Over Thanksgiving dinner, my father asked me what happened to French cuisine and cooking with butter. Remembering the Julie and Julia-inspired butter revival eagerly embraced by home chefs around the nation, I initially disagreed. However, upon further reflection, I saw his point. Where has French cuisine gone? After its height of popularity in the post-War 50s when "fine dining" meant white table clothes, a mustache-sporting maître d', and baked Alaska for dessert and young housewives (including my mother) impressed husbands and houseguests with coq au vin and soufflés, the heavy sauces and creams associated with French cuisine have gradually disappeared.
Today, I explained to my father, local, sustainably grown or raised ingredients reign supreme. At many high quality restaurants today, you will know where your braised pork shank lived out its piggy days, the heritage breed of your ear of corn, and even whether the coffee beans in your espresso were produced by a company that pays fair wages to employees.
It's been a couple years (quel dommage!) since I lived in Paris, so to gain a French perspective I contacted Le Fooding, the French culinary organization that reviews restaurants and holds events to promote a more informal approach to dining. Currently, the group is hosting "Les Incorrects" (or "The Politically Incorrects"), the week-long event celebrating gastronomic equivalent of the seven deadly sins. Considering one of the politically incorrect gastronomic elements celebrated was butter of all things, I decided to speak with Alexandre Cammas, who co-founded the group nearly a decade ago, to better understand how this event fit into today's gastronomic landscape.
LM: What was the initial inspiration behind this event and why now?
Cammas: Every year, we change the theme. Last year, it was the History of French cuisine. This year, it is the politically incorrect food. It is funny to see how some dishes used to be good, and how they're now considered as bad, without any justification other than the politically correct. At a time where everything is always justified and where even the worst becomes politically correct, we thought it would be fun to play on this notion of "incorrects," offering dishes and pairings mildly scandalous to gull the narrow contentious spirits, because there are so many better reasons (political, economic, environmental...) to stand up and say stop.
LM: Butter is often associated with traditional French cuisine. Do you think they have been rejected by more recent chefs who incorporate more olive oil?
Cammas: Of course, olive oil, and oils in general, now rule. But cuisine with butter, if reasonable balanced, is so much more regressive, motherly, gourmand; that it is irreplaceable! And the pleasure it triggers is bigger and bigger as it's rarer and rarer.
LM: Did you plan to feature anonymous chefs as an opportunity for them to experiment beyond what people have typcast as their cuisine or style?
Cammas: That's exactly the idea. We are now going to see if they really play the game, if their liberty didn't fly away, eventually.
LM: I had horsemeat once -- by accident -- in Florence and couldn't get the thought of the beautiful horses back in the bluegrass of Kentucky out of my head. Where is the horse meat from? Who supplies it? What did the horses do before they became dinner?
Cammas: A big majority of the horsemeat is produced in Canada. It usually comes either from inept or old horses. And the French horsemeat federation promotes more and more the breeding of workhorses, in order to keep them on the territory (for ecological, economic, cultural reasons) and to value the local producers. Competition horses are never used of course!
LM: Why did you choose to highlight Veuve Cliquot and cognac?
Cammas: Veuve Clicquot is a crazy, vibrant, provocative brand, which is not afraid of twisting the rules, in the expression of its lifestyle. Therefore, it seemed natural to us to invite Veuve Clicquot to play with the culinary references and the restaurant good manners. Pairing strength (a very strong cheese) and softness (a subtly light champagne), we'll give the public the opportunity to live an instant of frantic harmony.
In France, Cognac is still often considered as a sacred elixir, which needs to be respected, to be enjoyed at the right temperature, in the right glass, with the right persons, the right cigar... Served in a cocktail, on the rocks, it becomes a provocation as itself. That's why since 2005, in France, we create a speakeasy every year, coupling tapas and Cognac-based cocktails.
