« Paris is the culinary centre of the world. All the great missionaries of good cookery have gone forth from it, and its cuisine was, is, and ever will be the supreme expression of one of the greatest arts of the world, » observed the English author of The Gourmet Guide to Europe in 1903. Even today, a sophisticated meal, expertly prepared and elegantly served, must almost by definition be French.
For a century and a half, fine dining the world over has meant French dishes and, above all, French chefs. Despite the growing popularity in the past decade of regional American and international cuisines, French terms like julienne, saute, and chef de cuisine appear on restaurant menus from New Orleans to London to Tokyo, and culinary schools still consider the French methods essential for each new generation of chefs. Amy Trubek, trained as a professional chef at the Cordon Bleu, explores the fascinating story of how the traditions of France came to dominate the culinary world.
One of the first reference works for chefs, Ouverture de Cuisine, written by Lancelot de Casteau and published in 1604, set out rules for the preparation and presentation of food for the nobility. Beginning with this guide and the cookbooks that followed, French chefs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries codified the cuisine of the French aristocracy. After the French Revolution, the chefs of France found it necessary to move from the homes of the nobility to the public sphere, where they were able to build on this foundation of an aesthetic of cooking to make cuisine not only a respected profession but also to make it a French profession. French cooks transformed themselves from household servants to masters of the art of fine dining, making the cuisine of the French aristocracy the international haute cuisine.
Eager to prove their « good taste, » the new elites of the Industrial Age and the bourgeoisie competed to hire French chefs in their homes, and to entertain at restaurants where French chefs presided over the kitchen. Haute Cuisine profiles the great chefs of the nineteenth century, including Antonin Careme and Auguste Escoffier, and their role in creating a professional class of chefs trained in French principles and techniques, as well as their contemporary heirs, notably Pierre Franey and Julia Child.
The French influence on the world of cuisine and culture is a story of food as status symbol. « Tell me what you eat, » the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote, « and I will tell you who you are. » Haute Cuisine shows us how our tastes, desires, and history come together at a common table of appreciation for the French empire of food. Bon appetit!
Amy B. Trubek teaches at the New England Culinary Institute.
From Library Journal
Wonderful fine dining establishments can be found in all the nations of Europe and North America, but everywhere the menus are dominated by the French. The method of preparation is French, as is the style of cooking, and the professionals are French (the maiority of native-born French chefs presently work outside France). Girardet in Switzerland, Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in England, Lutece, Le Francais, Le Chanticleer, and Restaurant Daniel in the United States, to name a few, are destinations for gourmets. These restaurants, described in newspaper reviews and guidebooks as the temples of ﬁne are of France but not necessarily in France.
Furthermore, the French can be found in culinary schools, where future professional chefs are trained. In the first semester at a culinary school in the United States, students must master the fundamentals of stock preparation and learn the five mother sauces of French haute cuisine as well as their many derivations. In « Knife Skills » class they learn to hold the French chef ’s knife and perfect the transformation of raw vegetables into precise mirepoix, brunoise, julienne, and bâtonet. They also learn the biographies of French chefs Antonin Caréme and Auguste Escoffier and are told to buy the Larousse Gastronomique and Le Guide Culinaire, early twentieth-century bibles of French haute cuisine. They must come to the kitchen each day in their white chef ‘s jacket and pressed checked pants, cloth toque upon their heads, a uniform almost identical to that worn by French chefs in France during the nineteenth century. The culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, which currently has branches in London, Paris, and Osaka, states that « thousands of students are enrolled at the Cordon Bleu, all having come.. . for the same reasons: to worlt with French chefs and learn from their skills. »
French chefs founded the leading professional culinary association in twentieth-century America—the American Culinary Federation. With 25 000 members, the ACF has chapters in every state except North Dakota. The association provide the only comprehensive certiﬁcation program for culinary professionals outside cilinary schools; more than 8,400 certiﬁcations have been awarded for cooks, sous-chefs, executive chefs, master chefs, and culinary educators.
