Is French Food Overrated?

I am a total foodie, a gourmet, experienced cook, and someone who was fortunate enough to grow up eating good food not only of South Indian origin, but of different cultures. By nature, I’m someone who appreciates artisan work, be it a physical item or an edible. France has set the standard for good cooking all over the world, with sophisticated techniques, careful methods, cookware and cooking utensils that each serve a very specific function. There are proper ways to crack an egg, peel a carrot, melt chocolate, and so on. When I was 16, I had the great fortune to spend 10 days with a family outside Paris, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The food was indeed fantastic–I had my first artichokes, the croissants were marvelous, the minuscule scoops of ice cream were high-quality, and I desperately wanted to pack a half-dozen baguettes in my suitcase for the journey home to my hicktown in the Midwest (where eating out essentially meant fast food, pizza, Big Boy or a local meat-and-potatoes establishment). We can thank Julia Child for introducing America to French cooking, along with other chefs like Jacques Pepin who immigrated here. 

Even today, in the houses of well-to-do people who eat in or order takeout from very high-quality restaurants, one can still find sub-par foods and meals that even the most humble French peasant would not deign to eat. So is French food the absolute pinnacle of cooking and eating, without flaw, a point from which to look at other cuisines and evaluate them? After all, the Michelin guide is still the world standard for restaurants, and even receiving one star is a momentous accomplishment. But can we turn an insightfully critical eye toward French cuisine and analyze it in, well, a very French fashion?

Being a vegetarian, there are great limitations on what one can eat in France (especially if one does not like eggs, as has become the case now as an adult.) The French simply do not understand non-animal protein. The selections of cheeses are indeed incredible, with each region producing its own specialties made of local milk which is hormone-free and not processed or factory farmed in the way much American milk tends to be. But protein in France is heavily meat-oriented, with seafood featuring heavily in other regions. A proper full meal will have more than one course featuring meat. This is not a problem in and of itself if one enjoys meat and seafood, but even health-conscious, non-keto carnivores these days might question the need for a fish appetizer, a meat soup, and a poultry main course. Legume and grain protein is not at all common, though not unheard of and certainly not in favor. Being vegan is even more of a challenge in France, although the country’s bountiful produce and ethnic cuisines certainly make things easier for vegans and vegetarians, and there is a trend where these latter styles of eating are in fashion in the big cities. Even Nobel Peace Prize-nominee chef José Andres who comes from a meat-loving culture (Spain) has sung the virtues of plant-oriented cuisine, saying that there is something more sexy about vegetables and the tastes you can get from them.

Dietary preferences aside, one can also critique French cuisine’s lack of flavor. For those of us who come from highly-flavorful cultures such as India, Mexico, Sicily, or the Szechuan province in China, French food is admittedly bland. True, there is the use of many herbs, shallots, and Provençal cuisine is known for its use of garlic. But while French cuisine in general evaluates the goodness of food by high quality ingredients and preparation, one might say that this represents a lack of knowledge of how to combine herbs and spices and create flavors. There is a true art to creating a complexity of tastes even within one dish, the knowledge of how to balance the spicy with the sour, the salty with the bitter, the ratio of turmeric to cumin that will taste best, etc. Perhaps one can say that cuisines like the French are a bit of a copout in that their cooks only rely on the ingredients for flavor and cannot create good flavors themselves. An alternate test of a good cook could be how well they know their way around herbs and spices and condiments. America has largely embraced this ethos in the last 20 years, and even a gastropub in Indianapolis might feature housemade kimchi on a burger.

