What Working for a French Chef Taught Me About Food
The most enduring memory of my time working in a gourmet restaurant in Western France was being locked in a walk in fridge by my boss, Gilles. Laughing manically, he left me in there for a good five minutes, as I banged on the door and edge away from the live lobsters and crabs roaming around on the floor. Their pincers kept flying around as they wrestled each other, oblivious to the fate that awaited them outside of the cold-storage room.
It was a traditional French restaurant, serving rare steaks and seafood dishes, with garlicky vegetables, artfully presented salads and amuse-bouche and decadent desserts served with strong black coffee. In between de-bowelling fish, sticky live lobsters in pots of boiling water and sneaking swigs of red wine as I made pepper sauce, I also learnt a lot about how food should be.
The Original Clean Eaters
What’s astonishing, considering how much fuss gets given to French cuisine, often deemed the best food in the world, is the simplicity of the dishes. The base of most French meals is meat or fish, cooked in a specific way, along with a small amount of a rich flavoured sauce, and vegetables. My personal favourite type of cuisine is Indian. There you have a riot of flavour, battling it out. It is anything but simple. So I would always have thought that French food would bore me. What I came to learn was how to value the French simplicity, and how it manages to bring out all the flavours in the food in a subtle, satisfying manner.
Plus, a French meal is always very balanced: veggies, meat, a little bit of a fatty sauce, and a few slices of French bread. With a soup or salad to start, a cheese course to follow and then a dessert. You get everything you need, and a satisfying feeling of having eaten delicious food, but at the same time, it’s actually healthy.
The French are pretty much the inventors of clean-eating. It’s why the English are always so mystified by how the French manage to stay slim, even when they eat Croissant every morning for breakfast. Croissant are buttery, but they are not sugary, they are not filled with junk. Cheese is fatty, but, ditto, it isn’t junk food. French food is cooked with real, fresh ingredients, that fill you up, and don’t leave you craving. That is the secret to the French diet.
Sourcing the best quality ingredients is 90% of the work
The thing that amazed me the most was how much effort went into picking the ingredients used in our restaurant: sourcing the best locals beef and seafood, finding high-quality olive oil and not cheaper versions, cut with vegetable oil… The simplicity of the dishes served meant that the secret of the dish depended on the sourcing of the produce. That was literally most of the work. Cooking wasn’t elaborate, the cooking didn’t really demand skill. The proof of that is that I myself was doing the cooking, and I am not exactly a Masterchef contender.
At the time, I was a student, and a cheerleader for the cheapest option possible. I mainly lived off frozen vegetables, cheap frozen burger patties (with around 10% actually meat inside) and baked beans. I didn’t understand why people, even people with money, would waste it on buying more expensive brands or better produce. It’s the same thing, I would think. You just need to put more effort into cooking the cheap stuff.
Working under Gilles made me realise how untrue that was. Good products speak for themselves. Seasoning should be about revealing the flavours of a piece of meat or vegetable, not about smothering their lack of taste.
Of course, this makes French cuisine very exclusionary. It’s why to get good French food in France, you need to go to very expensive restaurants. For those with less money, it still feels like an unnecessary luxury to get good produce, or they simply can’t afford it.
On the other hand, this French culture of food is promising from an environmental point of view: organic food is doing very well in France because those that can afford it do want to put money into their food.It is something that speaks to them.
If France were to create a more equal society, where no-one struggled to make ends meet, it could be at the forefront of the movement to make a more environmentally-friendly food system.