Founded in 1929, the American Culinary Federation was an attempt to bring together three existing culinary associations: the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique, the Vatel Club and the executive Chefs de Cuisine of America. The leading ﬁgure in the move to consolidate was Charles Scotto, former president of the Executive Chefs de Cuisine and the Vatel Club and past vice president of the Société Culinaire. He became the first president of the American Culirnary Federation. Born in Monte Carlo in 1886, Scotto apprenticed under French pâtissiers and trained in London under Auguste Escoffier, often called the greatest French chef of the modern period. Scotto came to the helm of the American culinary association with a perfect French pedigree.
French chefs, wheter working within the borders of France or far away, have their own professional association: Les Maitre Cuisiniers de France. Founded in 1951, the organization has three hundred members, of whom ﬁfty-one belong to the American chapter. Entry requirements are very stringent. You must be a native-born Frenchman and have been nominated by two other members of the organization. To be considered, you must have been an apprentice for at least three years under a master chef trained in classic French cuisine in the style of Auguste Escofﬁer. The organization’s charter extols the tasks of a true master chef: « The Master chef of France must be aware that he belongs to a renowned cultural tradition », and « as an heir to a great past, his mission is to serve the culinary art by expanding its inﬂuence and providing for its future. » Among the Maitre Cuisiniers de France found in the United states are Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin, Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel, jean joho of Everest, and Michel LeBorgne of the New England Culinary Institute.
Why do French chefs dominate ﬁne restaurant kitchens, as they have since the nineteenth century ? Why do budding American chefs still read Le guide Culinaire ? Why do so many people think french cuisine is superior to all others ? Above all, why is French cuisine so powerfull in the world of fancy food ? The simple answer is that French chefs have dominated as the masters of the practice and as the primary instructors in the culinary knowledge necessary in ﬁne restaurants, hotels, and clubs since their very inception. The discourse and practice of the French, or what is said and what is done, have always provided the framework for action far beyond France: the French invented the cuisine of culinary professionals.
How best to explore the persistent power of France in the world of fancy restaurants, hotels, and clubs ? To unravel the puzzle, to understand the « reason why a particular structure of meaning [and practice] persists overtime », we must tun to the past and perform a « genealogy of the present ». Because France dominates, the initial journey needs to be there, through the historical development of a haute cuisine, the type of food always the province of chefs and the precursor of professional cuisine. The courtly homes of the medieval and early modern period housed the beginnings of a French haute cuisine. With the development of the public sphere and the advent of the French Revolution, food production and preparation were transformed, but a dedication to the initially noble haute cuisine continues. The historical connection between France and the emergence of professional cuisine—food that is consumed in restaurants, hotels, and clubs and is prepared by trained experts—begins with the type of food prepared.
Food preparation of any kind depends on locale and audience; haute cuisine has always been prepared for people with allegiance to each other. Haute cuisine in France first appears in the stately châteaus and manors of the French aristocracy. This is hardly a controversial statement, given that before the late 1700s, homes were the only places where people could expect to sit down to be served a formal meal. Although prepared food was available for purchase as early as the 1300s, it was found at town markets or at roadside stands that served itinerant travelers and pilgrims. Only much later would people go inside a building to be served a meal. Large, elegant manors were the site of professional cuisine’s precursor and the places where chefs were first employed to ply their craft, which consisted of complex preparations presented to the aristocratic consumer in elaborate, multiple-course feasts.
As the story of professional cuisine unfolds, the link between cuisine and social hierarchy becomes increasingly clear: the gastronome Brillat-Savarin’s insight « Tell me what you eat and l will tell you who you are” remains true long past the Revolution.The food produced by chefs was French haute cuisine, the cookery of the elites. The food of the pasant or the town baker, though not completely unrelated, was never seen to incorporate or represent the food of the chef. The audience for such a complex cuisine was always small, wealthy, and socially powerful: haute cuisine equals professional cuisine.
To delineate the differences and similarities between a cuisine and a haute cuisine, anthropologist Sidney Mintz asserts that not every society has a cuisine, but a society must have a cuisine in order to have a haute cuisine. His argument for sequence—ﬁrst food, then cuisine, then haute cuisine—is important and compelling because these terms are too often used interchangeably, which may erase differences in geography, epoch, and social rank. The everyday manifestations of such practices are complex, but certain generalizations about form and content can be made. Haute cuisines always have some relationship to an elite population, the cooks who are employed to make their food, and the ingredients and methods of preparation used.