While attending Le Fooding d'Amour, the Le Fooding event held in New York with both French and American chefs at the end of September, I noticed that long lines grew in front of the French chefs' tables. Perhaps part of this decline in French cuisine is due to the fact that chefs no longer want to spend years scrubbing vegetables as a kitchen apprentice before slowly -- and I mean slowly -- working their way up the chain of command in the kitchen. Several of today's most well-known chefs worked in a kitchen for a few years before deciding to strike out on their own with a relatively inexpensive restaurant. It makes sense that the food is highlighted in today's culinary environment -- the sauces and techniques are no longer the focus. Perhaps Le Fooding is still vital to the future of French cuisine because it teaches diners to appreciate chefs' creativity and ingredients, not how well the food replicates the ideal of traditional French cuisine. I asked Cammas and several of the French chefs who participated in Le Fooding d'Amour identical questions about the state of French cuisine. Their answers were both surprising and enlightening.
LM: Does modern French cuisine exist? If so, how would you define it?
Cammas: More and more, French chefs are resolutely modern and freeing themselves by cooking what they please, opening places without rules, maintaining their individuality, and no longer looking to please old or new institutions (guides, food critics, hotel schools, etc.). In France, modernity expresses itself across a new plurality. There is no longer a French cuisine, but many cuisines more or less influenced and prepared by more or less French chefs.
Iñaki Aizpitarte, chef at Le Chateaubriand: A contemporary French cuisine ... leans towards a new cuisine that is more and more in line with ingredients and nature.
William Ledeuil, chef at Ze Kitchen Galerie: There exists a "contemporary" cuisine that corresponds to a reinterpretation of French cuisine. This cuisine nourishes itself on the richness of influences, such as new products and the discovery of other cultures and new techniques.
Yves Camdeborde, chef at Le Comptoir du Relais: Modern French cuisine is a cuisine that respects French traditions with the modern methods and places value on the ingredients first.
LM: Which living French chef do you most admire? Living American chef?
Cammas: I discovered Daniel Boulud in New York and I find the career of that French chef absolutely remarkable. He is a great man, very open, curious, dynamic, someone who is not content to be a great chef. Naturally, for the American chef, I greatly admire David Chang.
Aizpitarte: I very much like Raquel Carena and Christophe Pelé and David Chang et Daniel Boulud for the US.
Ledeuil: Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras. I very much love the approach of David Chang.
Camborde: French chef Christian Constant and American chef Daniel Boulud.
What is the best city for food today? Why?
Aizpitarte: Paris, because it remains a cosmopolitan city, the largest supermarkets in Europe in terms of good products, and that it benefits from a savoir-faire, its gastronomic heritage, as well as its location in the heart of Europe. Other cities are certainly more open (Bilbao, New York, etc) but I think the cuisine of Paris is not yet equaled.
Camborde: Paris. It is the world capital of gastronomy.
Cammas: I am against the adjective best." It doesn't make any sense. To reach the limit, in sports, for instance, which people can measure, ok, but in cooking, each service, place, cuisine is different and impossible to compare.
Leduil: For me, there isn't a best city for the cuisine. Each city has its richness, its restaurants.
What is your favorite, under-appreciated ingredient to use?
Cammas: Raw milk cheese ... sincerely, what misfortune that that is forbidden in the US.
Aizpitarte : The gooseneck barnacle, a seashell with a very special look, that one finds in cold seas.
Camborde: Bacon rind.
Why are the baguettes and croissants in the US never as good as in France?
Cammas: We also have our share of bad bakeries. You can find very good ones in farmers markets, in barkeries such as Amondine in Dumbo, Grandaisy Bakery in Soho, or in the cafes (very good almond croissants and chocolate croissants by Balthazar).
Ledeuil: I think that a product in the great tradition (requiring a savoir faire) is always best in its own context, its own culture, its own environment.
Camborde: The taste is different in France because the croissant and the baguette are cultural matters.
Aiziparte: The butter is the reason why the croissants are not as good in the US. As for the baguette, it is just that it is a part of the French culture, just as the burger is in the US (one doesn't find as good burgers in France).
I still think there's something about the water, flour, or ovens in France that produce the croissants' heavenly flakiness and the perfect ratio of hard crust to soft interior of their baguettes ... But, moving on, I am pleased that French chefs are relaxing in the kitchen. While a meal at Tour d'Argent is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, how fun is it to pick up crack pie from the Momofuku Milk bar?