9780143125921_large_Mastering_the_Art_of_French_EatingFrom Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Ann Mah, 2014. Including a recipe for Bavette aux Échalotes (skirt steak with shallots).

When journalist Ann Mah’s husband is given a diplomatic assignment in Paris, Mah, a livelong foodie and Francophile, begins plotting gastronomic adventures à deux. Then her husband is called away to Iraq on a yearlong post—alone—turning Mah’s vision of a romantic sojourn in the City of Light upside down.

Journeying through Paris and the surrounding regions of France, Mah combats her loneliness by seeking out the epitome of French comfort food—cassoulet—and learning how the andouillette sausage is really made. She discovers the true stories behind the country’s signature regional dishes, exploring the history and taste of everything from boeuf Bourguignon to the crispiest of buckwheat crêpes. And somewhere between Paris and the south of France, she uncovers a few of life’s truths.

Mastering the Art of French Eating is interwoven with the lively characters Mah meets—from chefs to farmers to restaurateurs—and the traditional recipes she samples. Reading it will send you straight to the kitchen, or Paris—or both. Funny, intelligent, and deeply pleasurable, this is a story about love—of food, family, and France. (October, 2014; Penguin Books) (Purchase)

Interview: French Impressions: Ann Mah’s “Mastering the art of French Eating” on gastronomic adventures in France.

Paris / Steak Frites (part two)

(Part one) On that late-summer evening, we stood at the counter drinking red wine produced by the brothers at a cooperative in Aveyron and chatted with Alain as he constructed elaborate salads. The twentieth, with its shop signs in a mix of Arabic, Vietnamese, and Chinese, felt very different from the hushed polish of the Left Bank, not a gleaming tourist attraction but a quarrier populaire, a working-class neighborhood. Next to us two young men stirred sugar into their coffee while chatting in a combination of Arabic and French. Across the bar an older man sipped a magenta-colored drink from a long, cool glass. “C’est un monaco,said Alain, following my gaze—beer with a splash of grenadine syrup, he explained. A woman with white hair and a dark green waxed raincoat, whom  Calvin recognized from 1988, moved a lone stool to a secluded corner of the bar to sip a demi of beer and read the newspaper.

The last time I’d seen Alain, three years earlier, my French had been limited to a vocabulary of about ten words. But I had just finished a French-immersion program at Middlebury College in Vermont—seven weeks of grammar exercises, drama classes, poetry recitals, and essays on the Nouvelle Vague. I had lived in a dorm with college freshmen fifteen years my junior, written letters to a fictional pen pal named Innocence, and memorized lines for a play that would be forever embedded in my subconscious. It had been an experience worthy of a book itself, one that had quite liter­ally turned my hair white, and aside from the shared bathrooms and cafeteria grub, I’d loved every second.

During my Chinese American childhood, studying French had been discouraged. My mother had never shaken her terror and dislike for her cruel, half-French stepmother, and as a result she had dissuaded me from learning French; though she didn’t exactly de­clare the language verboten, she definitely disapproved  of it. “Why would you want to learn French?” she asked me when I started  high school. “No one speaks French.” And so I took Spanish, and in col­lege I switched to the language she considered truly useful, Manda­rin. At age twenty I spent a summer on that same verdant Vermont campus in a nine-week Chinese-immersion program, gazing jeal­ously at the French students as they smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while I stuffed another five hundred Chinese characters into my brain.

My mother, I’m forced at gunpoint to admit, was right about studying Chinese. When I moved to Beijing with my husband al­most ten years after that summer of Mandarin immersion, my rusty language skills proved very useful indeed. But she had underestimated the most important factor in language study: love. I respected Chinese, but I didn’t love it. I loved French, and it fueled me to memorize extra vocabulary, to read Georges Simenon novels before bed, to practice phonetics exercises over and over again. It had been a dream come true to immerse myself in the language of diplomacy, of romance and poetry. Now I was eager to show off my progress.

“Tout le monde va bien? Christine? Les enfonts? Didier?” I asked, exchanging cheek kisses with Alain.

“Ça va, ça, va. Tout le monde va bien, ouais.” He tore up some red­-leaf lettuce and scattered a handful of canned corn on top.