Mintz’s among food, cuisine, and haute cuisine provides a good framework for the type of food prepared by chefs from the Middle Ages through the present. Beginning in the medieval period, this “haute” cuisine was characterized tremendous attention to the appearance of food, particularly in the case of the courtly feast. Even for the aristocracy these feasts were major events and required the efforts of many people. Held in the great hall, they included musical and dramatic entertainment along with a sumptuous feast. Food, the mets in French, was often presented in the service of a larger pageant or drama called the entremets, in which roast beasts would make an entrance on a tower or candied fruits would arrive from silver trees. As Stephen Mennell argues, the importance of feasts to members of medieval society was in their function as an important site of social display: these feasts « and many other smaller-scale events were not merely entertainments and celebrations—they were a means of asserting social rank and power ». Feasts, and the special, complicated cooking required to create therm were needed to maintain social standing,
Le Viandier of Taillevent is an excellent source of information about the medieval haute cuisine. Taillevent’s Viandier remains one of the earliest recipe collections of this period; in fact, only three earlier works are known. Initially a handwritten manuscript, the work is diﬂicult to date, but it was available as early as 1392, and several subsequent versions were published during the 1400s. The author, Guillaume Tirel, or Taillevent, was a maître-queux (master cook, or what today would be called chef de cuisine) to Charles V and was involved in professional service to French nobility for more than fifty years. Written by a practicing chef, the book was probably intended for other cooks for the nobility. The array of recipes for a wide variety of game, fish, and fowl, seasoned with plenty of spices, indicates meals that were served to a wealthy audience. Organizing the recipes according to ingredients and methods, the author assumes that the reader knows a fair amount about techniques.
Le Viandier is divided into sections on meats, including roasts and stews; entremets; « dishes for the infirm »; fish, including freshwater, « round sea, » and « ﬂat sea »; sauces; and « additional recipes. » There have been various interpretations of the underlying order to the cooking methods; for example, Terence Scully suggests that medical principles inﬂuenced Taillevent’s techniques. Scully points out that a noble household would have a resident doctor as well as a resident chef, and the importance of humoral theories, they would have worked together to create appropriate foods for the household. The primary objective appeared to concern keeping food warm and moist, especially meats, fowl, and fish.
As an early work of the emerging haute cuisine, Le Vandier has three notable themes: the extensive use of spices to ﬂavor the food; the separate preparation of the meats, fowl, and fish from the sauces that accompany them; and the complex instructions for presentation. This recipe for civé de veau, or veal stew, easily reveals these themes:
Roasted on a spit or on the grill, without overcooking, cut up into pieces and fried in grease with chopped onions; steep burnt toast in wine and beef broth or in pea puree, and boil your meat with this; then add ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, of and saffron for colour, infused in verjuice and vinegar. It should be thick, there should be enough onions, the bread should be darlk and sharp with vinegar, and it should be yellowish. »
The ﬂavoring agents are many and diverse. Cinnamon, cloves, and saffron would add a musky, earthy ﬂavor; the ginger and cinnamon would add some sweetness; the grains of paradise would provide heat; and ﬁnally, the vinegar and verjuice (made from unripened grapes) would have brought a sour note to the dish. The meat is roasted, added to a sauce, and then boiled, a technique probably inﬂuenced by humoral theories: boiling the meat after roasting would serve as an antidote to the drying effect of roasting. A later, classical version of this dish would sear the veal in a pan and use that pan (with all the meat juices) to make the sauce. The meat would be braised in the sauce over a low heat, never boiled. Medieval haute cuisine is often criticized for a hodgepodge approach to ﬂavor, especially compared to the more refined combinations of modern haute cuisine. When one looks at present-day ﬁne dishes, however, their combinations often appear markedly similar to those of Taillevent.
