By Philippa Campsie

Hôtel Ritz Paris, Restaurant Espadon, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

We’ve been hearing a lot about threats to French food traditions. Neighbourhood bistros are dying (there were 200,000 across France in the 1960s, and only 35,000 today). Raw-milk Camembert is now a rarity, overtaken by industrially manufactured and pasteurized Camembert that doesn’t taste like the real thing. French baguettes are endangered because fewer and fewer people are willing to put in the early hours and hard physical labour of making real bread. Meanwhile, the ados flock to McDo (translation: adolescents eat at France’s many McDonalds outlets).

And yet, and yet…French chefs seem to be getting more innovative every year, and new restaurants are popping up, staffed by enthusiastic and creative young people. While the iron grip of the Michelin guide and its anonymous reviewers seems to be waning, the movement known as “Le Fooding” with its festival and restaurant guide is winning converts.

During two weeks in April, we encountered only one nasty mass-produced baguette (and avoided that bakery thereafter), ate plenty of really good cheese (including a divine Rocquefort bought at a street market), dined in everyday bistros and a couple of unusual restaurants, and tasted several things that we have not found elsewhere (such as Barbara’s favourite petale de rose ice cream).

French food: dinner, cooking demonstration and television program

We sense that it is, as usual, the best of times and the worst of times. France always seems to be poised between ecstasy and despair over its culture (including its language, its heritage, its place in the world order, and so on). Still, we’re going to present three bits of evidence for optimism.

Paris Restaurant: L’Agrume

Exhibit A: a dinner at a new restaurant called L’Agrume in the 5th arrondissement. (The name of the restaurant means “citrus fruit.”) An American friend had read about it in the online New York Times and suggested we give it a try.

We chose the 35-euro “menu dégustation” (tasting menu) with five mini-courses, and loved every mouthful. It was inventive and playful food, and made us feel that French food had lost none of its ability to surprise and delight. We don’t know if “surprise” and “delight” are categories in the more standardized approach used by Michelin, but they are one of the reasons we travel to Paris whenever we can.

Paris Cooking School: Le Cordon Bleu

Exhibit B: a cooking demonstration at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. This is no longer in the building that Julia Child knew, and Julia might have been surprised at some other changes: such as how accessible the experience has become, given her difficulties in getting accepted there in the 1950s.

Today, you can sign up online for a range of demonstrations or courses, from two-hour demonstrations to more hands-on workshops. We went to one called “Chef’s Secrets” in which a genial French chef called Patrick Terrien, in the traditional white toque (the tall white chef’s hat) bantered amiably with the English translator while making an appetizer (oeufs mollets) and main course (turbot with coconut milk and lemon grass). The chef’s helpers came from China and Japan, and bustled about anxiously, with a bit of good-natured teasing from the chef.

It was both entertaining and educational, and the audience of about 25 people (mostly tourists and expats) was appreciative and attentive. Our questions were answered promptly and fully, and the chef took the time to repeat procedures if we hadn’t fully grasped them the first time.

Here is one of the things we learned: we’ve been using WAY too much water to cook vegetables. For example, Chef Terrien cooked some carrots in a tiny amount of water, keeping an eye on them while preparing the rest of the meal, and added a bit of butter at the end. He never drained them, because he didn’t need to. They tasted very carroty and delicious. Something we shall remember.

Here is something we found absurd: the North American audience gasped when Chef Terrien made a sauce that contained mostly butter. This is the continent that created the Baconator, the Big Mac, and SuperSize fries. Why the shock and awe over half a pound of butter?

But we digress. The Cordon Bleu organization has a mission to instruct non-French students in French cooking techniques. This is not where French men and women go to learn how to cook; they generally apprentice in a restaurant instead. This is French food for the world. Cordon Bleu schools have been set up in 12 other countries, from Australia to Peru to the United States and Canada.

French Food at Home with Laura Calder

Exhibit C: the television program “French Food at Home with Laura Calder” has just won a prestigious award from the James Beard Foundation, beating out the “Iron Chef” and the “Barefoot Contessa.” Laura Calder is a Canadian from New Brunswick (in one Canadian newspaper, she was described as “Our Julia”). Although she studied at La Varenne with Anne Willan, she is, like the Cordon Bleu graduates, bringing French food to the rest of the world. The show is broadcast from Dubai to Singapore, and South America to Finland.

It seems to us that France is keeping its cuisine and culture alive through its outreach to other countries. It wouldn’t be the first time. Back in the 1880s, after the devastation of French vines by an insect called Phylloxera, the French wine industry was kept alive by grafting French vines on to pest-resistant rootstocks from California. Perhaps, once again, French traditions will be kept alive by grafting French know-how onto junk-food-resistant traditions from other countries. French traditions have a way of surviving.

VOCABULARY: French to English translations

Apocope: French tendency to drop the final syllables of popular words. Hence ado, McDo, apero (aperitif), sympa (sympatheique, or friendly), etc.
Baguette: Specific shape of bread, commonly only made from basic lean dough distinguishable by its length, crisp crust and sits cut into it.
Camembert: Creamy, mold-ripened cheese that softens on the inside as it matures.
Michelin guide: Hotel and restaurant guide founded by André Michelin. For French chefs it defined how to eat well in France.
Oeuf mollet: Soft-boiled egg.
Roquefort: (Or Rocquefort) Blue cheese made from sheep’s milk and aged in the limestone caverns of Mount Combalou near Roquefort, France.
Toque: French chef’s hat.

Philippa Campsie

Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.

She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Cooking schools in Paris founded by women, by Barbara Redmond who writes about extraordinary women who cook: from Anne Willan, Marthe Distel, and Elisabeth Brassart, to “Les trios gourmands,” Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. Including a directory of cooking schools in Paris.

French Cuisine: Sensation and Pleasure, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who explains the “smart” education of the French child who is taught to recognize and describe the flavours, the feeling of taste, and most importantly, what they like or dislike. Hauxaire’s introduction to the world of flavour is all about sensations and pleasure. She urges audiences to “tell what you feel.”

French Women Chefs: les mères lyonnaises, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who tells the stories of former house cooks of affluent families in Lyon who set up their own businesses after the French revolution in the 19th century. And later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed such well-known people as General de Gaulle as a VIP at their table.

Le Cordon Bleu Paris: Another “Sabrina” story, by Karen Cope who writes about her experiences at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school, where she was a student. She shares with readers the recipes and methods of the famous school as she experienced them through classes: two Basic Pastry classes, Basic Cuisine and Intermediate Pastry. Including a list of cooking schools in Paris.

The African Queen of Parisian Cuisine, excerpts from Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to BLACK PARIS: Get Lost and Get Found, by Kiratiana Freelon about the “African Queen of Parisian Cuisine,” featuring suggestions such as Le Petrossian 144, Paris, where the head chef is Rougui Dai, a Frenchwoman of Senegalese decent. There are more than 2,000 French restaurants in Paris. Of the 400 that the Michelin Guide found worth listing, only 77 receive one of their coveted stars. And of those starred restaurants, only one has a black, female head chef: Le Petrossian 144.

Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.