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May 27, 2014 08:01 AM

What is French food?

One of our more observant posters recently mentioned dropping an ex-pat cheffed restaurant from his list because he preferred to eat French food in Paris. A reasonable goal. Then I started debating with myself where French food begins and ends.

The Talbott writes about the foreigners cooking French food . Is it indeed French food? And, if not, why not? What defines French food? How much room is there for innovation before French food stops being French? How much Nordic influence can creep in before food stops being French? Asian influence? Is the food at the palace restaurants French? Or, as currently discussed, the food at Spring? Or is French food, like most else, something that morphs over time and reflects its times?

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  1. In the Spring thread, Phil said he had dropped Bones because it was Australian.
    If it is a comparison about Daniel Rose, then it is not fair, because Daniel's cooking has nothing American about it, not in the cooking, not in the ingredients, not in the inspiration, not in the influences.
    As for what is French, maybe 20 years ago I had a concept of what it is. Not any more.
    If I were a Martian who came to earth and assumed a human exterior and went around to study the human race. Going to all the good restaurants in Paris, I would deduce that the "musts" ingredients of French cuisine include soy sauce, ginger and lemongrass. Just a couple of decades ago, things were very different. And friends tell me that for their parents' generation, riz complet (brown rice) and corn were feed for pigs.

    1. Well, I'd like to think modern French food is a church with many rooms, but if pushed for definitions, I consider the matter in terms of sauce. If there's sauce, if it's prepared separately and added to the main ingredients on the plate, if it involves complex chemistry to become stable (emulsions etc), if it involves eggs, cream or both, then it's probably French, or at least drawing on classical French technique. This excludes the regional classics of course.

      Certainly it doesn't matter where it's cooked or who cooks it - I had clients in Nordic countries back in the '90s and all my entertaining there was conducted in recognisably French restaurants, no such thing as New Nordic then.

      I couldn't understand Phil's point in the Spring thread. Bones isn't Australian food and let alone 'comfort blanket' food prepared by a hometown boy suitable for expat or visiting Aussies.

      1 Reply
      1. re: shakti2

        Shakti - the comment about Bones was a little tongue in cheek. I think the average Aussie would run a mile from all that offal. I ate James' food at Au Passage and it is most definitely food of the city.

        I do agree the food of France is a broad church and one that evolves and develops. But that said I think that you can define "French food" as that based on classic technique. If you compare that to British food, some is a French based on technique but other is very British with different characteristics - suet crust for example and a penchant for roasting every and anything.

        Classic technique can include new ingredients but there is a limit, for example can you really use soy sauce? Each major cuisine has it's particular techniques like white-cut poultry, salt watering or red braised meats in Chinese foods give so much character (as much as wok based cooking) and I think it's these that help define it.

        But how far can you stretch a technique before it becomes something else? What makes Spanish Spanish and not just French or German German. I think that does come down to the common ingredients and traditional styles. So a sauced pasta is Italian, North African spices makes Spanish Spanish, and mayonnaise and curry sauce on chips is German.

      2. Mangeur won't mind - never minds - my teasing her. The thread title reminds me of Nabokov's poking fun at a certain interview style by French journalists, always starting with: "Vladimir Nabokov, qui êtes- vous ?"
        Years after reading that, I actually heard on tv: the then freshly elected president Chirac was asked by a journalist: "Jacques Chirac, qui êtes-vous ?" He : "Je suis le président de la Republique mais voyons !"

        1. French food is what I eat in France. It varies due to locality and population. Lyon is different from Nice as is different from Honfleur. And I also include MacDonalds with a slab of camembert. And their acceptable house white. Not to be found anywhere else.

          My father asserted that you could not get true American Southern cooking unless the cook was black. Take that Paula Deen. So you have to be French to cook French? Then I hope nobody takes a close look at the folks in the back. Because they seem to have a closer affiliation with Oran than Lille. But that was also France at one time. Confusing, is it not.

          1 Reply
          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

            because damn, I'm no fan of McDo, but that Camembert burger was worth a detour.

            But yes, I'm with you on eating what's local and fresh...and I'll raise you with what's seasonal.

            It's so easy to eat well in France...things that are fresh and local and in season are inexpensive...and SO amazingly good.

          2. "The Talbott"
            Is that like "The Donald"?
            A side point.
            One thing (among many) that chefs from other continents sometimes bring to French tables is their plating of dishes.

            8 Replies
            1. re: John Talbott

              In tampopo bums save some thrown out food and say
              You can't call it perfect it's slightly burned. Another answers french cooking is constant battle of burns.

              What does that mean?

              Never been to France but the best French food I had was in Japan.

              1. re: divadmas

                "Never been to France but the best French food I had was in Japan."
                In that case, how did you figure out it was the "best", and not just your favorite based on your experience ? (I bet you ate sumptuously in Japan. Just wondering how you arrive at the "best" conclusion.)

                1. re: Parigi

                  While the statement wasn't exactly accurate, you'd be surprised. Tokyo (not "Japan," as it's mainly a Tokyo thing) has exceptional French cuisine. I had a better meal at P.G.'s resto in Tokyo than at the mothership, even though both were great.

                  The Japanese are, in general, obsessed with French culture much in the same way the French are obsessed with Japanese culture (especially in younger generations). The influences aren't just related to cuisine, but even in other cultural respects as well.

                  "Going to all the good restaurants in Paris, I would deduce that the "musts" ingredients of French cuisine include soy sauce, ginger and lemongrass."

                  It's an interesting interplay, especially the French-Japanese dynamic. A mutual respect. Incorporating techniques or ingredients from one or the other. Not necessarily in the sense of the "fusion" that most abhor, but in the sense that there can be things learned and transmitted from others.

                  Look at all the Japanese chefs (pastry and savoury) in Paris. Look at the French chefs in Japan (pastry and savoury). I wouldn't say Japan has the BEST French food, but (selectively) eating French food in Tokyo, I've rarely ever had bad food. There's a similarity between the two cultures in terms of valuing quality product and treating it properly. There's a valuing of good technique. There way the "training" works is familiar for both cultures. A sort of dedication. I'm speaking generally, perhaps mythically, but it makes sense to me.

                  It's unfortunate that France seems to get all the Japanese intent on cooking good French food, instead of cooking good Japanese food... I guess the same could be said for Ivan: his ramen isn't top in Tokyo, or even New York, but it's still good.

                  1. re: Parigi

                    To be fair Divadmas did say "...the best French food I had" so that is in fact obviously the best French food they have had so far.

                2. re: John Talbott

                  'The Talbott'

                  Also known as 'The Venerable' and for occasions of particular formality, 'The Venerable Talbott'.