At feasts, large fowl such as swan and peacocks would often be presented whole with their skin and feathers sewn back on after the fowl had been roasted. Taillevent’s recipe for « Cigne Resvestu, or An Entremets of Swan Redressed in its Skin with all its Plumage, » which is quite short, but definitely not simple, goes as follows:
Take the swan and inﬂate it between its shoulders as with Stuffed Poultry and slit it along its belly, then remove the skin together with the neck cut off at the shoulders, and with the legs remaining attached to the body; then fix it on a spit interlarded as with poultry, and glaze it; and when it is cooked, it should be redressed in its skin, with the neck either straight or flat; it should be eaten with yellow Pepper Sauce.
Several centuries later, a reader of medieval texts did not approve: « Even in his [Richard ll’s| time we find French cooks were in fashion; and they appear to have equalled their descendants of the present day, in the variety of their condiments and their faculty of nature, and metamorphosing simple food into complex and non-descript gallimaufries. »
Flavor and color were important considerations. Cooks were interested in making dishes bright in color, and they often dyed sauces and covered roasts with gold and silver leaf. The visual impact of a dish was a significant component of fancy medieval food; many dishes were dyed bright colors with saffron, wine, or mulberries. Flavor was derived primarily from the use of spices, which came almost exclusively from the Far East and were the luxury commodities of the day. The importance of spices to medieval haute cuisine cannot be underestimated: « Never before and never since were so many spices used in European cooking. » Among the most frequently used spices in French aristocratic households during the fourteenth and ﬁfteenth centuries were sugar, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, saffron, cloves, galingale, grains of cubeb, mace, nutmeg, and long pepper. Spices functioned as more than a ﬂavoring agent; they were also part of the repertoire of the medieval apothecary. In medieval noble households, spices were so valuable and expensive they were kept in special locked cabinets, and evidence suggests that cooks would request or buy the spices from the apothecary.
No single causal factor explains the power of France in the sphere, why, in particular, French haute cuisine came to define the practice of the modern culinary profession and the discourse on fine food. The techniques and the aesthetics of presentation used today are derived from principles, methods, and standards developed in France. The symbolic signiﬁcance of French haute cuisine cannot be denied, eventually extending to include place, people, and practice investigations thus lead back to France, but ultimately place becomes more symbol (of elite culture, of mastery) than simple earth, rock, and water.
From the beginning, haute cuisine was in demand only among elite members of European society. Only after 18oo, with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere during the nineteenth century, did the “high” part of French cuisine come to have a broader social impact. A new class of bourgeois consumers emerged who paid attention to French haute cuisine; their consumption was both literal and symbolic.
A well-organized, nationalist group of French chefs also appeared. Clearly the actions of French chefs helped solidify a new cuisine—professional cuisine—which was born of a new social, economic, and political milieu. The ethnographer’s investigation of French chefs reveals the vital and interconnected role of institutions, journals, cook-books, skills, symbols, and values in the historical maintenance of French haute Professional cuisine emerged from France in this period, but it was ultimately not contained by either the time or the place. Cuisines are usually associated with territories, however, and the most widely used geographic parameters are national. The discourse on cuisine is a nationalist discourse: we talk and write about French cuisine, Thai cuisine, Roman cuisine. Anthropologists certainly do when they examine the methods, values, and rules that structure a cuisine. This seemingly connection between nation and cuisine, however, fails to incorporate other social and environmental realities that also shape the content and character of a cuisine. With a concentration on the nineteenth-century community of chefs and bourgeois, ﬁssures appear and the traditional reliance on the “nation” to analyze cuisine seems limited. This is especially true in a case study of these professional chefs because their vocation was transnational in nature and international in reach. In fact, they helped create a completely new cuisine that was shaped by the market, consumed by members of the public, and above all, made people committed to the complexity and superiority of this
Almost a century after the tireless efforts of French chefs such as Gouﬂé, Dubois, Ozanne, and Escoﬂier, what is the status of the professional cuisine they worked so hard to create and promote ? Status remains a preoccupation, though there have been important tectonic shifts and new strata have appeared, especially in the type of food served and societal perceptions of the professional cook or chef. To this day, expertise in the profession continues to be based on achieving mastery of a set of techniques and methods derived from classic French haute cuisine, although the system of mastery is no longer as defined.
