Articles in Restaurant
La Vie en Rose: Bitter brews, perfunctory pâtés, questionable quiches, insipid salads and tepid tarts? Has the Parisian cafe lost its culinary luster? Well, yes and no, but from my hard-core cafe-lover’s point of view, it really doesn’t matter!
Yes, Paris’ fall as the world capital of fine dinning and its efforts to revive are well-documented. The most recent, and fairly gloomy, report is by Mark Bittman in his July 22 New York Times piece, “French Food Goes Down.” Bittman is a bit late to the funeral. The media discourse on French gastronomy has brightened of late, and Nicholas Lander’s April 25 column in London’s Financial Times has even hinted at a renaissance of fine dining in Paris.
In any case, fine French food — dead, alive or somewhere in between — has never been the draw of the Parisian cafe.
Joie de Starbucks
It’s true that traditional cafes in Paris, and France generally, are closing in growing numbers. Young cafe-going Parisians and tourists, if not older, die-hard loyalists, are opting for food-trendy, Internet-friendly (Wi-Fi gratuit or free Wi-Fi) alternatives. These include, incredulously, American fast food and coffee chains like MacDonald’s and Starbucks.
Most traditional Parisian cafe owners would rather close up shop than give out their Wi-Fi (pronounced whiff-ee) passwords. Or so it seems. Last summer, I had to swallow my pride (and their “handcrafted’ lattes) and head to Starbucks to access a signal. I was conducting an online interview with Leonard Pitt, the Berkeley-based author of “Walks Through Lost Paris” (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006), a fascinating visual guide to Baron Haussmann’s architectural transformation of 19th-century Paris.
Pitt responded from his computer at the cafe in Berkeley, California’s French Hotel, across the street from Cali/Frenchie Chez Panisse. Working from my computer at Starbucks Odéon, the irony seemed absurd and a little painful. Pitt is a passionate proponent of a cafe-centric lifestyle over the work-ethic culture of Puritan-influenced America. “Nothing better symbolizes,” writes Pitt, “the congeniality, the rhythm and sheer joie de vivre we ache to recapture in life than the cafe.”
Well put, Pitt! But one man’s joie de vivre is another man’s (or woman’s) morning coffee ritual, writing studio, business office, evening gathering spot or flâneurian observation post. And often, all the above and more. The Parisian cafe is more than the sum of its parts.
Our Café French™ lesson today is based on my cafe-centric stay this June in the heart of Paris’ cafe-rich 6th Arrondissement — a perfect location for reflections on the traditional cafe’s basic functions. (See “Parisian Café Index” illustration.)
Wake up (se réveiller) and smell the coffee
When I go to a cafe to wake up with a café crème, the least important criteria for me is the coffee’s origin, quality or, I confess, taste. My critical connoisseur’s brain is still asleep even if my legs can get me there. So, I began each day at cafes within a few minutes walk of my apartment on rue Madame, mostly at my café du coin (corner cafe), Café Madame. There is nothing exceptional about Café Madame — they serve a typical petit déjeuner (decent coffee, acceptable croissant or buttered tartine, reasonably fresh orange juice) — except its convenient location.
After my morning coffee and a short stroll through the nearby Luxembourg gardens, I would arrive back at my apartment awake and ready for work — reading, writing and sketching — before heading out again to another cafe for lunch and more work.
Working (travailler): reading (lire), writing (écrire), sketching (faire des croquis)
Any cafe can be a working cafe, depending on one’s personal requirements. Kaaren Kitchell, an ex-pat novelist, poet and “Paris Play” blogger combines her daily one-hour walk with her writing and editing projects, so her cafe must be at least a 30-minute walk from home. Her other criteria include a quiet ambiance and, ergo, few tourists. “The French know how to modulate their voices,” says Kitchell, “Americans and Italians don’t.”
Chacun à son café! Ex-pat Paris author, tour guide and bon vivant, Terrance Gelenter, prefers to work in crowded and noisy icons, like Café de Flore. Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Gelenter holds “office hours” on the ever-popular terrace for his tour clients and visiting Anglophone writers, artists and musicians. His newsletter, “Paris Through Expatriate Eyes,” offers restaurant and hotel reviews, travel tips and a calendar of arts events.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
Where better than at a cafe to talk? The cafe inhabits a middle world between public and private space, unlike bistros and brasseries, where spirited talking inter-table is welcome, if not required. For the 19th-century Impressionists who broke from the stifling restraints of the Academy, the cafe became a salon where they could engage in debates over aesthetic issues (with the help of addictive amounts of absinthe).