The conversation continued as I described our new apartment, the weekend we’d spent on a dairy farm in northern Vermont, and asked about his kids’ favorite subjects at school. Alain chatted away without even a flicker of acknowledgment at my improved language skills. I started to wonder if he’d even noticed that I was speaking French.

Finally Calvin, who had been watching me struggle to contain my frustration, broke in. “Hasn’t Ann’s French improved?”

Alain grinned, a smile that spread across his wide features. “C’est pas mal!”

Pas mal? Not bad? At the time I didn’t know that those lukewarm words were actually a great compliment for the French, who seem reluctant ever to express too much enthusiasm.

“Tu as vraiment fait des progrès!” Alain added kindly, perhaps sensing my disappointment.

“Oh, non…  Je fais des efforts, c’est tout.” I tried to be modest, but I couldn’t stop beaming from ear to ear. After so many years of longing to speak French, I could actually communicate! I was participating in a conversation with a real live French person! I felt like breaking into song.

Alain launched into a long anecdote about one of the cafe’s former clients…  an American musician? a drummer? a member of the Doobie Brothers? who he ran into at the airport? I have to admit, I was lost from the first sentence. It was a feeling I remembered from living in Beijing, of trying to stay afloat in a foreign language, clutching desperately at familiar words as they drifted by, hoping they could save me from drowning. I’d managed to pick up quite a bit of French in a short period of time, helped along by many English cognates. But as I watched Calvin absorb every nuance of Alain’s story without a flicker of effort, I quietly despaired of achieving complete fluency. Would I ever be able to interview someone for an article, recount a story, or even tell a joke?

Eventually we made our way to the back of the café, past the teeny kitchen, really a small box just big enough for the lone chef, to a dining room converted from an old garage after Calvin’s student days. Murals adorned the walls, bucolic scenes of Aveyron. Though Didier and Alain were both born in Paris, they consider this isolated region in south-central France their pays, their native land.

Over fifty-five years ago, Didier and Alain’s father, Monsieur Alex, gathered his savings and moved from Aveyron to Paris to seek his fortune. Part entrepreneur, part charbonnier, or coal seller, he hoped to open a neighborhood cafe that would offer drinks and simple meals and also sell coal. Thus Le Mistral was born. Though the idea of a combination coal shop and café seems rather eccentric from a modern perspective, at the time it was quite common. In fact, there is even a French word—bougnat—that is defined as a coal seller-turned-café owner from Aveyron. Today many Parisian cafés honor this tradition with names like Le Petit Bougnat, L’Aveyronnais, or Le Charbon.

Cafés have existed in Paris since 1686, when an Italian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened Le Procope on the rue des Fossés Saint-Germain on the Left Bank. The self-proclaimed “oldest café in the world” still stands in the same spot, though the street has been renamed rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. Inside, the scarlet dining room is lined with portraits of its former patrons, including French artists and revolutionaries like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Napoleon (whose three-cornered hat hangs in the entry). Today the sprawling café  has become a tourist hub serving some dubious­ looking meals. But if you stop by in the hush of late afternoon, you can sit at a corner table, sip coffee, and imagine the debates launched within these red walls, the impassioned speeches, the laughter and rebellion.

Over the centuries, as the popularity of coffee waxed and waned, cafés evolved from informal social clubs to centers of political de­bate to the smoke-filled lairs of artists, writers, and musicians. But the Parisian institutions we know today—with their tiny  cups of coffee and balloon glasses of wine—weren’t firmly established until the nineteenth century, when the Aveyronnais began to migrate to Paris from their mountainous region.

Poverty brought them to the capital, and in the beginning, like most immigrants, they  worked menial jobs, delivering hot water and hauling buckets of coal to private homes. This gave way to coal shops, warm places where regular customers could indulge in a glass of wine while placing an order for delivery, which eventually turned into cafés. By the end of the twentieth century, the region of Aveyron was synonymous with a Parisian café empire that at one point numbered over six thousand and included some of the  most storied establishments in Paris history: Brasserie Lipp, La Coupole, Les Deux  Magots, Café de Flore. At 320,000 strong, the Aveyronnais form the largest French  community in Paris—greater even than the population of Aveyron itself. These days, despite improved roads and rail service, the region remains known as la France profonde, a remote and rough part of the country that still leans on Paris for survival.