The past twenty years have witnessed some changes in professional culinary practice, particularly the increased presence of other national cuisines—Italian, Japanese, and Thai—on fine menus. Many argue, however, that these inﬂuences are primarily at the level of ﬂavor rather than in the areas of technique and method. For example, the chef-owner of an Italian bistro in London who trained in France believes that the fundamental procedures he uses in preparing his bistro fare are all French in origin and that the Italian-ness of his bistro comes from the use of certain ingredients (olive oil over butter) and certain dishes (pizza or pasta). He said he prefers to hire French-trained chefs because they know “all the basics. » It appears that at this point in time, France as nation or elite culture means less to this chef than France as the source of the methods and of professional cooking.
The complete dominance of French haute cuisine and French chefs in restaurants, hotels, and clubs has certainly ended; food inﬂuenced by other cuisines is made more and more by chefs who hail from the United States, Britain, Italy, Thailand—in fact, from all over the globe. Women are now accepted in professional kitchens, even if at times grudgingy. Many contemporary chefs in the United States cook food that is an amalgam of French culinary technique and exotic ingredients; the inﬂuence of Asian cuisines is particularly strong now. (Fillet of sole with a citrus-coriander beurre blanc and braised shortribs with a tamarind sauce come to mind.)
The power of the French haute cuisine remains, however, in consumer choice and training, sometimes to the chagrin of the new, more multiculturally directed American chefs. One chef I interviewed owns two successful restaurants and was in the process of opening a third. His restaurants are known for their spectacular interiors, and his food is a complex marriage of American Southwestern and Mexican ﬂavors and technique with French aesthetics of presentation. He happens to have also pursued graduate studies in anthropology at a major state university before he left to become trained as a chef.
As a noted chef who is interested in the cuisine of the Americas, Mark Miller is concerned about what he calls “the Eurocentric bias” in American restaurant culture and in American culinary culture more generally. He thinks that with food, as with all parts of the aesthetic realm, there is a “mental picture that controls perception,” and traditionally in America this aesthetic gaze has been turned toward France. The training of chefs in American schools is one locale where he sees such a bias being perpetuated. As he puts it:
At [a leading culinary school], French food in its technique and recipes is seen as superior: dominant is the given and superior is the assumption. For example, when students make a curry, spend three days making the veal stock, and then they pull the box of curry powder off the shelf. They don’t make curry powder from scratch, they don’t have a curry chart where they can change any one of the twenty ingredients; they don’t understand the differences between North and South and Muslim and Hindu. They don’t understand the multitude of expressions curry can have. So we have a reinforcement again that whatever is French is important, and whatever is not French is not important.
They [the students] have a Eurocentric palate. But we don’t have a Eurocentric world anymore. [There is] an unconscious reaﬂirmation of the Eurocentric model. Not only in its techniques, tastes, and culture, not only [do you produce] the re-affirmation of these, but you also [produce], in effect, a hierarchy that puts ethnic food below. The acceptance of ethnic people and ethnic culture is below the liuropeanone as well. A culinary caste system is being set up, and it is being reaffirmed all the way along: symbolically, linguistically, technically, and taste wise.”
Later in the interview, Miller made a very telling remark about the economic impact of the Eurocentric bias in American culture. He said that, although his restaurants are extremely popular—they are always full and people book reservations weeks in advance—he can never charge as much per entree as a less renowned French restaurant in the same city. In his view, the reason for this glass ceiling is directly related to American social values, particularly the traditional high value put on European cultural productions. Whether or not the dishes are executed properly, especially in the realm of ﬂavor, a French restaurant can always charge higher prices purely because of a general assumption that the meal’s “Frenchness” permits it to be expensive.
Producers and consumers still sustain the French legacy in the public sphere. Culinary producers, the people blithely pouring six-month-old curry powder purchased in sixty-ounce containers from S.S. Pierce into the pot in the course of making their lamb curry, have been trained to focus on stock and not on curry powder. The culture and cuisine caste system that impedes Miller creatively and financially is being produced and reproduced in the same social institutions where it was first invented: hotels, clubs, and restaurants. Much to his chagrin, Miller sees the power of France both in the training of culinary professionals and in the spending decisions of wealthy and middle-class consumers. When Americans want a line, expensive meal, French haute cuisine still beckons.