One artist, however, presents an amusingly downbeat view of the cafe’s talking function. That would be the legendary Marcel Duchamp, as quoted in “Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews” by Calvin Tomkins:
“In the case of the Impressionists it could be a very useful thing — one artist would say a word that caught the imagination of the others, that’s true. But it’s a very, very artificial thing … full of new words and flourishing language and so forth, but no actual exchange and no understanding of the other one’s ideas.”
The inscrutable, tight-lipped Duchamp famously abandoned art and art talk when, in mid-career, he withdrew into the silence of chess competition. Which brings us to our final, nonverbal, cafe functions.
Watching (observer) and resting/napping (se reposer/sommeiller)
Much has been written about the cafe’s observational function. It’s as if the cafe, invented in 16th-century Istanbul, was destined for “… the eminently Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flânerie!” as 19th-century playwright Victorien Sardou was quoted in Edmund White’s book “The Flâneur.”
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As for resting in cafes, it’s a touristic necessity after days filled with shopping and sightseeing. But napping? Well, I admit it’s a conceptual stretch. Nevertheless, while sketching one afternoon at Les Deux Magots toward the end of my summer cafe immersion, I drew three tables pushed together with a man sleeping on top. A visual punchline for my illustration of the cafe’s functions. Come to think of it, for us older, diehard cafe loyalists in search of that elusive joie de vivre — or, at least, an occasional afternoon nap — it’s not a bad idea.
Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris
News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.
I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food — not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.
Pride in food
Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.
The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.
A culture of sharing
People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.
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Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.
People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.
I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.
Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.
Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us to Bouillon Chartier, which opened on rue du Faubourg Montmartre in 1896. It’s not a cafe or bistro or brasserie. Chartier is a bouillon, one of a few surviving members of a class of mid- to late 19th-century Parisian restaurants that specialized in hearty faire — especially meaty soups and broths. The low prices at the bouillons attracted workers, artists and shopkeepers in and around the sprawling food markets of Les Halles during the period of rapid commercial expansion during the Second Empire.
Credit for the creation of the bouillon (pronounced “bul-yon” in French, with a silent “n”) goes to Pierre-Louis Duval, an enterprising butcher whose first “broth Duval” opened in 1855. By 1900, the year of the Universal Exposition in Paris, there were hundreds of bouillons in Belle Epoque Paris, some fancier than Duval’s originals (Art Nouveau interiors were the rage), catering to the increasingly affluent bourgeoisie.
It’s well documented that the modern restaurant (the word and the place) evolved from the restorative meat broths (called restaurants in French, pronounced “res-toe-rone“) served at “health food” establishments in Paris beginning in the late 18th century. Going back still further to the 15th century, a very interesting recipe for a “restaurant” is documented in Rebecca Spang’s fascinating book “The Invention of the Restaurant” (2000).
The recipe is from the French master chef, Chiquart Amiczo, in his cookery book, “Du fait de cuisine” (1420). Amiczo’s instructions call for cooking a freshly killed chicken in an alchemist’s glass kettle along with 60 gold ducats. Not exactly the recipe my grandmother used when she made her famously golden chicken soup to cure my colds.
Courting the golden bouillon
Today’s Café French lesson explicates the linguistic trajectory between bouillon/broth and bullion/gold, health and commerce, restaurants (restorative broths) and restaurants (dining establishments).
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
The English pronunciation of bouillon, with a hard “n”—yone — is the same as for the English word bullion. Bullion, usually in the form of gold bars (ingots in English and lingots in French) has no linguistic faux ami in French (literally, false friend, or “unrelated sound-alike”). Both words, bouillon and bullion, derive from the Latin bullire — to boil or make bubbles.
Compare: To make gold bullion one has to “boil” the gold to liquefy it for the ingot molds. To make a golden court-bouillon (“quick bouillon,” pronounced “coor-boo-yone“), the vegetable-based broth used for poaching fish and light meats, one boils carrots, celery, onion, parsley, bay leaf, thyme and lemon in water, adding white wine or vinegar. Gold ducats optional.
Or one can cheat and avoid culinary/alchemical complexity by using dehydrated bouillon cubes (in French, bouillon cubes), like the Kub Or (gold cube) brand from Maggi, a French division of Nestlé Global.