“What’s the signature meal of Paris?” I asked Alain one evening. Calvin and I had joined him for dinner at a café in Montmartre, a cozy neighborhood place with yellow walls owned by a friend of Alain and Didier’s—yet another Aveyronnais—named Jean-Louis.

The sandwich, he said without  hesitation. He called it le casse-croûte, an old-fashioned term meaning “snack” or “fast lunch.” “My mother used to make piles of them for the café.”

Every morning Madame Odette would slice an armload of baguettes lengthwise and fill them with butter and ham, or sticky slices of Camembert, or pate and cornichons. She’d stack the sandwiches like logs in a woodpile and sell them throughout the day to ouvriers, workmen or factory hands, who formed the base of Le Mistral’s clientele. “In the 1950s,” Alain said, “most cafés were pure limonade”—they sold only beverages and lacked kitchens and, often, refrigerators. Ouvriers transported meals from home in a gamelle, or lunch box, and cafés reheated the food over simple camp stoves. (These were also the days when every cup of coffee was accompanied by a shot of liquor, no matter the hour. Alain’s father once told him, “If someone asks for a coffee without the booze, that means the guy is sick.”)

“Do you still make a stack of sandwiches every morning at Le Mistral?” I asked.

“Oh, non. It’s rare to eat a sandwich at a café these days.”


Alain took a sip of wine. “There used to be a lot of factories in Paris, especially in our neighborhood, but they’re closed now,” he said. “Replaced by offices. And bureaucrats like a hot meal more than ouvriers. Customers kept asking for a plat  du  jour”—a hot lunch—”and cafés needed something quick to eat and easy to prepare. Et voilà, le steak frites est arrivé! It’s in the same spirit as the sandwich.” He paused. “Except it’s hot.”

In the nineteenth arrondissement, in the  northeast reaches of the city, sits a large swath of green: Le Pare de la Villette. I had come here in search of Paris’s carnivorous roots. For over a hundred years, from 1864 to 1970, La Villette was known as the “Cité du Sang,” the bloody center of the French wholesale-meat industry. In the 1980s an urban-renewal project turned the area into a postmod­ern park, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi. But as I wandered through the verdant space, I tried to catch a whiff of its gruesome origins as a cattle market and abattoir. A pack of young boys passed me on their kick scooters racing toward a futuristic  playground.

In its heyday La Villette was like another country, a sprawling complex with more than twelve thousand employees speaking a spe­cial slang and operating under a complex secret code of warring families, fierce loyalties, honor, and alliances. Cattle farmers and merchants from all over France brought beasts here to be sold and slaughtered. Chevillards, wholesale butchers who killed the animals, bargained with retail shopkeepers who traveled there to stock their boutiques, transacting business over glasses of wine in the café or heavy, meaty lunches in neighborhood restaurants.

At the southern edge of the park, I found a relic of the era: a grande dame of Parisian steak bistros, Au  Boeuf Couronné, which opened in 1865. Stepping through the restaurant’s revolving wooden doors, I tried to imagine the dining room as it was a century ago, when men wore hats and La Villette diners used to provide their own meat for the chef to cook. White tablecoths covered the tables, Art Deco light fixtures suffused  the room with a golden glow, and old photographs lined the walls—a child with a steer, men clad in long  black smocks—memories of La Villette washed clean and sweet. I watched black-and-white-clad waiters deliver steaks to diners who leaned toward each other, speaking in hushed voices. Could this bustling bistro, which has specialized in beefy business lunches for almost 150 years, be the cradle of steak frites?

These days Au Boeuf Couronné is part of the restaurant group Gérard Joulie, a vast chain of bistros that is in fact owned by an Aveyronnais. But I found the menu old-fashioned, with things like marrow bones, different cuts of steak, frites, and the  occasional piece of salmon. I ate my lunch while skimming the restaurant section of Le Figaroscope, occasionally setting down my fork to turn the newsprint pages. My knife sliced through my pavé—so named because it resembles a cobblestone—to release a pool of rosy juices. The fries were hand-cut, hot enough to sting my fingers, a glass of red wine was cheaper than bottled water, a pile of nondescript steamed green beans turned oddly addictive when dipped into the tarragon-scented béarnaise sauce. I pursed my mouth and sawed at my steak, took a bite and chewed, put down my fork to circle an ad­dress in a restaurant review. I felt almost Parisian.

