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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'.

                  :)

                3. food is like language, needs to be always evolving always growing, when it stops it dies. look at Latin, it's been codified into tiny compartments and now is only used in academia and the Vatican.

                  1. Well, if you ask many Americans, it is:
                    French fries
                    French dressing
                    French onion soup
                    French's mustard

                    also, can-o-peas and whores-doors

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: FrankD

                      I thought it was French toast, but was corrected.

                      1. re: FrankD

                        "French's mustard"
                        I read in one of the free throwaways - 20 Minutes, Paris Matin or Metro that French's Mustard was now being peddled by some company or other here, oh my.

                        1. This thread made me think a little. Ouch. And I'd say there are three characteristics of French cooking:

                          1- It's always been a mix of influence, a fascination for exotism -- think spices, think new vegetables, new forms of meat. I think defining French cooking by its ingredients totally misses its whole history, which is one of fusion food before they called it that.

                          2- Like about anything the French do, food is a social marker and a way to distinguish yourself, to show and enjoy your status, whichever it is. It is painfully obvious in all the NYT restaurants (you know, the undiscovered gems, so authentic you need to reserve two months in advance). Also in the fact that good food is not everywhere in France, but that you have to know where to go to enjoy the good stuff. Or in that thing with the Onion soup being food for Les Halles worker, which it is.

                          3- At the same time, French cooking is not cooking. It's a whole society and economy that revolved around food, craftmanship, a relationship to the land. Food is fundamentally part of the French culture, it actually shapes the landscape, the social interactions, etc. Here the supply chain is essential, the long chain of mastery.

                          19 Replies
                          1. re: souphie

                            Bravo. Very well said.

                            And in this context, I often get pissed off that many Chowhounders (and more so the average tourist) seem to treat restaurants as just another sightseeing stop without any regard to the place of food in our culture and lifestyle. Checklists and been-there-done-that. Quoting an Anglo-Saxon poet (TS Eliot) "we had the experience but missed the meaning"

                            1. re: Parnassien

                              We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

                              1. re: allende

                                My Goodness, good to have you here Oscar.

                            2. re: souphie

                              Excellent reply.
                              Last Summer, I wrote a story on this very topic in Food Arts. It was issued in November. I can't link to it but a search on "what is france" and "food arts" may yield results.

                              1. re: souphie

                                A propos point 3, I think of the potager, the kitchen garden, as the backbone of French food. An interesting read for Anglo speakers is Amanda Hesser's account of her year as cook for author Anne Willan's chateau in the Yonne. She takes us through the year's produce, the abundance of summer and fall through scrabbling for potatoes and cabbage in the month before much appreciated spring shoots appear. But mostly it is about the chateau gardener with whom she slowly forms a relationship and who teaches her about living in concert with the land. Of course, monthly we enjoy the recipes she develops to incorporate the vast array of seasonal produce.

                                "The Cook and the Gardener", Amanda Hesser 1999 Norton

                                1. re: mangeur

                                  M. Milbert and his wife were genuine characters.

                                2. re: souphie

                                  But wouldn't one say that these are equally the characteristics of all the fully-evolved great cuisines ?

                                  1. re: shakti2

                                    I don't think so, though you can find cuisines that share some of those traits but not all. I don't think the Chinese one for instance does the fusion/integration that much. In Italy, there is much less of the *distinction* thing, and you eat well almost everywhere (but some places in Italy seem very French). Others do not have the intimate relationship to the supply chain you still find in France, Italy or Japan.

                                    1. re: souphie

                                      Chinese would be one food culture which I'd consider highly adaptive, given the historical trade relationships with many parts of Asia, the diaspora and even now, the acquisition of new ways of consuming traditional cuisine (pairing with wine for example).

                                      Plenty of traditional preparations rely on non-indigenous ingredients (the spices used in many variants of beef stews, for example) and the diaspora has evolved new dishes, some of which have been successfully re-exported back to China (the new-year raw-fish salad of the Hokkien community of Malaysia and Singapore is now a feature of new-year menus in Hong Kong, for example), while appearing to their local friends to be cooking and eating a distinctively Chinese cuisine.