Follow the monnaie
The pot thickens! Let’s look at a small slice of French history that is as startling as it is inconsequential, the almost simultaneous arrival of two men to the court of King Louis XIII (son of Henry IV) in the first half of the 17th century, one named Bullion and the other Bouillon. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
Claude de Bullion was a French aristocrat who served as Minster of Finance under Louis XIII from 1632 to 1640. He is credited with the creation of the Louis d’Or gold coin, which replaced Spanish doubloons, then in use in France for their coined money — monnaie (pronounced mon-et, as in, “A Monet costs beaucoup de monnaie“). At least one authoritative source insists that the etymology of the word bullion derives from Lord Bullion’s name.
Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon, was born in 1555 into the royal line associated with the Duchy of Bouillon in northeastern France, which later became incorporated into Belgium. Today, the Dutch city of Bouillon attracts tourists to its medieval castle, Château de Bouillon. Louis XIII was still a boy in 1610 when the Duc de Bouillon became a member of the Council of Regency and a favorite of the Queen Regent, Marie de Médici.
I have found no evidence that Bullion and Bouillon knew each other, but it’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened when M. Gold met M. Broth.
Taking stock at Chartier
Seated at a small table at Chartier, I find no bouillon on the menu — no soup, potage or consommé of any kind. My waiter explains that the weather is too hot for soup. Imagine a Parisian cafe on a hot summer day with no café crème!
But as disappointed as I am, I can almost taste the history of Parisian broth in Chartier’s Belle Epoque interior. You feel as if you have traveled back to the Paris of Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris,” his novel set in Les Halles and the market stalls, charcuteries and bistros of the Second Empire.
During that extraordinary period, Duval’s chain of bouillons had made him a “bouillonaire.” But his son, Alexandre, according to fellow Francophile, Susan Griffin, author of “The Book of Courtesans,” squandered much of the family’s wealth on the notorious and exquisite courtesan, Cora Pearl.
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When Pearl dumped young, naive Duval, he tried to shoot her with a pistol that miss-fired and almost took his own life instead. The scandal that rocked tout Paris tilted in favor of the scorned Duval and brought down Pearl. The “affaire Duval” was a wake-up call for the bouillon heir who recovered and rebuilt his broth empire.
The golden age of Parisian bouillons is past, along with courtesans, Art Nouveau and the Belle Epoque. The fabled Bouillon Chartier is, at least today, a sad and soupless shadow of its former self. Luckily for cafe and coffee lovers, the thirst for hot coffee, a universal, all-weather restorative brew, will never dry up.
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris
Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.
A contributor to the “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.
Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.
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Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.
A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.
Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.
Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.
Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.
To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.
- 3 tablespoons spelt
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
- 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
- ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
- 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Pinch of salt to taste
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
- Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
- Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
- Add the cooked spelt berries.
- Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
- Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
- Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
- Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.
What can a home cook take away from the Modernist Cuisine’s food movement? Personally speaking, I have not bought a Pacojet or a whipping siphon, though I know one or two home cooks who have done so. I did find a kit online that included lecithin powder (for foams), agar agar (a forerunner of gelatin made from seaweed), calcium lactate and sodium alginate (for balloons). One hilarious afternoon was spent concocting Balsamic Pearls and Mojito Balloons, but that was as far as it went.
A two-part series
It has inspired in me a new Modernist “Ten Commandments,” motivated by the version that journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau laid out more than 40 years ago on the fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine. My first five Modernist commandments appeared in Part 1 of this series. These are the final five:
Rule VI: Explore fantasy. Symbolism is a recurrent theme in Modernist Cuisine. Modernist chefs love to turn the world upside down and you never know what you may find. Ferran Adrià’s giant white globe, when cracked, shatters like an edible eggshell, but what looks like white chocolate proves to taste of gorgonzola cheese. At Alinea restaurant in Chicago, ayu tuna is perched on a giant, dense black morel mushroom, the ocean and the earth. Amid the drama and intrigue of Modernist dishes, appearance is often left to speak for itself. You can take or leave Adrià’s desiccated Braque-like skeleton of a real fish on your plate; it has no garnish at all. (“Ugh,” a friend said.)
