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.