Fundamental French

Mother Tongue
MOTHER TONGUE: Need to communicate with your staff? All of them know the common French terms.

Publishers Weekly, in an early review of my new book, The Elements of Cooking, criticized it for being Francocentric (it should have been called The Elements of French Cooking, the unsigned reviewer wrote, and dismissed its lack of a broader world view). I read this review upon returning from Chicago where I’d attended a weekend celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Charlie Trotter’s eponymous restaurant. Trotter had invited a stellar group of internationally renowned chefs who flew in from across the globe—Heston Blumenthal (England), Thomas Keller (California), Pierre Hermé (Paris), Daniel Boulud (New York), Ferran Adria (Spain) and Tetsuya Wakuda (Australia). At a dinner at the restaurant Schwa hosted by Trotter, Ferran Adria told me that this was a historic occasion, to have this group of chefs together.

Few would deny that on a list of the top 10 chefs of the world, these seven chefs have a rightful place. What was historic, though, Adria said, was that only one of them worked in France (Hermé, perhaps the world’s most renowned patissier).

“Twenty years ago,” I asked, “most of them would be French?”

Adria said, “All of them. Ten years ago.”

This gathering of chefs did indeed represent a fairly global portrait of the chef. Not insignificantly, they’d all arrived to celebrate a chef who had taken the French approach to fine dining and translated it into a distinctly American-global idiom. And perhaps it was no surprise that Arthur Lubow had also flown in for the celebrations. He’s the journalist who, four years ago, in an 8,000-word cover story on Adria inThe New York Times Sunday Magazine, pronounced the death of French cuisine (the final words of the article are from a Spanish chef: “Twenty years ago, everybody went to France. Today they go there to learn what not to do.”).

It’s understandable for non-French folks to rejoice at the end of French supremacy in all things cuisine, after a pretty good run of, what, half a millennium? The snide reviewer of my book was surely amongst them, implying that something with a French bias was somehow wrong.

I don’t want to guess at the reason for this anti- French bias, nor do I mean to imply that an anti- French bias is wrong. Eric Ripert, the Frenchman who co-owns and runs the Michelin three-star, New York Times four-star, restaurant Le Bernardin, has told me on numerous occasions how the hidebound nature of the French chef and the culinary mandates of French haute cuisine shut down the imagination and innovation of young chefs.

But we cannot say that we’re beyond the French, or that the French influence is past and we’re on to newer and better times in the kitchen. The children, non-French innovators, have not slain the father. The fact is, for whatever historical and sociological reasons, French cuisine became the bedrock of all western cuisine, and more important, it gave us a common language. The language of the kitchen is French-based. Just as, say, English is the language used for communication between international pilots and air traffic controllers.

It was in French kitchens that the fundamentals of cooking were first named and codified. The American chefs who compose our brigades still prep mirepoix as part of their daily mise en place, and the avant garde and cutting edge chefs are proud to cook sous vide. And perhaps one of the most celebrated American restaurants ever, The French Laundry, explicitly looks to France for both its inspirations and innovation as well as to the culinary fundamentals that did not begin in France but that were given meaningful terminology there.

In a restaurant culture perpetually seeking the next new thing, we need always remember where we came from and what our common language is. Because if we don’t have a common language, then we have no way of communicating, and we are isolated with our innovations and discoveries.

I wrote The Elements of Cooking to name and describe all the terms a cook needs to know in the kitchen, whether at home or working the grill station on a Saturday night. And yes, it could be called The Elements of French Cooking, I suppose—but, I would argue with that anonymous reviewer. This is its strength, not a weakness. It is an acknowledgment of a culinary heritage all cooks in the Western world share. —Michael Ruhlman