My first introduction to French cuisine was as a girl, catching snippets of Julia Child on “The French Chef.” It was a show my mother watched only occasionally. For her, even Child’s unpretentious approach to a cuisine that was, at the time, completely foreign to most Americans was still too pretentious for her.
What my mother didn’t realize is that the pan gravy she made for our biscuits, the roast turkey at Thanksgiving, and the cheese omelets she sometimes made for easy summer suppers all had their roots in French cuisine.
It would take a tome (and many, including Child, have written one) to give the history of how French cuisine became the grande dame of all cuisines, rose to the height of fashion and then fell from grace in the late ’80s, only to be “reinvented” in the past decade as, in Atlanta chef Nick Leahy’s terms, the “soulful, skillful” cooking it’s always been.
“French food is about seasonal, fresh cooking, enjoying food and company, and how they go together,” said Leahy of Aix and Tin Tin, two newly opened Provençal-inspired restaurants on Atlanta’s Westside.
The most important takeaway is this: While pundits are claiming that French cuisine is making a comeback, I would argue that it never went anywhere in the first place.
And while the cuisine itself is regional and vast, the foundation French masters such as Escoffier and Careme laid for future chefs — and cooks — is a ubiquitous food language that touches almost every kitchen in the world.
“All cuisines are rooted deep in history and technique, but the French were of the first to refine theirs,” said chef Jeb Aldrich of Tiny Lou’s, inside the newly renovated Clermont Hotel. “I appreciate the Old World structure and technique, but push for our New World work culture.”
Part of that “Old World” structure are foundations that almost every cook uses, whether they realize it or not. The mother sauces such as hollandaise, bechamel and velouté all use techniques that laid the groundwork for cooking. The basis of that pan gravy my mother made is a simple roux: the mixture and heating of butter (or fat) with flour, with the addition of milk or other liquid.
“Mother sauces would be the most standout of the classic foundations to me: bechamel, hollandaise, espagnole, sauce velouté, sauce tomat,” Aldrich said. “It perplexes me today how some cooks don’t know these. Classics are classics for a reason, and understanding them opens a whole new world to developing as a chef.”
Leahy agrees. “I’m inspired by an iconic dish like bouillabaisse, but we cook it with all local, sustainable seafood,” he said. “A dish like cassoulet, we do the same, but use Sea Island peas instead of shipping over the classic Tarbay beans.”
And while the presumption that these techniques are difficult is, for the most part, erroneous (let’s face it, not everyone can pull sugar), the misconception has disconnected a lot of home cooks from the roots of this simple cuisine, while creating a media fascination with the chefs who create it. The truth is, if you can make a roux or a creme Anglaise (the classic French cream sauce for desserts), you can make a souffle, or crepe, or classic French omelet, or a pastry cream, or an eclair. That’s why the French refined these foundations — they offer a culinary road map to a world of recipes.
“French cuisine was the first cuisine to truly exemplify what fine dining is, and refine true hospitality,” said Aldrich. “Food is food, but how you make someone feel is everything.”
Chef-owner Nick Leahy of Aix and Tin Tin on Atlanta’s Westside tenderly cooks this classic French omelette “off heat,” so that the eggs cook thoroughly, but don’t brown too much. He adds a bit of chives and, if desired, creme fraiche or fromage blanc to add flavor and oomph. His best tip? “Buy good eggs. There is nothing to hide behind here, so the better your eggs, the richer the yolk, the better the final product.” Leahy also adds a little melted butter to the top of the omelet once plated. “It makes it shine, gives the chives something to stick to, and just tastes good. A final sprinkle of fleur de sel never hurts, either.”
Souffle Grand Marnier
Souffles can use either a roux or a cream Anglaise base. The latter offers a lighter, fluffier end result, but it will fall much faster, so be ready to serve it the minute it comes out of the oven. Do not use the convection circulation in your oven; it will make the souffles fall very quickly after they leave the safety of the oven’s heat. This recipe uses Grand Marnier as a flavoring agent, but vanilla or another liqueur could be substituted with terrific results (just omit the orange zest and use the same amount of Kahlua, Amaretto, Frangelico or other liqueur). Fresh, large eggs are the ticket to the perfect souffle.
Bechamel Comte Crepe with Sorghum Vinaigrette and Pistachio Oil
This crepe, from chef Jeb Aldrich of Tiny Lou’s inside the Clermont Hotel, incorporates a classic bechamel sauce, which uses a roux as its base. It’s important to let the crepe mixture sit overnight so that all the dry ingredients are properly absorbed.