The ethos of good food in France is based on courtly traditions and the Escoffier school. Therefore, sophistication is equated with good food. Pastries, special cuts of meat prepared over a long period of time, fruits and vegetables sliced just-so, carefully ladling and spreading out the batter for crêpes and the particular presentation of a dish all represent a high level of culinary expertise. It is not expected of the common man, though the French are very attentive to how they prepare their meals even without serious training. Consider a fruit tart, and the way in which the fruits are laid out in concentric circles, each slice overlapping and everything coated with a clear glaze. It is very visually appealing, but one might argue there is a certain fussiness to it. Contrast this with Italian cooking: the best meals are always considered to be what nonna (grandma) prepares at home. The diminutive little nonna may hand-roll and stuff hundreds of tortellini in an apartment kitchen–not a quick or easy task–for a family meal, but it might be the best pasta you’ve ever had in your life. A working-class North Indian will know how to hand grind the dozen spices and slow-simmer them in a sauce cooked over a single gas burner in a dilapidated kitchen. A street vendor in the Middle East might fry up the best falafel you’ve ever had. The late Anthony Bourdain was clear to emphasize this fact, that home-cooking or street food might render exquisite meals without all the pomp and circumstance.

Not that this is meant to denigrate French food in any way; there is something tremendously admirable about deep-rooted tradition and methods that are the equivalent of classical music training. Some of the best chefs around the globe have their techniques rooted in French tradition, regardless of where they went to cooking school, and have been able to integrate them with their own ethnic culinary traditions. This post is not an exercise in political correctness; rather, it is to point out the limitations of something that is greatly adored and perhaps sometimes exalted to the point of overlooking other cuisines. There is a wonderful film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” that addresses this gastronomic dilemma in which a young Indian man (the son of an immigrant Indian-restaurant owning father) wants to break with tradition. Even great modern French chefs such as (I believe) Daniel Boulud in an interview have greatly admired American artisanal cheeses. I personally have come to appreciate the sophistication of South Indian cooking techniques as an adult, and wonder how this would translate into French cooking and if there are similarities. The Michelin star reviewers have indeed expanded their praise and star ratings to a wide variety of cuisines, including food stalls. It is healthy to have a broad palette, just as it is healthy to have a broad mind about ideas. But fear not: no one can deny the eternal pleasure of a fresh, crisp French baguette with cheese and a robust glass of French wine.

Chef Eve Aronoff: The Woman of Flavors

I was very fortunate to interview Eve Aronoff, a well-regarded chef who owns two restaurants: eve (seasonally-driven fine dining), and Frita Batidos (very casual, Cuban-inspired). She has appeared as a contestant on Top Chef, been invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation, and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. However, Eve is remarkably down-to-earth and does not take herself too seriously, always friendly and smiling when you see her in person. Here is our conversation from online interviews.

-Can you talk about your earliest recollections of cooking? What feelings did it evoke in you?
Sneaking tastes (equal to a meal in tastes) while my Mom cooked — she always warned me that I would ruin my appetite but I never once did! A feeling of abundance with the food spread on the table; rarely fancy but delicious, savory, made with a lot of love. Though it sounds cheesy you could taste it. The feeling of being nurtured.

-Can you talk a little bit more about your approach to cooking? I don’t mean the techniques, etc., but do you visualize what you cook, or have a kinesthetic sense of it, or an olfactory sense? For example, do you sort of see it like an artist with a palate of different colors? What metaphors do you use?
It is more of an instinct and just really focusing on the flavors, textures, and contrasts; being excited about ingredients as they come in and out of season; and wanting to keep a more organic presentation, which to me is more beautiful than one that is more architectural or orchestrated-looking. Does that make sense?

-Yes! Your restaurants are very accessible, I think. For many eaters it can be intimidating if something is “orchestrated,” as you put it so well. A question about classical technique — it’s something that I am always trying to understand and balance as an artist, how technique intersects with instinct. Because too much technique can kill instinct if we try to do things too perfectly. But at the same time, technique can help make things easier and give us a grounding in the fundamentals of whatever our art is. Did you find that your time at the Cordon Bleu stifled any of your natural cooking impulses? Or, did learning classical techniques allow you to go further?
I think my time in Paris at LCB was inspiring mostly from being in Paris and experiencing how central food is to culture there. I spent most of my time walking around Paris:  going to different ethnic eateries, outdoor markets (especially the North African market), pastry and cheese and charcuterie shops. I have always evolved the most from being around or even reading about cultures I am drawn to rather than learning in an official scholastic setting. Wandering around Cuban neighborhoods in Miami or going to the North African market in Paris or even reading about the history of Cuban culture and cuisine. Or reading Camus when I majored in comparative literature at Brandeis.
So being in school in Paris was educational, but more transformative was the time I spent there. I do think I refined some of my technique and presentation so I could balance that with the big bold flavors I have always been drawn to. From that I really developed my personal style as a chef — balancing complex, bold flavors paired with a very bright, cool, or refreshing contrast to create a harmony and bring out the best of both.
For me I think it is a good foundation or underpinning that can elevate your natural, more raw instincts and intuition. But if you rely on it too much to drive you, or [use it] instead of that intuition, you can lose the soul of what you are doing. If I cook that way it doesn’t taste good.