                                      I very much like that you've mentioned the supply chain though. This makes eating French food in France a unique experience even with the successful export of its ideas and techniques. I'd also add the professional hierarchy among restaurant-industry workers and the depth of skills/ training/ career development it nurtures, and the informed and demanding audience.

                                      1. re: shakti2

                                        yeah, sorry, I gotta agree with shakti. what is easily referred to as Chinese food, is about the most syncretic cuisines around. there was a phrase long ago that ancient China never needed to truly conquer anyone, as sooner or later they would become Chinese (yeah I know that overlooked more than a few inconvenient details, but the point of the dominant and enduring group adopting ingredients and techniques remained).

                                        1. re: hill food

                                          (hill food, it's been a long, long time since I saw a word I actually had to go look up. The word nerd thanks you!)

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            "syncretic"
                                            Goes into the top ten most over-used and un-understood words of the year along with arguably, lagniappe, palimpsest, fustian and limpid.
                                            John, actually a Garrison Keillor English Major.

                                            1. re: John Talbott

                                              My eyes glazed over at that point. Did you read the rest ?
                                              The other word that makes my eyes glaze over is very often used on this board: the ugly "foodie".

                                              1. re: Parigi

                                                How about he paradigm and disruptive?

                                                1. re: John Talbott

                                                  Yes, they are ugly mis-spellings. Was that your question ?

                                              2. re: John Talbott

                                                why yes, just the other day I was offered yet more fawning lagniappe, (once again as expected and fustian in the most tiresome way), yet through my limpidic and cataractal eyes I thought I glimpsed a palimpsest of what I have been searching for lo all these years. but no, that bitter joke's on me and me alone. I could do naught but turn to the silent regard of the rain-spattered window for solace.

                                    2. re: souphie

                                      Soup - I think sine if this depends on your perspective. As a Frenchman looking out it is a good and fair description - but it's possible many other nationals would say the same about their own foods (as Shakti2 says).

                                      But as a foreigner looking in I wonder if there would be a fairly different, far narrower description? In effect a far more traditional view of the food of France without all the fusion and incorporation of new techniques etc. When us foreigners talk about French food we are really pigeon holing it into its narrowest of traditions.

                                      Is your description more the "food of France" rather than French food?

                                    3. Years ago there was an article by the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini in the International Herald Tribune on the difference between French and Italian food. It may have been an excerpt from one of his books, but I do not recall if it was. Barzini told of being in Paris with a group of reporters for some event or conference or whatever. Some of his colleagues spent all their free time drinking. Barzini and some others who were interested in food spent their time visiting restaurants in Paris and in the countryside. Then there was an Italian food festival in Paris, where the best Florentine chefs were presenting the best Florentine food, or something like that. Barzini's conclusion was that the French aimed at an amalgamation, subordinating all the individual ingredients to the creation of something new, the "dish." The Italians, on the other hand, emphasized the individuality of ingredients, letting each element shine on its own.

                                      11 Replies
                                        1. re: Parigi

                                          I agree that is a very interesting perspective (Italian vs. French) and a pretty good one as well.

                                          1. re: PhilD

                                            Hmmm, that Italian/ French distinction is something we have long noticed, I had thought it was a fairly accepted observation?

                                            1. re: Jake Dear

                                              It is but I thought it well expressed.

                                              1. re: Jake Dear

                                                I don't really agree with it though. There are so many substantial exceptions on both sides, and both cuisines are equally so good at letting the product shine through OR alchemizing it all together to produce an entirely new concoction (that's cooking in my book), that I find that distinction mostly unfounded.

                                                There is nothing more blatantly harmonized from various ingredients than a proper ragù, or stracotto, or blanquette. And nothing more ingredient-focused than carciofi alla giudea or the raw sardine dish (royans au sel) enjoyed on the West coast of France. Really I do believe that French and Italian cooking are sisters in that respect. I'd even go so far as declaring that Italian cooking, unlike French cooking, has not lost its secret of "cooked" dishes, which insofar has somewhat protected it from trendy deconstructions and molecular shenanigans.

                                          2. re: bcc

                                            "....the French aimed at an amalgamation, subordinating all the individual ingredients to the creation of something new, the "dish." The Italians, on the other hand, emphasized the individuality of ingredients, letting each element shine on its own."

