a long twisty-topped bag her chef de cuisine has brought her from Disneyland. The magnetic field of the room rearranges itself around her.
“When you think about what food is in France, it’s what you think about everywhere,” she says, chewing thoughtfully. “Bringing people to the table. Being at the table is a part of the culture. French cooking, to many people, is considered fancy, but the core of French cooking is rooted in simplicity.”
Crenn’s childhood is one most would consider idyllic, growing up along the western coast of France in a family with farm-blood in their veins. Dinner was at the same time every night, when five or six courses were plunked down on the table with a bottle of wine or cider. Her grandmother typically cooked outside on a fire. Sundays were reserved for more elaborate fare, and her mother usually roasted fish. This latest restaurant is meant as a totem to the women in her family who shaped these meals.
“It connected the core of the family together,” she says. “I think we crave that emotional connection. Here in the United States there are outstanding chefs, but sometimes the focus is all over the place. It doesn’t mean that the food is not good, but I often wonder where they are. Can I find them in the food? I usually don’t.”
If Petit Crenn is meant to evoke the ephemera of her childhood in Brittany, it must honor the philosophy and the techniques with which things were cooked. So, there is sometimes a fire-roasted whole trout with a cider sabayon, but there is never kimchi. Nothing is ever over-sauced. Everything echoes the ingredient in its basic form.
“What’s happening in Paris, and the whole of France, is that philosophy and mentality about French food being fancy? A lot of young chefs are saying no,” she says, and mentions Omnivore, the food festival in Paris that celebrates jeune cuisine—the new, the disruptors. “They want to go back to what food is really about.”
To Crenn, though, what food is about is never about the flash. It's never just about the plates on the table. The French will spend five hours eating, drinking, and talking, and that’s what she wants for Petit Crenn: interaction, not obsession. Diners will pass dishes back and forth, talk with one another, erase boundaries set by tables.
“It’s all about the humanity,” she says, solemnly. “Creativity is one thing, but what you need to come back to is who you are and how you interact with people. It’s why we cook in the first place. If you lose that, why are you cooking?”
She suspects people want to surrender. They want to give in to a vision, to a history, to a philosophy. It’s something Berthold mentions as well. Being a true French restaurant without being in France means promising food that acts as a portal. You can only construct that portal by keeping your lines tight and mimicking its beginnings—simple, streamlined food that restores you to yourself. Boundaries may not be intrinsic to cooking, but people need a way to find their way.
Time warps back to normal speed, and Crenn suddenly blinks like she's remembered she has an opening to prepare for. She excuses herself, leaving the bag of kettle corn curling snakelike on the table. “Hellooo, what’s cracking?” her voice rings out as she flings open the bedroom door, where her staff waits within. The pastry kitchen, which still feels like an apartment kitchen with the trappings of a professional one, is peaceful in the gray morning light. Through the kitchen screen door, wooden steps wind back down around over a small terrace to the main kitchen. A gray cat watches warily from the landing.
And late last summer, the team behind Major Food Group—Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and Jeff Zalaznick—broke out of their Italian-heavy roster and opened Dirty French, with a menu that takes “cues from timeless dishes and preparations of the classic French bistro,” but “enlivens” them with modern techniques and bold flavors. So, duck à l’orange gets the ras el hanout treatment.
If we indeed find ourselves at the crest of yet another wave signaling a return to French cooking—when in fact, we never really leave it—what is it that we are returning to? “In the 1980s all the best chefs in the world came from France, and so people figured [French food] was very fancy,” Crenn says. You could argue that Atelier Crenn, her two-Michelin starred powerhouse two miles away, is fancy, but she’d stop you. Atelier Crenn is “Poetic Culinaria,” and that’s different. “Fancy was very much white tablecloth, recipe-driven food that had been around for a long time. It was about technique, and about doing things one way. You couldn’t recreate the mother sauces, you know? It should be perfect.”
Crenn truly believes that food is a part of the poésie of this world. She’s not alone: increasingly, those seeking to emulate the French canon in a modern setting are reaching for evolution, not perfection.
There's freedom within boundaries. There's movement even when there doesn't appear to be. And even if it appears unapproachable in its luxury, French cooking—as we know it now, at least—is designed around warmth.