Go to Paris and eat anywhere. Even in little minor restaurants you can find food far better than you can get in all but the greatest of American restaurants. This is because the French take flavor seriously. To the French there is love, there is great food, and there is one's calling. This is life. Less is not.
Americans, however, adopt the English and Germanic sensibility of food: Hungry? "Eat somethin"."Don't matter much what 'tis; so long ''zit fills y'up." There is much utility in this view of life, for it allows men to focus more of their lives on the drudgery of work. But it does make for less tasty food. This disparity of tastes in food, alone, is enough to explain all the wars the British fought with the French over many centuries.
Gaullic attititudes were ready for it centuries earlier, but the art of geat cooking officially in arrived in France when Francis I married Catherine de Medici. She brought with her a contingent of the greatest Italian chefs. da Vinci followed. For the next three hundred years or so the French court ate better than any other group of people in the history of the west. The cooking of French kings was to become the cooking of the European aristocracy. We call the style continental cooking.
Most of these elements are absent from bistro style cooking. In bistro style cooking the focus is on flavor. Period. If you get a sauce, it is a quick and easy derivative of the food on your plate: roux and stock mixed with pan drippings to create a gravy, for instance. And you may get some garnish to balance the color of the plate. But the garnish adds nutritional and flavor balance. It's not just there for color or drama.
Stacked foods and designs using multi-colored sauces are hints that the food is continental. When I watch chefs make elaborate presentations, I see the food getting cold. And I think "gee, if that chef had asked me whether I'd rather have a pretty plate or a hot meal, I'd have chosen the hot meal." Then I wonder if this is the emperor's clothes, or if I'm the only person alive who prefers hot food.
The advantage of cooking your own continental food from a cookbook is that you can take or leave the elaborate presentations. And you don't have to shell out $100 per plate or ten times that to eat well.
If you want big flavor, big sauces, black truffles, and hot food you can have that. Or you can impress your friends by constructing elaborate frisee sculptures atop their Lapin Confit.
"You take 10 lbs of veal and bones, and you roast them with onions and carrots for three hours. Deglaze the pan with red wine, then boil meat, broth, and bones for five hours in 10 quarts of water. Then you throw out the solids, cut up more vegetables, put them into the liquid, boil until it is half gone. Then you roast some more meat and bones with vegetables. Deglaze the pan with wine, then boil the roast meat and broth in your twice reduced liquid. Toss out the meat, add vegetables, wine and bouquet garni, and reduce it by half. At this point you have a quart of raw material from which a sauce can be made."
The process above is a slight exaggeration of of the process described by Madeline Kamman in Making of a Cook for making demi glace - the silky smoothe paste that is the heart and soul of haute cuisine. It explains many things. One is the lengths to which French chefs have been willing to go to create a great sauce. Another is why home cooks dispair over the idea of making sauces. Some home cooks do not spend this much time in a kitchen in a whole year. Kamman explains that even in France's best restaurants the true process for making demi-glace has been abandoned by all but a handful of chefs.
The French have known for a long time that it's hard to cook flavor into a food - especially when cooking for crowds - and so have developed elaborate methods for adding it at the end. A great sauce can transform almost any competently prepared dish into something transcendent. That's the goal. That is the raison d'etre of demi-glace and it is the reason for Escoffier's long list of sauces.
Demi-glace then, is emblemmatic of the strengths and the strangeness inherent to continental cooking. The style is characterized by complex processes that coax flavor from food. It is preparation of food beyond the reach of virtually any home cook. And being 'classically trained' means having command of a hundreds of techniques (almost) as elaborate as that of making great demi-glace.
A book on the I Ching advises "Read this book, feel it, throw it away." Much of the same advice is appropriate for many of the more finicky books on continental cuisine. The preparations are often too finicky and the results more fancy or fanciful than delicious. That said, continental cooking books are a goldmine of information on techniques that allow one to actually cook better.
Truth is, many of these cookbooks are written by people with a great deal of common sense. Julia Child, for instance, does not like 'vertical food.' 'Repetoire' has no recipes as we know them. It assumes you are an accomplished chef who knows how to cook all the basics; it simply lists 6000 some dishes sketching quickly to their ingredients and layout on the plate. Varenne Pratique is a little less broad and a little more thorough. Pepin's Technique will probably get you through many of the things you need to know to get started. And then there are books by chefs which are usually for chefs.
Read and understand what five hundred years of cooking for European royalty has done to cooking. There are a lot of super ideas. Choose the ones that work and use them. Forget the rest. As Picasso said, good painters borrow from the masters; great painters steal. Take the good ideas and make them your own. Then sell the books on e-Bay.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.