As chefs explore France’s regional culinary traditions, they’re making humble fare au courant.
This article first appeared in the 1 February 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
In the Disney/Pixar animated movie “Ratatouille” (2007), Remy the rat, a talented cook, placates a restaurant critic by whipping up a contemporary interpretation of the film’s namesake dish, that classic Provençal creation of stewed tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and garlic.
A similar scene is playing out today in French-focused American restaurants—minus the rat, of course. Chefs are digging deeper into France’s regional culinary history, serving hearty, homey dishes steeped in tradition.
The trend is born out of the “bistronomie” movement in France which, over the last decade, has seen chefs trained in haute cuisine trade ambitions of opening Michelin-starred restaurants for the simplicity of operating neighborhood bistros serving polished renditions of classic dishes. Fueling the trend in France and beyond is the industrywide celebration of local and seasonal ingredients.
“In France when I started cooking, it was all about nouvelle cuisine: two carrots in the middle of the plate with a little jus,” says Christophe David, executive chef of NoMI at the Park Hyatt in Chicago. “Then there was a time for fusion. Now everyone is going back to organic and seasonal cooking. We are going back to the recipes of the regions.”
Price is another factor: Restaurants are able to charge less for a country-style stew of beef braised in red wine than for filet mignon. Plus, offering creative preparations of lesser-used proteins is a way for chefs to differentiate themselves.
“A lot of French chefs are going back to their roots, taking 'poor man’s food’ and making it into something fantastic by using good technique,” says Christophe Poteaux, chef-owner of Bastille Restaurant in Alexandria, Va. “Any chef can cook filet mignon, but not everyone can make something nice with beef tongue.”
Modeling whole menus after regional fare is how some French restaurants are setting themselves apart from similar concepts.
A region-specific menu wasn’t in the plan when Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault opened RH at the Andaz West Hollywood hotel in California a year ago, but when the original menu’s lighter, vegetable-driven French dishes didn’t create much local buzz, Archambault made a dramatic change. He decided to feature the food he grew up eating in the Perigord, an area in southwestern France famous for its black truffles, its foie gras production and its liberal use of duck fat in the kitchen.
“I was afraid in the beginning that people would think it was too heavy,” Archambault says. “In the Perigord, they use duck fat instead of butter or olive oil.”
But rather than being turned off by the rich food, customers are coming specifically for it, sampling lesser-known dishes such as tourrain, a simple, mildly garlic-flavored soup of chicken stock thickened with a roux made of duck fat and flour. They’re also seeking out more-familiar items, such as Archambault’s duck-confit entrée, which features a duck leg poached in duck fat and served with garlicky potatoes crisped in the same fat.
The Perigord region’s other famous ingredients, truffles and foie gras, also factor into the menu at RH, in items such as the Périgourdine poached-egg appetizer (à la périgourdine refers to a dish flavored with truffles). The egg, baked in a ramekin with mushrooms and cream, is topped with a slice of foie gras terrine and a shaving of black truffle.
Although the ingredients are luxurious, the chef says the recipes are rooted in rustic, seasonal cooking. In southwestern France, cooking follows the calendar, Archambault says. “In January, we eat chestnuts and walnuts and mushrooms. In the spring, we think about the garden. The first fava beans [are eaten] with bread, butter and salt.”
Building a menu around lesser-known regional French food also has helped Chef-owner Peter Woolsey’s Bistrot La Minette differentiate itself from other French restaurants in Philadelphia. “When we set out to open a restaurant in 2008, we had some principles,” Woolsey says. First, everything would be made in-house, and second, the restaurant would strongly emphasize bistro food, which Woolsey says he interprets to mean authentic, regional French food.
For inspiration, he turns to the French regions he has lived in or visited. From coastal Brittany, he serves oeuf du pêcheur (fisherman’s egg), an appetizer of poached egg and shelled mussels bathed in a creamy tarragon-and-white-wine sauce. From southeastern Grenoble, he offers raviole, cheese-filled, thumbnail-size ravioli, which are simmered in cream sauce, topped with Comté cheese and broiled to order.
Although Woolsey aims to keep his recipes authentic, he allows for a few adjustments. His cassoulet, for example, is based on renditions he ate in the southern city of Toulouse, where the use of duck confit in the dish is hardly the rule. But he chooses to incorporate the rich duck meat in his version of the casserole, which also includes house-made Toulouse sausage, beans, braised lamb and a topping of herby, duck-confit-enriched breadcrumbs.
“You see duck confit in Toulouse cassoulet from time to time,” he says. “But [whether to include it] is a big argument wherever you go.”
Chris Kronner, executive chef at Bar Tartine, is looser with his interpretation of regional bistro food (he offers a burger on the menu). But he does serve rustic French dishes, such as choucroute, made with local ingredients.
“It isn’t strictly French bistro fare, but a lot of traditional French dishes lend themselves to the meat and produce that are seasonally available in California,” Kronner says.
For the choucroute, an Alsatian sauerkraut dish that often features braised meat, Kronner makes ham in-house and and purchases boudin blanc from a local artisan. Both meats accompany purple-cabbage sauerkraut and a garlicky, caraway-seed-flecked potato salad. “People think of French food as being complicated with heavy sauces, but it doesn’t have to be,” Kronner says.
Other chefs who want to demonstrate that French food goes beyond rich, creamy sauces often turn to France’s sunny southern cuisine and its accessible Mediterranean flavors for inspiration.