Rule VII: Be inventive. Modernist Cuisine is certainly amusing. Who could not smile at Alinea’s bottomless “plate” supporting a liquid truffle ravioli, a single, earthy bite that explodes in the mouth. Often in Modernist Cuisine, things are not what they seem — at the U.K. restaurant The Fat Duck, a trio of tiny retro lollipops proves to be an apple sorbet with walnut and celery; a chilled mousse of foie gras; and oddest of all, a striped ice cream of avocado and salmon flavored with horseradish. Modernist cooking implies a sense of adventure. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed Red Cabbage Gazpacho with a Grain Mustard Ice Cream at The Fat Duck, but it sure made me pay attention.
Rule VIII: Play with temperature. Only in the last 100 years have chefs been able to play with hot and cold when cooking and serving food. Today’s precise temperatures and timings have opened a whole new world. Professional kitchens have become laboratories demanding a new approach to cooking. This leads to playful presentations such as Adrià’s white chocolate soufflé that evaporates into thin air within five minutes, or the Roca brothers’ anchovy stuffed olives dipped in caramel.
Rule IX: Avoid static presentation. For Modernist chefs, presentation can be a challenge. The landscaped plates of nouvelle cuisine, and the towers on the plate that came later, are gone. Today’s eyes are sated with the movement and color we see on all sides at all times. In the dining room, the solution seems to be a return to nature with wood, slate, green leaves, trees, rocks and pebbles; glass is a strong component that extends to the table itself and the general surroundings. Many chefs opt for simplicity, with small plain white plates (often in curious shapes) geared to tiny portions that speak for themselves. At Spain’s elBulli (sadly now closed), even the flatware was miniature.
Rule X: Keep the diner busy. Finally, expect to participate in a Modernist meal. You will be asked to stir, crush and crack the food in front of you, and often to eat it with your fingers. You may be blindfolded, or asked to lick the anonymous purées in an array of tiny spoons. At Alinea a balloon floated to my table and it was an effort of will to pop and devour the sphere of apple taffy tied with a fruit leather string, as instructed. I’ve always been an inflator, not a popper of balloons.
Reflections on the Modernists
The Modernist Cuisine’s practitioners are an odd lot. Most stay behind the scenes, sometimes greeting at the door, more often leaving a more personal relationship to be established by the server.
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In Europe, service tends to be discreet, so on a recent visit to Alinea I was touched that chef Grant Achatz himself created a chocolate pie with a sweet pastry crust on our tabletop. This gave us a chance to talk, a pleasure he repeated for every table, not just for special guests.
Just three days after my visit to Alinea, I heard the grand master of them all, Adrià, speaking in Chicago. He is credited with originating the whole Modernist movement and has trained many of the younger exponents. Adrià is a communicator, a ball of fire on the podium and in the kitchen, and he is the inspiration behind an online culinary encyclopedia to be called the “Gastropedia.”
What is there to be taken from all of this? Just as nouvelle cuisine is now long forgotten, it may turn out that the abstract, technically tricky concepts of Modernist chefs never have wide application. But right now, their vision and enthusiasm is trickling down to the tables of every hot spot in Hollywood. Their small plates and global ingredients are already creating a new world of cooking and eating. We are more adventurous and more curious. We are better informed about food. Cooking is becoming more a part of our lives, and a mom or pop actually cooking in the kitchen is coming closer to reality. Or so I would like to think.
Main photo: Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive
It was almost 40 years ago in Paris that I opened La Varenne Cooking School, and the nouvelle cuisine movement was sweeping France. Today we’re in the midst of similar radical change, and novelties are exploding, literally, on our plates in the movement called Modernist Cuisine. To be asked to taste pop rocks in the palm of your hand that turn out to be Parmesan cheese is really very odd — and provocative. So is a pocket watch, marked with the hours, that is designed to dissolve in a bowl of hot consommé.
A two-part series
A dozen top chefs around the world — José Andrés and Grant Achatz in the U.S., Heston Blumenthal in England, the Roca brothers and Ferran Adrià, the father of them all, in Spain, together with a handful of others — share the same culinary principles, and often the same ideals. The original fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine were laid out by two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who named them the “Ten Commandments.” It inspired me to consider the Ten Commandments of Modernist Cuisine. Here, in Part 1, are the first five, and in Part 2, we’ll look at the final five.