About five years ago, Alain and Didier decided to take an early retirement. They left Le Mistral in the hands of a cousin and moved down to Aveyron. Though only in their forties, after more than twenty years behind the counter they were ready for a quiet life among the cows. Alain wanted to raise his kids, and Didier began a series of construction projects, renovating old farmhouses. They both bought a few hectares of vineyard and started cultivating grapes, joining a wine cooperative in the local village.

But back in Paris things weren’t going well. Business at the café had dropped off, who knew why? Maybe the cousin in charge was too much of an introvert. Maybe it was the new smoking ban, which outlawed cigarettes in cafés, restaurants, and offices. Whatever the case, something had to be done. Didier and Alain returned to Le Mistral, commuting between Paris and Aveyron, swapping shifts that each lasted a couple of weeks.

That first night at Le Mistral, I watched Alain behind the counter, smiling, shaking  hands, and greeting customers eager to welcome him back after his long absence. “Oui, je suis revenu!” Alain said as a mustached man pumped his arm up and down. He joked with a family as they settled their bill, poured another beer for the white-haired woman at the end of the counter, passing it to her along with a greeting from Didier: “He’s down in Aveyron, but he’ll be up in a couple of weeks.” Alain didn’t know everyone, but everyone seemed to recognize him. He was like a friend or an older brother, the unofficial mayor of the corner. And that’s when it hit me. Didier and Alain, they were fixtures of the community. Le Mistral had been in the  neighborhood for over half a century, a family institution. People hadn’t stopped coming because the cousin was shy or because they couldn’t smoke at the bar. They’d missed the brothers.

Calvin and I slid into a booth, an intimate corner table where we could linger over our  meal. The waiter brought us a pichet of red wine, and we clinked glasses and grinned at each other. Calvin’s crooked smile made my heart skip a beat. When the food arrived, I cut straight into the center of my steak, revealing a juicy, dark pink interior, the meat tasting of salt and brawn, of the grassy Aveyron­nais plain. In an oval side dish sat an oversize pile of frites, glisten­ing a little from the fryer. They weren’t hand-cut, and they had almost certainly been frozen—Le Mistral has no pretensions of a four-star kitchen—but I relished the mix of crispy and salty, the crunch that gave way to a tender, mealy center. As Calvin and I ate and chatted, I could see my reflection in the mirror behind  him: flushed cheeks, bright eyes, a smile that wouldn’t leave my lips. I was intoxicated,  and my drug was Paris.

Alain pulled up a wooden chair and joined us at our table as we finished our meal. Calvin poured him a glass of wine, and the two of them settled in to talk about the old days—the trip they took to Aveyron when it rained every day for two weeks, the unforgettable bottle of 1947 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that Alain’s parents had poured at lunch one summer afternoon, the time Didier took a road trip to Holland and lost his parked car in a maze of city streets. They talked about Monsieur Alex, who had passed away a few years  ago, new nieces recently born, old friends from the café.

After five years of marriage, I thought I’d met most of my hus­band’s friends. But listening to Calvin and Alain chat, I was struck by the depth of this new cast of characters, all with  poetic French names like Gilbert, Marie-Hélène, Michel, Agnès.  For me France was  new territory—albeit one that operated under an Old World code of politesse—and I still struggled to remember if a greeting should consist of two or three cheek kisses, or whether I needed to maintain eye contact while raising a toast. My husband, I realized now, already understood France with a fluency that went beyond language. At least I could rely on him for translation.

After dinner we stepped out of the café and paused at an intersection to peer around the corner of a building. “Look down there.” Calvin pointed, and I gasped. From the top of Belleville, the city descended before us, the buildings receding in size. Far in the distance, I spied the Eiffel Tower, as small as a toy and twinkling madly. We flattened ourselves against the side of a building, away from the other pedestrians on rue de Belleville, and watched as the tower sparkled against the orange glow of the city lights.