In the south, “You have lots of markets with fresh tomatoes, zucchini, chanterelles—it’s wonderful,” says Martial Noguier, executive chef of Café des Architects at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower hotel. “And you use olive oil. You don’t use cream or butter.”
For fish entrées, Noguier often chooses ingredients found in abundance along France’s Mediterranean coast, pairing fillets with clams, flageolet beans and basil purée or with pipérade, a French Basque dish of braised sweet peppers, tomatoes and garlic.
Sascha Lyon, executive chef of Los Angeles-based Innovative Dining Group’s first French concept, Delphine Eatery & Bar, which opened in January at the W Hotel Hollywood, also finds inspiration for his seafood-heavy menu in southern French flavors. “You have Spanish and Italian influences—olive oil, garlic, anchovies and olives,” Lyon says. “It all melds nicely in the south of France.”
In addition to straightforward, classic seafood dishes such as moules frites (mussels with fries), Delphine offers a Spanish-influenced grilled swordfish with piquillo peppers as well as a pissaladière, a Provençal pizza with toppings such as roasted peppers and garlic or caramelized onions.
When trying to keep dishes on the lighter side, Guillaume Bienaime, executive chef at Marché in Menlo Park, Calif., finds that he gravitates toward south France’s herbal and citrus flavors. “I love Provence, especially in the summer, for its lighter style of sauces,” he says.
To create a lamb entrée that isn’t overly rich, for instance, Bienaime braises lamb shanks with typical Provençal ingredients, including garlic, anchovies and peppers. He pulls the meat off the bone, mixes it with shelling beans, and serves the mixture with a grilled saddle of lamb seasoned with garlic, chile, thyme and olive oil. For a final citrus note, he sprinkles the dish with a mixture of salt and dried, ground orange peel.
NoMI’s Chef David takes a more-refined approach to rustic southern dishes such as bouillabaisse, France’s famous seafood stew.
“Bouillabaisse started in Marseilles,” David says. “Fisherman would sell all the big fish, and at the end of the day they would be left with all the small ones. So they put them in a pot with tomatoes, vegetables and saffron. It was called bouillabaisse because everything came to a boil together.”
At NoMI, he elevates the dish with modern technique. For the base of the soup, David makes a consommé. Then each piece of seafood—including monkfish, snapper, scallops, mussels and clams—is poached separately to ensure even cooking. A thin crouton topped with rouille, a traditional spread of garlic, peppers and breadcrumbs, serves as a garnish.
At Bar Tartine, bouillabaisse inspired a seafood stew that Chef Kronner prepares using locally sourced ingredients. He sweats fennel and onions with local clams and mussels, deglazes the pan with shellfish broth and absinthe, adds a couple of pieces of black cod and then simmers the mixture until the mussels and clams pop open and the cod is cooked. The stew is served with Dungeness crab legs, a dollop of crab aïoli and grilled bread.
“It’s not fancy cooking or presented in a particularly fancy way,” Kronner says. “Where the sophistication comes in is through the selection of ingredients and the preparation.”
WINE & DINE
Although France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions are known best for their wines, some chefs are finding ways to spotlight both the dishes and the drinks from these places.
Once a month, Chef-owner Christophe Poteaux of Bastille Restaurant in Alexandria, Va., offers a five-course menu designed to pair with regional French wines. In January, he focused on obscure Bordeaux wines. For the meat course that accompanied a spicy Merlot, Poteaux featured duck breast served with cabbage. “In Bordeaux, it’s either going to be beef, because it’s a good cattle-breeding area, or it’s going to be duck because it’s the gateway to the Perigord.”
At Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, Ill., Chef-owner Michael Lachowicz models his menu after the cuisine of Burgundy, known for its use of wine in braises and sauces.
For a venison leg served sliced alongside a saddle of rabbit, Lachowicz marinates the dark-red meat in red wine and herbs. He then strains the marinade, brings it to a simmer and reduces it with veal stock to create a sauce that he finishes with huckleberries.
It’s a dish that pairs well with wine. “The wine in the marinade and in the sauce is a common thread,” he says.
From the Alps to the Mediterranean, the food of France is as varied as its topography. Here, a thumbnail reference of the country’s regional cuisines, divided into three main areas.
Cheeses: Brie, Époisses
Cooking fat: Butter
Key dishes: Crêpes, choucroute, tarte flambée
Key ingredients: Cream, oysters, mussels, endives
Region on the rise: Alsace. More and more chefs are becoming inspired by its beer-friendly, German-influenced fare.
Meat: Beef, duck, lamb, pork
Cheeses: Chèvre, Comte
Cooking fat: : Butter, olive oil
Key dishes: Boeuf bourguignonne, rillettes, escargots, gougères
Key ingredients: Mushrooms, truffles, wine, leeks
Region on the rise: Auvergne. This region offers several distinctive cheeses, such as Cantal, and many pork products, including dried sausages.
Meat: Duck, lamb, pork
Cheeses:: Ossau Iraty, Roquefort
Cooking fat: Olive oil, duck fat
Key dishes: Bouillabaisse, cassoulet, duck confit, ratatouille
Key ingredients: Citrus fruits, anchovies, garlic, olives
Region on the rise: Languedoc-Roussillon. The region’s improving—but still affordable—wines complement the local catch of the day.