By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC
In recent years, the trends have skewed toward small, shareable plates; all things locally sourced and seasonally inspired; and authentic ethnic cuisine that packs bold flavors. At the same time, the megatrend of casualization has taken over the industry, making the dining experience more communal and less white tablecloth. So in a world of seasonal, hyperlocal fusion small plates, it seemed like the days of classic French cuisine were over. But it actually never really went away; rather, what we’re seeing now is a new era of French cuisine.
Back to Basics
Le Pavillon, owned by French restaurateur Henri Soulé, first served French cuisine at the 1939 World’s Fair and later became the most influential French restaurant in America in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Le Pavillon set the foundation for America’s idea of French cooking with its most memorable dishes such as smoked eel fillets with whipped cream spiked with freshly grated horseradish, or braised duck with olives, and spring asparagus with hollandaise. The way Le Pavillon embodied French cooking is what today’s consumers miss: receiving stories through the celebration of culinary art. Classic items like complex sauces, rich stews, and intricate poultry were once prepared with meticulousness, intent, and delicate detail no matter how time-consuming. Today, customers are applauding chefs who are putting a spin on the classics and bringing these elaborate, luscious French dishes back to life with a modern, practical, and often more nutritional approach. For example, the James Beard Foundation pointed to restaurants that were executing this trend with acclaimed chefs such as Ludo Lefebvre who opened Petit Trois in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, as a tribute to Parisian bistros. New York is also home to some of the top restaurants at the forefront of the French revival with Mimi, Augustine, and Le Coucou, the latter helmed by chef Daniel Rose who honed his craft in France and opened two restaurants there before coming back home to America. The James Beard Foundation forecasted that French cooking would make a comeback in 2017, and it was right on point.
French cuisine evokes the feeling of nostalgia for many while younger generations have yet to experience it, presenting ample opportunity for a new group of customers. As French cooking resurfaces around the country, consider ways your establishment can emulate old school techniques and incorporate features from the past into your menu. Crafting the classics with a modern twist will allow you to offer customers the unique textures and flavors that can only be achieved with French cooking while simultaneously building your brand.
Cooking the Classics
Other cooking styles may allow for timesaving methods; however, there are no shortcuts when executing an appetizing French dish. Serving classic French cuisine conventionally will earn any chef a tip of the hat. For example, hollandaise sauce, coined by the Father of French Cooking Auguste Escoffier, is commonly made from a packaged sauce mix that’s intended to save on labor costs. While this economical method still produces an enjoyable sauce, it does not compare to a made-from-scratch hollandaise. The success or failure of this mother sauce depends not only on skillfully combining perfectly whipped egg yolks, seasonings, and acidity and cooking it at the proper temperatures but also on the quality of the butter itself. The butter should be clarified and emulsified well, creating a smooth, sumptuous sauce. Whether served over eggs, crab cakes, roasted vegetables, filet mignon, or salmon, customers will recognize the difference in taste and texture when served an out-of-the-box hollandaise versus the real deal.
Another traditional French dish that will satisfy customer cravings, especially during autumn, is coq au vin, a classic and sophisticated preparation that takes time and patience to get right. Coq au vin, while French in origin, is familiar to customers and brings back memories of long lost elaborate and homemade preparations. The name coq au vin refers to a time when the protein was literally a tough old bird, i.e., a rooster that had to be cooked for hours and hours. It’s typically composed of chicken, mushrooms, onions (usually pearl), aromatics, bacon, and herbs cooked in red wine and a rich stock.
If you’re considering serving coq au vin at your restaurant, follow our recipe:
Another comforting dish that’s perfect for customers as the weather cools is cassoulet, the classic dish from the Languedoc region. This specialty of southwestern France consists of white beans and meats such as sausages, pork, and duck confit that are slowly cooked in a covered pot to marry the flavors. Also consider fricassee, a white stew that calls for sautéing light meat or small game in a little bit of fat (no browning) before adding a cooking liquid and stewing.
Tableside Service is Making a Comeback
Once known as a fine art that brought show-stopping presentations to meals, traditional French-style tableside service was often associated with pretentiousness. While we encourage you to incorporate tableside service into your customer’s dining experience, we also want to recognize that French-style cooking is losing its dismissive, arrogant stigma, which should not be emulated in your establishment.
Guéridon service, also known as “trolley service,” allows you to prepare, finish, or present food to diners at the table on a moveable cart. This approach doesn’t strictly apply to upscale, fine-dining restaurants; casual gastropubs can gain value from serving dishes tableside, building credibility among customers who witness your craftsmanship.
Consider highlighting your culinary artistry by preparing French favorites such as crêpes, smoked salmon, and sole à la meunière tableside. Other popular and simple tableside preparations can include slicing a crispy, succulent duck, carving Châteaubriand, or flambéing cherries jubilee. Today’s contemporary restaurants are taking this traditional presentation and making it more robust by telling the actual story behind the product. During service, this is an opportune time for the chef to share more information with the guests such as the farm the beef came from and how the animal was raised. The benefits and return on investment of implementing tableside service will be clear when guests repeatedly visit for the unique presentation. Whether in a fine-dining restaurant or a casual eatery, having that personal touch and connection will add new value to your operation.
Fine-Tune Your French Cooking
If you’re considering adding French cuisine to your menu or want to sharpen your French cooking skills, check out these enlightening and fascinating reads:
Long Techniques by Jacques Pepin
Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America
A Guide to Modern Cookery by Auguste Escoffier
Chicken in French Cuisine
French writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said: “Poultry is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.” Indeed, the versatile chicken offers a blank slate for us chefs to get creative with flavors, whether it’s fresh herbs or fiery spices.
As for cooking methods, dry-heat methods work well for young, tender birds while moist-heat cooking is called for when working with older products. Since chicken is a blank canvas, marinades will help you pack the most flavor. Broil or grill Cornish hens and chickens. Poaching chicken results in moist and tender meat but make sure not to overcook, as it will become inedible. The liquid can be used for the basis of a sauce. A classic French example is poached chicken breast with a tarragon sauce.
The humble chicken is the star of many classic French dishes. There’s coq au vin, of course, which used to be made with rooster and now is usually made with chicken. Poêle of chicken is essentially roast chicken in a pot; it can be seared first then placed on a bed of onions, bacon, celery, carrots, and garlic (a matignon), then basted with fat from the pan as it cooks. Cornish game hens make for a great presentation when roasted and served whole. Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic is a classic fricassee.