Spectacle and complexity continue to define professional culinary practice and fulfill consumer desires to assert elite status. Such efforts now literally realize such expectations; “height on the plate” is the latest trend in the haute style of presentation. Small molds such as timbales are used to layer vegetables into a stunning display of color (layers of egg-plant, tomato, and carrot, for example) and are unmolded directly onto the dinner plate. Desserts have become sculptures: chocolate boxes, gilded candies, and ice cream molded into pyramids with a chocolate banner at the top are all normal preparations.
The attitude of consumers toward professional chefs in contemporary society has been profoundly altered in the past decade, however, at least in the United States. In a culture that worships celebrity, champions individual achievement, and cherishes personal time, the chef has become a ﬁgure of merit. Twenty-ﬁve years ago, people knew the names of great restaurants in New York, Boston, or San Francisco, but they rarely knew anything about those who cooked the food. Now Americans eating in elite restaurants are so curious about the practice of cooking ﬁne food and those who do it that there are windows that look into kitchens, kitchens set up in the dining area, and special tables available so customers can eat dinner in the kitchen. In the United States, the rising status of culinary professionals and consumer interest in their practice roughly parallels the dramatic rise of women joining the workforce As women take ﬂight from the domestic sphere, perhaps cooking is becoming esoteric Finally, cooks and chefs can create the closure around their expertise necessary in order to become a “profession.”
Chefs host cooking shows on television, write celebrity cookbooks touting “their” cuisine, hire publicists, and are proﬁled in Paplt magazine They are featured in advertisements. As in the nineteenth however, these are merely the most elite cadres of kitchen workers. Most cooks still labor in anonymity for low wages in hot kitchens. The average starting wage for a line cook in a high-end restaurant is approximately eight dollars an hour. Work weeks often run to ﬁfty or sixty hours, and cooks still stand on their feet all day, lift heavy objects, and work in cramped surroundings. The reputation of the successful chefs has drawn more and more people to schools, hoping to capture some of the glory; dozens of new programs have opened up in the past decade.
As Robert Damton says, “The questions keep changing and history never stops.” The past twenty years have brought shifts in France’s own values and practices. Recent magazine and newspaper articles have heralded changes in consumer preferences; their titles include “Sushi Cordon Bleu ? Foreign Food Invade[s] the Land of Haute Cuisine” and « The Precious Few: French Haute Cuisine ls Hanging in There—Barely.”‘ These articles discuss two behavioral shifts among the French. First, many young French citizens want to explore new, exotic ﬂavors when they go out to eat and thus are rejecting the traditional bistro for their restaurant meals. They want to consume le Tex-Mex, le cheeseburger, and le sushi. Second, the costs of running a grand restaurant serving haute cuisine are becoming exorbitant, which makes the average cost of a meal at an establishment serving haute cuisine outside the reach of the French bourgeoisie. Some older chefs such as joel Rubochon are closing their temples of hauteness, and other chefs are opening “baby bistros” or branches that serve ﬁne food cheaper and faster. In response, Patrick Martin, vice president of Le Cordon Bleu,
FRENCH CULINARY TERMS
One legacy of the French culinary empire is the continuing use of French terms to describe techniques and dishes, despite the fact that in many professional kitchens no native Frenchman can be found. In fact, many chefs take a class in culinary French in culinary school. The importance of French terms and the ensuing confusion for many non-French speakers, have been present ever since the French began publishing cookbooks and cooking for people outside France. The December I907 issue of the English culinary journal The Epicure discusses this problem: « Our plain food, even when good and well served, is often lacking in those little additional touches which give it variety and make it appetising. We tacitly acknowledge this when we seek, on occasion, to present it à la mode française… Let me now try to unveil a few of those secrets of variety, giving at the same time the correct deﬁnition. » It then goes on to deﬁne eighteen French sauce names, including these:
A la jardinière means a collection of cooked vegetables used daintily as a garnish, or in combination with meat in stews, or as cut small and freely introduced into soups.
A la Macédoine means also a collection of vegetables cut small, but set in white sauce, and generally is confined to green vegetables garnished with others. It also means a collection of fruits embedded in jelly
A l’Espagnole means not a typically Spanish dish, but one of a dark savoury nature in which brown Espagnole sauce ﬁgures.