                                            I will have to chew this for a while. It doesn't mesh with the sparkling flavors I am tasting at today's Paris rooms. Nor does it correlate with what I learned from Julia and Marcella.

                                            Today, I brewed a casserole of roast pork ragu bolognese. It was anything but a showcase of individual ingredients but did indeed celebrate a marriage a infinite of its many parts.

                                            1. re: mangeur

                                              As the saying goes "the exception proves the rule". I would say is you look at the cuisines at a macro level it makes sense and helps give a simple definition of the difference between the two.

                                              1. re: mangeur

                                                I hope that I didn't misquote Barzini, but it was a number of years ago (Barzini died in 1984), and I may have misrepresented the nuances of his argument. In any case, both France and Italy encompass a multiplicity of cuisines.

                                                1. re: mangeur

                                                  There, Mangeur, I hadn't even read your post before writing the one I just posted.

                                                  And it is not even a case of "the exception proves the rule", for I can't find any dominance of either methodology on either side. The product or the mélange. And Italian food is SO much about harmonizing tastes. So brilliantly so!

                                                  (Just like French food when it remembers what it's all about.)

                                                  May I also add that you can't possibly produce proper "cooking" on ingredients that could not shine on their own. So the more I consider the quote, the less it makes sense to me.

                                                  1. re: Ptipois

                                                    As I said its a simple macro definition - I think it's quite elegant and does capture the essence of the two cuisines and succinctly differentiates them. Is it precise and accurate across all dishes and regions - of course not.

                                              2. At the risk of causing a run on Amazon or ABE books, just joking, I am really enjoying John Baxter's "The Perfect Meal" about his attempt to frame the perfect French meal after 20+ years living here.
                                                Lots of errors and opinions that would find lively refutation here but still better than most of us could come up with.

                                                1. Easy. Everything I eat in France is French food. Nowhere else in the world can I get French food.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: jock

                                                    Thanks Jock for THE right definition.

                                                  2. Am just completing a lovely week in Bordeaux, where alll of the meals have been decidedly French. Never once been served a green salad, followed by a piece of plain meat and baked potato. You just know you're not in Kansas anymore when you sit down for a meal here. It's been wonderful.

                                                    8 Replies
                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      no, you probably wouldn't be served a green salad followed by anything but cheese and/or dessert...green salad isn't typically a starter.

                                                      Baked potatoes aren't traditional, either (but that's okay -- I'll take any of the myriad of potato-and-dairy dishes that ARE traditional!)

                                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                                        Yes, I know that green salads aren't traditional starters in France, nor are baked potatoes common. That was the whole point of my post.

                                                        1. re: pikawicca

                                                          sorry, I've spent too much time listening to people for whom that's a serious kvetch.

                                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                                            @jock,

                                                            Up to La Morra again for two weeks. Centro and Bardon and La Torre on the schedule as well as a few others, including some new ones. They're waiting for you and Liz.

                                                            Interesting comment you made" "Everything I eat in France is French food. Nowhere else in the world can I get French food."

                                                            Do you think it holds for Italy as well?

                                                            Best,

                                                            allende

                                                            1. re: allende

                                                              Of course not. The food you eat in Italy is Italian, not French.

                                                              :)

                                                    2. A lot of upscale modern cooking is indistinguishable from place to place. If the plates were presented in a different location, you may be hard pressed to identify (or even come close) to where the cooking took place.

                                                      I think all restaurants in France are French restaurants, some of them serving food that is not French. It's all been altered in some way, though, via local customs and expectations of the clientele.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                        "A lot of upscale modern cooking is indistinguishable from place to place. If the plates were presented in a different location, you may be hard pressed to identify (or even come close) to where the cooking took place."

                                                        I think that's a common perception but I wonder if it is that true. Certainly there are some chefs who deliver a fairly standard food in all their restaurants - if you eat at Robuchon in Macau, Vegas or St Germain its going to be very similar, and some owners want the bland internationalised "french" food.

                                                        But if you eat "local" upscale modern cooking (and I include 2 and 3 starred places) I think its easier. And the differences between France, Italy, Spain, US etc are discernible.