-Very interesting! It is so important not to lose the soul of what we do!
Yes, that’s the most important thing, I think. Knowledge, organization, etc. all augment what you can do artistically, but over-thinking things in a self-conscious way just tends to ruin things or at least takes a lot away when you are trying to create something special. You will never do it as well as when you are free-spirited.

-Very well said. I know it is easy to become very self-conscious, especially in the beginning stages of one’s arts career. What are your thoughts on molecular gastronomy, which really seems to push the limits in terms of food and creativity? Some marvel in this, whereas others think it’s very gimmicky.
I’m not personally drawn to molecular gastronomy to be honest, though I think it is pretty technically amazing. I don’t feel the same soul in molecular gastronomy from what I have seen/experienced, with the exception of Ferran Adrià. I feel like from there, a lot of the realness gets lost (on me at least). Also when I eat food like that, it is more of an interesting experience compared to a fulfilling one, and I usually end up ordering a pizza afterwards!

-Those dainty little dishes on a huge white plate leave us hungry and wanting pizza!

– Given the theme of this blog, I wanted to know — what are your experiences as a female chef? Is it a profession in which gender has played any impact, or is cooking a profession that transcends gender?
-I have always heard it can be a challenge to be a female chef, but in my personal experience I haven’t found it to be a major issue. I have always kind of tried to not focus on that and focus on just learning skills, so I could cook side by side with other people, whether they were male or female. Just focusing on the food, textures, and contrasts, and striving to create something delicious. Where I have encountered more bias has been in the business side of things in meetings. For example, where it seemed sometimes people may respond to you being passionate or particular as a challenge, and let it go if a male is communicating with equal or more passion, attention to detail, or sensitivity. Or sometimes people perceive you as the “creative type” without giving respect to the business aspect of what you have worked hard to learn/achieve. I have tried to handle that with being straightforward and having open communication, and that has sometimes seemed to ease the situations.

-Are there any famous women chefs you have worked with or met? Julia Child, Alice Waters, Gabrielle Hamilton, others?
Alice Waters has been very inspirational to me since I was little. We did a special dinner for the Agrarian Adventure modeled after her edible schoolyards, and she was the guest of honor, which was very exciting. I paired up with Takashi Yagihashi [of Takashi and Okada and Slurping Turtle fame] to do that dinner at the original [location of my restaurant] eve the first year we were opening, and it was a pretty transformational experience for me. It kind of opened my eyes to the community of cooking together with other chefs, especially for things we value and care about.

-So you don’t mind collaborating with other chefs?
I love to. I have grown to love to from that experience. Community means more to me than almost anything within the restaurant, and that expands it and brings people together to create something that is more multi-dimensional and often for a cause you really care about. It is very dynamic/thought-provoking working with other chefs.

-What strikes me is that your philosophy to cooking is very open and about learning, not ego-driven.
Yes, I have a lot of aspirations but I am not very competitive at all: that is one of the reasons why I think I did such a poor job on “Top Chef.” I had never seen the show and they approached me to participate. But really that was the only time I was doing self-conscious vs. free-spirited cooking and it just didn’t feel right or natural — and it was the worst job I’ve ever done at anything. So I just learned I love and thrive on real-life challenges, but not ones that feel orchestrated.