Rule I: Appeal to all the senses. You can count on a Modernist chef to tickle every sense. Tastes roam freely among such favorite ingredients as sea urchin, anchovy, olive, wild game, liver, blood, lemon and honey. At the table, we’re kept busy, mixing and matching mysterious seasonings, dried powders, foams, marinades and dips. Our Modernist noses tingle as casserole lids and glass bells release the pungency of fresh truffle or the lemon vapor from a single whole scallop in its shell. We listen too to the crack of a breaking crust, or the snap of shattering ice. At Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago my ears perk up at the trickle of water beneath the mini-iceberg sheltering foamed-topped Kumamoto oysters. The same multi-sensory appeal is true of our favorite traditional foods. Modernist cooks are simply exploring more ways of doing it.
Rule II: Explore the global cooking landscape. Modernist chefs are global players; they seek ingredients, staff and, most important, inspiration from all over the world. Often they themselves have trained away from home, gathering knowledge of new techniques and multinational styles of cooking. Top kitchens welcome bright young people who are willing to learn new ideas and work hard, and many have waiting lists of applicants.
Leading chefs have always enjoyed passing on their knowledge to the next generation, but today it is different. The students come from all over the world, they are younger and half a dozen languages may be used in the kitchen. This means that culinary knowledge — techniques, ingredients, cultural backgrounds — is now flying around the globe. At the very top restaurants, the diners too come from a multitude of countries, lining up for a year or more for a table.
Rule III: Create another world. All four of the Modernist restaurants I’ve visited pulled me into their own world before I’d even stepped inside the door. In a couple of cases it amounted to a long, featureless entrance corridor cutting off the outside from the splendors to come. Britain’s The Fat Duck lives in its own environment, surrounded by cottages in an archetypal English village. The now-closed elBulli in Spain involved a minor pilgrimage up and over a deserted hillside (except for the sheep) to arrive at an unobtrusive seaside villa on the Mediterranean.
Rule IV: Escape into a new landscape. The Modernist menu is formless with little sense of beginning or end and you will have no written list as guide. In a while, after say eight courses of what may become 15 or even 30, the meal becomes a timeless fugue, an ebb and flow of blending and contrasting dishes. In principle, fish comes first and sweets last, but this pattern is interrupted all the time. Japanese kaiseki banquets follow a similar theme. Indeed there are many parallels with the Japanese and Modernist tradition, particularly with the unobtrusive decor, designed to focus on the food itself.
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Rule V: Take advantage of technology. New techniques are so much a part of the Modernist movement that it is often referred to as scientific cooking — or even less accurately, molecular gastronomy. Both terms are nonsense, Blumenthal and I are in agreement here. “Science is not the point,” he declares. “Today’s cooking has not come from nowhere. Everything has roots including science in the kitchen. For instance, there was a Futurist Cuisine movement in Italy led by Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s and today’s Modernist Cuisine has clear links with that.”
In contrast, Blumenthal is completely at home with the term “Modernist Cuisine.” The successful chefs of today are far more than scientists. They may use modern techniques such as slow cooking in a vacuum pack, controlled dehydration, or the low temperatures created by liquid nitrogen, but they display the same originality as Futurists and other innovative cooks of the past.
Main photo: A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson takes place today at Le Sélect in the former bohemian stronghold of Paris, Montparnasse. Where better than at this legendary literary cafe to consider the linguistic and aesthetic connections between cuisine and art? The list of the cafe’s celebrated patrons reads like a who’s who of literary and artistic Paris going back to the 1920s. Le Sélect may be the only cafe in Paris with its own biography, “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch.
My guests (or should it be ghosts?) of honor today are the great novelist, dandy and gourmand, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the Sélect’s most celebrated alum, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). We are gastro-philologists, exploring via my Café French learning system a love of words and texts about art and food and the art of cooking.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
The cook (le cuisinier, pronounced qui-zee-nyea) observes the materials arrayed on his work surface, just as a painter (le peintre, pan-truh) views the pigments on his palette (la palette, pah-let). The cook “sees” the possibilities before he even begins to chop, mix, sauté and roast.
As the cook engages with his culinary palette, his anatomical palate (le palais, pah-lay) anticipates taste — le goût (pronounced goo) — via the physiological mechanism of anticipatory arousal (salivation and memory). This parallel between the artist and cook, the palette and the palate, was noted by Balzac when he commented on the practice of that inscrutable 19th-century urban type, the flâneur.
