Not What You Thought!
Updated: May 23, 2018
You were in France some time ago, and you decided to celebrate your anniversary or your birthday, or just to celebrate the moment, at a fine “restaurant gastronomique” in Paris, Lyon, Rouen, or any “restaurant gastronomique” highly praised in your reliable guidebook. You make your reservation, you get ready, and it is time to go. You are so looking forward to the evening!
Unless you are quite accustomed with the French culinary jargon of “weird” food (foie gras, truffles, escargots, andouilles, or anything that we do not eat in America!), you will probably find the menu slightly challenging.
Somehow, you will manage to order – Most “restaurants gastronomiques” offer several price fixe menus, which helps you, the guest, make some wise dietary decisions and avoid some faux pas. When designing the menu, the chef knows what dish and combination of ingredients should precede any entrée that he proposes.
A first “complimentary” amuse-bouche arrives, then your first appetizer, then your second appetizer followed by a second “complimentary” amuse bouche, then the entrée, etc. The service reminds you of a beautifully choreographed ballet, and the food is exquisite although… microscopic. This, right here, brings you disappointment. You are not used to such small portions, and you start thinking you are paying too much for this meal.
Unless you know enough of the French food culture, and that includes understanding terroir, producing and harvesting traditions and techniques, artisanal and exclusive know-how passed from generation to generation, you will not be able to comprehend the cost of the gastronomic feast that was just prepared for you.
When you decide to go to a “restaurant gastronomique”, you should be prepared, understand fully what to expect, and be educated on the subject. Then you will enjoy each deli sample bite, and you will digest the bill at the end.
The best advice that I wish to give you is to know what is behind each category listed in your guidebook. Of course, when you see “Italian”, “Chinese”, “Vietnamese”, “Moroccan”, etc., you have a clear idea. However, there are several nuances behind the terminology “French cuisine”, and you must know them in order to make an educated decision and avoid some disenchantment.
The different categories under “French cuisine” really follow the evolution of French cuisine over the last five decades or so, and if you have a few minutes and the interest, I encourage you to watch my series of short videos. It explains it all in a very simple and logical way.
I will sum it for you:
Cuisine Traditionnelle – Lots of country style, old-fashioned, traditional dishes with butter, cream, wine, delicious meat and fish sauces, terrines, rich desserts.
Nouvelle Cuisine – A reaction to Cuisine Traditionnelle
Lots of fresh vegetables and fresh herbs, less butter, less cream, fewer (and lighter) sauces, if any, artistry in the plate, and very small quantities – a touch of this, a touch of that.
Cuisine Moderne – Derives from both Cuisine Traditionnelle and Nouvelle Cuisine
A fine balance between the two. Less rich and heavy than Cuisine Traditionnelle, yet a return to some original recipes.
Lots of experimentation with new or “less known” produce, herbs, spices.
Reasonable portions, good value.
Cuisine Gastronomique – What characterizes this cuisine is the concentration of high quality, expensive to very expensive, fine ingredients - cep mushrooms from the Bordeaux area where the fungus has been through an ideal thermal shock before growing in the perfect temperature at the optimal rate of moisture, homemade foie gras made with the liver of ducks from a particular farm in Dordogne, steak tartare made of the most tender beef cut from a Charolaise served with a drizzle of truffle oil, a batch of medium size oysters auctioned at 15 Euros/dozen the same morning at a little fishing village off the coast of Brittany (delivered express the same day), cooked with champagne and fresh goat milk (also delivered express the same day) from a farm that raises the black goat of Savoie.
You get it. This is about the refinement of the ingredients served and displayed in front of you. Each and every dish did cost money to find, to harvest, to grow, to raise, to feed, to ship.
Cuisine Familiale – Family style, home-made, true to the origins of France, healthier than Traditional Cuisine. No remarkable artistic display in the plate, no pretention, just genuine.
It is basically what I offer in the Cook section of this website, what we all call “family style”, what we all can do, what we cherish, what we relate to.