“When good Americans die, they go to  Paris,” Oscar Wilde once said. I’d managed to get there a little earlier, and I still couldn’t quite believe my luck. The future felt as glittery  as the Eiffel Tower, brilliant with anticipation. Calvin’s hand reached out to touch my arm. “Are you ready to go?” he asked, and I nodded.

Later I would realize the difference between us. Calvin had, in a way, come home. But I was on the brink of an exciting new adventure.

Visit: Ann Mah’s “Mastering the Art of French Eating” on the perfect steak frites the French way (excerpt) part one.

PRAISE FOR Mastering the Art of French Eating

“Ann Mah gives us a peek into French kitchens that foodies will envy and no Francophile could resist.” —Elizabeth Bard, author of Lunch in Paris

“Excellent ingredients, carefully prepared and very elegantly served. A really tasty book.” —Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence

“From the peaks of the French Alps to Brittany’s buckwheat fields, Lyon’s bouchons to Burgundy’s wineries, Mah takes us all over France in pursuit of its culinary traditions. But at the heart of her story is Paris—and all the love, wistfulness, and deliciousness found there.” —Amy Thomas, author of Paris, My Sweet

Bavette aux Échalotes (skirt steak with shallots)

This is my interpretation of a set of loose instructions given to me by William Bernet. At his restaurant, Le Severo, most of the meat ar­rives at your table sauce-free. The bavette aux échalotes (skirt steak with shallots) is one of the few exceptions. Like many classic bistro dishes, this one relies on the quality of its ingredients. Bernet would encourage  you to use aged meat.

Serves 2

For the steak

– 1 skirt steak,  9 to 10 ounces, patted dry
– Salt and pepper to taste
– 1 tablespoon mild-tasting oil such as sunflower or grape seed

For the sauce

– 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
– 4 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
– 1 ½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
– 1 sprig fresh thyme
– ½ cup chicken or beef stock or water

Preparing the steak

Trim the steak of excess fat and season with salt and pepper. Place the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Test the heat of the pan by touching a wooden spoon to the  oil—if the oil is hot, it will lightly sizzle. Place the steak in the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, until the underside is well seared and browned. Turn the steak and cook the second  side for 40 to 50 seconds, or until medium rare. (Skirt steak is a thin cut, and the meat cooks very quickly.) Transfer to a plate, cover loosely with a tent of foil, and keep warm while you make the sauce.

Making the sauce

In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter with the meat drippings. Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the red  wine vinegar, thyme, and stock (or water), and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover and cook until the shallots have softened and the liquid has almost disappeared. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter and add any juices re­leased from the meat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, add­ing a few drops of vinegar if needed.

Slice the steaks against the grain into thin strips. Serve with the shallots spooned on top, accompanied by mashed potatoes or steamed green beans.

Ann Mah au photo_credit Katia Grimmer-Laversanne_1.29.13Ann Mah is a food and travel writer and author of a food memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating (Viking Penguin) and a novel, Kitchen Chinese (HarperCollins). Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, South China Morning Post, Fodor’s guides, and other publications. Born in Orange County, California, Ann began her career in book publishing after graduating from UCLA. In 2005, she was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship to study in Bologna, Italy. She currently divides her time between Paris—where she has lived since 2008—and New York City. Visit: (Website) (Facebook) (Twitter)


Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love (2014 Paperback; 2013 Hardcover)

Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family, and Finding Yourself  (2010)

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Boulangerie Poilâne: A toast to French Breads, by Barbara Redmond who shares her face-to-face encounter with a French baker during her visit to the 18th century ovens of Poilâne in Paris. Could she steal a pinch from the raw, soft-white boule in its proofing basket resting close by? The penetrating aromas of bread; strong, yeasty, and hot… Recipes included for Tartine Chocolat et Poivre (tartine of melted chocolate and black pepper) and La tartine For’bon (tartine of cheeses and ham) from Boulangerie Poilâne. 

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French Cuisine: 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.

Paris macaron, love in the afternoon, by Barbara Redmond who tells about the French women who vanished into the streets of Paris and later exited Pierre Hermé, an elegant confectionary, clutching little cellophane bags of macarons, a little ‘Le goûter’ (afternoon treat). But, Frenchwomen do not snack… or do they? Paris locations included for Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, beloved for their Parisian macarons.

Text copyright ©2014 Ann Mah. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.