The gastronomy of the eye
Balzac described flânerie (la flânerie, flan-er-ee) as “the gastronomy of the eye.” The flâneur was the ultimate urban observer, not merely a stroller, who would emerge at mid-century as the bohemian artist, an ironic dandy roaming the commercial arcades and grand Haussmann-designed boulevards of Paris. Drinking in its novelties, the flâneur, like a cook, served forth his aestheticized observations as poetry, prose, music and art. The poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the archetypical flâneur, and perhaps the first modern Paris artist.
Balzac understood flânerie (he shared a social circle with Baudelaire) but fancied himself a flamboyant dandy and even wrote the first philosophical study of the type, “Treatise on Elegant Living” (1830). More gourmand than dandy — he was described by one critic as a binge eater — Balzac’s slovenly corpulence always gave him away.
Gastronomy was in the air in Paris and in the restaurants that flourished after the French Revolution. The City of Light was becoming the gastronomic (and art) capital of Europe. Balzac was 26 years old when Jean Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiologie du Goût” was published in 1825.
The cook as artist
If, in Balzacian terms, the observing flâneur practices the eye’s gastronomy, the cook as artist operates as gastronomy’s eye — he/she sees/tastes something we don’t. The ingredients on the cook’s culinary palette are transformed through aesthetic expression and registered on the eater’s palate much as the painter’s colors, poet’s words or musician’s notes are transformed and registered on their respective sense organs.
Interesting to note that the French word for palate — le palais (pah-lay) — is also the French word for palace. Of course! The palate is our palace of gustatory pleasure. Before the discovery in the late 19th century of taste buds — les papilles gustatives — distributed throughout the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, it was thought that the human palate (soft and hard) was the sole site (or seat, as in “the seat of government”) of taste. Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth — it is a pleasure dome, no mere roof, and we are the kings and queens of the realm.
Back at Picasso’s palace
The haunted ambiance at Le Sélect is palpable today. Squeezed into a cozy booth, I am reading now about the “select crowd” in Fitch’s homage to the cafe and its resident ghosts, including Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel, Henry Miller and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. You can almost taste the history of 20th-century modernisme at Le Sélect, or at least its mythology.
The cafe’s resident cat (chat), a long-haired bohemian fellow, is asleep on the bar, adding a je ne sais quoi (a little something, or literally, “I don’t know what”) to the cafe’s ambiance. Perhaps it’s a soupçon (a little bit) of domesticity, the cafe in its historic role as an extension of the home.
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The servers are scurrying from table to table, like penguins in their black and white garb. I glance out the window at the passersby, expecting my friend, the food writer, cookbook author and now French pastry expert, Martha Rose Shulman, who will be joining me for lunch today.
I have important questions for Martha — about Picasso not pâtisserie. She spent the 1980s living in Paris and operating her “Supper Club chez Martha Rose.” While there, Martha grew close (and still is) to her landlord, Christine, who she soon discovered was the widow of Pablo Picasso’s son, Paulo. Martha is my connection to the real, historic Picasso, Picasso outside the myth.
I’ve read a lot about the palette of the artist Picasso, but I know little of his palate. Señor Picasso was an Andalusian Spaniard, and I presume that he loved garlic, peppers, sherry and grilled sardines, a specialty of his native Málaga. Martha will know. We will sit at Le Sélect and, like good gastro-flâneuring bohemians, observe the action on Boulevard du Montparnasse and the action at our table — salade niçoise, croque-monsieur and café crème. I will drink in Martha’s stories about le palais de Picasso and the cafe’s nosy ghosts will be all a-twitter.
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris
“Snowday,” the first food truck from the social enterprise Drive Change, showed up this spring at Brooklyn Bridge Park for the annual NYFEST soccer tournament. The sky was blue, relief from the unremitting winter finally in the New York City air, and the soccer players and their families were famished. I bought grilled maple cheese sandwiches for my son and granddaughter and found the food inspired, with what Drive Change calls “a side of social change.”
Drive Change hires and trains formerly incarcerated youth to prepare and operate the nonprofit’s food trucks. “Our values are rooted in the belief that young people with criminal histories can live crime-free, bright futures full of opportunity,” founder Jordyn Lexton said. “Our trucks are our vehicles for social justice — allowing young people to have hands-on experience and develop transferable skills to become leaders in today’s society.”
