Fresh shellfish at a seafood market in Paris, France (2004)
Not long after I returned home from my first trip overseas (to France in 2004), I was met with some disturbing news. Apparently, while I wasn’t paying attention, French Cuisine had died. The zeitgeist had turned, almost instantly it seemed, to the Modernists of Spain. Young cooks began rebelling against the old French system in droves, lured by the freedom to now do whatever they wanted, instead of being confined by a rigid set of rules. Traditional cooking methods were being all but abandoned in favor of scientific and technological approaches, creativity exalted above all else. In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. The future of the French techniques I had spent years studying, like most culinary students at the time, seemed to be in jeopardy.
The bad French news didn’t stop there. While upheaval was wreaking havoc on French Cuisine in the restaurant world, to the point that some said you could no longer get a good meal in Paris, news came that the French people themselves were abandoning home cooking. Fast food and packaged, highly processed supermarket products were taking over the French diet. The hamburger was on pace to outsell the baguette. Even some restaurants had been caught advertising “home cooking” while secretly producing the equivalent of microwaved TV dinners, which was so shocking that the French government took action.
While nearly all the training I had received to this point had been focused on things like mother sauces and cutting a perfect brunoise, I really had no choice but to investigate these modern paths – if for no other reason than if I chose to reject them, I could do so with an informed argument. When faced with rapid change, the general rule of thumb is “adapt or die”. This leads to a multi-year investigation into food science and everything that subject branches into. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the quintessential books on the subject to searching Google Patents for descriptions of industrial processes used to make things like Trix and Boo Berry cereal. In the end I simply “absorbed what is useful” and found the practical application of science to traditional cooking, à la The Food Lab, to be most compatible with my personal inclinations. (I actually met Kenji at a cooking demo in Santa Clarita, nice guy).
Fast-forward to current day. The zeitgeist has already shifted again, this time to the notion of using heritage ingredients and foraging what is around you in lieu of shipping in foreign ingredients from overseas. Pretty much everybody followed. In a way though, it seems like circling back. In the city I live in (Los Angeles), French Cuisine is having a sort of Renaissance, which is somewhat ironic. People are freaking out over the most basic tenets of French cooking, a well made French omelette, baguettes that taste like they are supposed to taste. Probably five new French-leaning places have opened in the last year and a half, a pace outstripped only by pour over coffee shops and poke joints.
Was French Cuisine ever really dead, or did it just move to Canada? Does what we see in the media really reflect reality? I’ve heard stories of French Cuisine trying to change with the times, tales of Bistronomy and less formal approaches to both cooking and dining. I’d be interested to see what that looks like, but part of me feels like maybe the old advice; that when you are lost you should stay in one place because someone is more likely to find you, may apply. After all, if things are coming full circle, doesn’t that mean we are all going back to where we started? In Japan and Italy, a place that has served the same dish in the same place for a hundred years is revered for its longevity and resistance to the ravages of time. I suppose sometimes not adapting at all can, eventually, become an asset rather than a liability. Like horseshoe crabs, print books and some would say, vinyl records, not everything needs to change.