Publisher’s Weekly, in 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 (read the review on the amazon page here). I first 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—Pierre Hermé (Paris), Thomas Keller (California), Ferran Adria (Spain), Daniel Boulud (New York), Tetsuya Wakuda (Australia) and England's Heston Blumenthal (photo courtesy of Charlie Trotter's, and that's the excellent David Myers, left, of Sona and Comme Ça in L.A., a veteran of Trotters who was invited in to prepare the canapés at a reception preceding the dinner). At a dinner a couple nights earlier hosted by Trotter, 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 ten chefs of the world, these seven chefs have a rightful a place. What was historic, though, Adria said, was that only one of them worked in France (Hermé, perhaps the world's most reknowned 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, the journalist who four years ago, in an 8,000 word cover story on Adria in The New York Times Sunday Magazine pronounced the death of French Cuisine (the final words of the article are from a Spanish chef: “It's a great shame what has happened in France, because we love the French people and we learned there. 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, which has had a pretty good run of, what, half a millennium? The article and the death were embraced with glee, a big raspberry to those old fashioned, jingoistic French farts. The PW reviewer of my book was surely amongst them, implying that something with a French bias was somehow wrong.
I don’t want to make guesses 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, 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. Indeed, it’s unlikely that someone like Adria or Blumenthal or, in the United States, Wylie Dufresne (he did the canapés at a party for the chefs at Trotter’s house) or Grant Achatz, two of this countries most notable practitioners of the avant garde, could come out of such a culture. These chefs are a large part of why the world dining scene has never been more exciting.
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, that the king is dead and the wall has been torn down. The child, non-French innovators, has 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. It may be American, but it is called our cuisine. The American chefs who compose our brigades still cut mirepoix as part of their daily mise en place, and the avant garde and cutting edge chefs 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. (I love the above shot of the Francophilic Keller regarding avant gardist Blumenthal's seascape while listening to the sea sounds on the ipod. Chicago Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans; copyright Chicago Tribune.)
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, we have no voice.
I wrote my version of Strunk and White for the kitchen in order to name and describe all the terms a cook needs to know in the kitchen, whether that cook is in a home or working grill station on a Saturday night. And yes, it could very well be called The Elements of French Cooking, I suppose—but I would argue with that anonymous reviewer. This is its strength not a weakness. That is why The French Laundry after 13 years remains an innovator in gastronomy. Because Keller, and now Corey Lee and his brigade acknowledge daily a culinary heritage all cooks in the Western world share. Bon Appetit.