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Lexton went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. During her spare time, she volunteered at Middletown Correctional Training School, a juvenile detention center. After she graduated from college, she went on to teach English to adolescent men at Rikers Island’s East River Academy high school in New York City. She worked in difficult facilities known as “the Sprungs,” four trailers housing youths who were not yet sentenced. “So many of these kids were full of such potential,” Lexton said. Yet she saw a cycle: New York is one of the states that automatically tries 16-year-olds accused of committing crimes as if they were adults. Of the 13,000 students she taught, 67% of them returned to jail or prison three years after release.
Against that wearying backdrop, a culinary arts program stood out. “It was remarkable to witness how much pride these young people felt being able to cook and present food they had made. And within that devastating environment, feelings of this kind were hard to come by.”
That got Lexton thinking about food as a way of reentry for young people who rarely can find good jobs during parole, and when they do, find it difficult to hang onto them because they are untrained.
Lexton began to research ways to reduce recidivism by working in the reentry world at the Correctional Association of New York, the Center for Employment Opportunitites, CASES and Work For Success, a Gov. Andrew Cuomo jobs initiative aimed at lowering the rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated people. She took a job as manager of a Kimchi Taco food truck. Two years later, Lexton started to piece together a plan of action. While traveling in Canada, she tasted a taffy-like maple confection called sugar on snow. “I’m going to open up a sugar on snow truck,” Lexton recalled thinking. “A food truck can hire, train and empower” formerly incarcerated young people, she thought. The program also had an opportunity to turn the spotlight on New York City as one of the few regions in the U.S. that automatically incarcerates and treats 16-year-olds as if they’re adults.
Culinary artists among the team
Lexton then composed a top-notch team that included Annie Bickerton, who oversees operations, and two culinary artists, Roy Waterman and Jared Spafford. The team developed an eight-month mentorship program, including two months paid training, four months (higher-paid) employment and a two-month transition with continued employment and a job placement strategy for young people coming home from the system. Training covers small business management, accounting, social media marketing and essential licensing such as a mobile food vendor’s license, a food handlers’ license and a G-23 license to operate propane for mobile cooking. Other New York City food trucks have already expressed interest in hiring program graduates.
Drive Change, which is still seeking funding, recently received a good-sized grant from the mayor’s office and the city of New York. The grant subsidizes some of the wages, which cover $8 an hour for each employee. Drive Change adds $3 to bump the hourly wage to $11.
As of this spring, eight young men (seven of whom are home after having been incarcerated) have been hired to head up and brainstorm the operation:
Spafford, who comes to Drive Change from Marlowe and Daughters and Flying Pigs Farm, had no background inside corrections but was looking for a more meaningful contribution to society. His working title is culinary arts director, developing the menu, and sourcing and prepping the ingredients.
Waterman serves on the front lines as a mentor and chef. He knows from his own experience how hard it is to get a job after having been inside. “Everything looks great until I have to fill out the infamous question on the form, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Roles change daily, but one worker is in charge of the maple grilled cheese. Two more take care of the kitchen prep. Another, who has been home since 2009, is a mentor in charge of developing curriculum for Drive Change. Still another, who came to Lexton’s program from the Doe Fund says, “There’s nothing that brings people closer than food. Food transcends everything and doesn’t hold anything against you no matter what your history is.”
Why call the truck “Snowday”?
“Snowday to us reflects the liberty of a day that integrates community, a day where folks don’t go to ‘traditional’ school or work but still get out in the world and explore — connect with nature and each other — and learn,” Lexton said. “Snowday is bliss, it is freedom.”
On the subject of sugar
All of the food on board the truck has a maple syrup component to honor Lexton’s first inspirational taste of sugar on snow. How about sugar being the object of food activists’ ire?
“The menu may not be health food targeted — we are not serving juice and chopped salads — but everything is locally sourced directly from New York state farms,” Lexton said. “Sustainability and healthy product are central to our mission — even maple syrup, which one could argue is high in sugar, is a natural sugar that has proven natural health benefits. Schools may avoid sugar, but they are mostly avoiding processed products and trying to get folks to learn about how to cook better for themselves and learn about where their food comes from — two things we pride ourselves on at Drive Change.”
On this particular Saturday, the inviting menu included:
Maple grilled cheese sandwiches, with the cheese from Hammond Dairy; little skievers with greens from Hudson Valley duck farm; apples from Migliorelli Farm; and bread from micro farming sourdough starter at Last Chance Foods. Even the water was locally sourced.
All summer long, the Snowday truck will be on Governor’s Island in New York on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Main photo: Drive Change founder Jordyn Lexton on the Snowday food truck. Credit: Tal James Luther