Second Helpings

Over and Haute: A few weeks ago, the New Yorker ran an intriguing piece on the declining significance of French cuisine, "Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?"

Author Adam Gopnik discovered, to his horror, that the French are no longer on the cutting edge of gastronomy. Instead, they seem mired in the past. In his words, "the cooking is stuck in a rut."

Classic haute cuisine, he says, "is a challenge to eat." Why? "It is just too rich, and there is just too much." He recounts a meal at one venerable spot: vegetables bathed in so much butter they no longer tasted like vegetables; lobster drenched in a rich vanilla sauce; intensely sweet roasted pineapple encrusted in caramel. I'm surprised he wasn't wheeled out on a gurney.

The crisis isn't confined to the three-star restaurants. The superiority of French-bistro cooking can no longer be taken for granted, either, he reports. "The new visitor," he writes, "trying out the trout baked in foil on his first night in Paris, will probably be comparing it with the trout baked in foil back home--and the trout at home may just be better."

French cooking, he notes, rests on the idea of the master sauce: "A lump of protein was cooked in a pan, and what was left behind was 'deglazed' with wine or stock, ornamented with butter or cream, and then poured back over the lump of protein."

Unfortunately for the French, most of the world no longer wants to eat that way. Grilling is the technique of the 1990s--light, clean, basic. Since grilling leaves nothing to deglaze, cooks have had to come up with what Gopnik calls "savory complements." That means salsas, chutneys and mustards. It also means an openness to spices and the flavors from all over the globe. In short, it means cooking the way the best American restaurants do.

The French, however, are resisting mightily. They believe if they embrace the best American culinary values, the worst ones--deep-fried, Styrofoam-packaged fast food--will be carried along, like a virus. Last year, a group of well-known French chefs even issued a manifesto protesting "the spread of exotic food combinations and alien spices in French cooking." The kind of creative global fare we find so appealing--Vincent's smoked-salmon quesadilla, Eddie Matney's ginger-cilantro salmon, RoxSand's air-dried duck--doesn't inspire the French. Instead, it drives them into the past, into what Gopnik calls "sentimental nationalism."

According to one American chef, even forward-looking French chefs still have a hard time understanding what 1990s cooking is all about. In Paris, he ordered an "infuriating" mille-feuille of langoustines and curry. "A French dish with powder," he fumed. "Nobody understood that curry isn't a powder that you apply cosmetically [or] a spice you shake, but a whole technique of cooking you have to understand."

Now, it's easy to lose perspective. Innovation for its own sake is worthless. But, ultimately, I think, chefs have to build on the past, not live in it.

--Howard Seftel

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