-I absolutely love Top Chef, but I can’t imagine having to cook under that kind of pressure. It seems like some wonderful, talented chefs just get booted for no reason.
I love real life pressure/challenges and I think, for me, those are even more intense, but are organic and, for me, can still be handled naturally. It just didn’t feel like it [the show] was about what I care about personally. (That’s what I was thinking about above when we were talking about losing the soul of the food.) I don’t think competition brings out the most delicious, soulful food but I learned a lot about myself from that experience, which is always good.

-What gave you the courage to pursue your career of being a chef? I was so scared and shy of going into the arts that I tried everything I could to avoid it, like spending many years in academia! But I couldn’t avoid it, because my heart was really in the arts.
That’s interesting. I could see that, but for me it was just what I cared about and was interested in and felt driven to do. So I didn’t really question it — if I had I might not have done it. I don’t know why in retrospect, but I thought I could open a restaurant. I wasn’t independently wealthy (I had NO money), but I kept looking at spaces, talking to bankers, working on my business plan whenever I wasn’t working etc…and finally all of the pieces came together to open eve, my restaurant. I really don’t know why I didn’t question things like that, or being a woman in a “male-dominated” industry, but I didn’t and I think those things have served me well. Maybe it goes back to things going better when you do them naturally — still with a lot of strategic thought but not as much questioning why/ability etc.?

-I think ultimately that is the best way, to be driven from the heart and soul instead of worrying too much about the externals.
When I went to school, my dad (who is a professor) told me to just expose myself to as many experiences as possible and find what I truly enjoyed doing and that is what I would be best at. He recommended going to lectures, etc…but for me, when I started cooking for spending money in college, I just fell head over heels in love with it and knew right away I wanted to open a restaurant. You must be very brave to pursue your art if you actually do question it – that takes a lot more bravery, I think, Sonja! I would have thought, “OMG what? Why/how can I do this? Okay, forget it…”
My parents, thank goodness, were very open-minded about me doing whatever I really was passionate about and I think that helped a LOT.

-It does really make a difference with parental support.
I have friends whose parents had a lot of preconceived notions about what careers are appropriate/suitable and that was really challenging for them personally. This has been such a fun conversation!

-What other creative outlets do you have?
I am in love with design and architecture. When I became ultimately debilitated by my back injury for an extended period of time, I was considering applying to the school of Art and Architecture at U of M. (There are so many creative facets within a restaurant, though, that it is pretty consuming/satisfying/fulfilling).

-Cooking is only one part of the equation when you run a restaurant. (Or for that matter, when one is a professional artist, one has to manage the business and career side of things.) You have two, and both are very successful — not to mention delicious! Can you talk a little bit about the business and professional side of things?
That is very nice, thank you, Sonja. I have learned a lot over a long period of time and developed skills in areas in which I was pretty deficient, which feels pretty empowering. I touched on this above because it is why the restaurant industry is so satisfying and exciting to me. What I love about the restaurant industry is how multi-faceted it is.
I love being able to constantly learn and evolve, whether in the areas of business/finance, developing my management style and our culture and personal philosophy, overcoming my shyness. Also focusing on design and having the design echo the texture and contrast of the food by striving to create a backdrop, rather than an overly “designed space.” So the contrast that is in my cooking is echoed when the people, food, spices, and music fill up the backdrop of the composition.

– One last question: what is your favorite junk or fast/casual food? Julia Child loved Fritos and peanut butter!
I have several, but I love pizza, bi bim bop, and Oreos to name a few! I have more — I am like the least elitist person in the world about food. I just love things that taste delicious to me, and I don’t think you judge junk food as a treat the way you would a Michelin starred restaurant. It is just a tasty snack but still tastes really good once in a while. I eat plenty of wholesome food, but everyone needs treats once in a while. What about yours, may I ask?

-I do love Oreos, pizza (but that can be healthy, right?) Ooh, mac and cheese from a box. I am a foodie and that is my guilty pleasure! Anything with orange cheese flavor on it is included!
OMG that was my favorite in high school — Kraft Mac and Cheese and better mac and cheese just does not taste better when that is what you are craving right?!

 -Any form of mac and cheese is really good, I must say!            TRUE! I should get back out there [to the restaurant].

-Have a great evening!                                                                               Likewise. Thanks for a great conversation and for thinking of me for this!