Think You Know French Cuisine? Meet Modern French Cooking

Modern French chefs have deviated from tradition in wholly surprising — and delicious — ways!

Pouring white wine into sauce
Photo by Meredith.

For centuries, French cuisine was highly regimented, strictly codified, and easy to define. Known for a parade of courses from appetizer through main, cheese, and dessert; for precise techniques and phenomenal attention paid to sauces; for excellent ingredients and no small amount of theatrics, French cooking has long been hailed as perhaps the finest in the world. But there's been a disturbance in the force.

Recently, contemporary French chefs have been deviating from the script and trying out some new and exciting culinary ideas. In fact, these days, many of Paris' top chefs hail from Japan, South America, England, or even the U.S., and two finalists for Le Fooding's 2019 "Best Bistro" served up Asian fare rather than French.

If you want to bring some of what's exciting to modern French chefs into your kitchen, check out the following tips and trends.

Simplified, Ingredient-Centered Cooking

These days, visit not just Paris but Copenhagen, New York, or London, and you'll find a lot of dishes where star ingredients do most of the talking.

"It's the same thing that's happening everywhere, except that France, as usual, is behind everyone else," explains Edward Delling-Williams, owner of Le Grand Bain in Paris.

Following the tenets of the locavore movement, and in contrast to ingredient sourcing driven by the enormous Rungis market just outside the city center, many modern chefs source from quality purveyors like Terroirs d'Avenir or directly from farms, while others, like Loïc Martin of Martin wine bar and Robert restaurant, grow their own produce outside the city.

"Buying directly from the producer has become indispensable," explains Martin. "A transformation is coming. Outside of Paris, shops selling only local products are developing, and even hypermarkets are selling local."

Jason Gouzy, chef-owner of Pantagruel

To show off a stellar ingredient, "you cook it, put it on the plate, and that's it."

— Jason Gouzy, chef-owner of Pantagruel

With such incredible ingredients, it's no surprise that ultra-simple dishes — sweet baby carrots roasted in butter and served with fresh, whole-milk yogurt; fresh anchovies dusted in flour and fried — are on-trend in restaurants like Martin's.

Jason Gouzy, chef-owner of Paris' Pantagruel restaurant, agrees that this trend is in full force, particularly in the trendy 10th and 11th arrondissements. In these neighborhoods, he says, diners may be served plates containing exquisitely cooked vegetables or fish with no sides, sauces, or embellishments. To show off these "stellar products," he says, "you cook it, put it on the plate, and that's it."

Daniel Rose, the American chef behind Paris' La Bourse et La Vie and New York's Le Coucou, calls this ingredient-focused mentality "the engine of all French cooking," noting that contemporary chefs have taken something that was essential to classic French cooking and turned it up a notch with "a much broader definition of what is delicious."

"A basic illustration: The answer to amplifying flavor in the classic register is frequently through cream and butter," he says. "In contemporary French cooking, we open ourselves to new techniques like extraction and concentration and also ask whether or not the product even needs cooking or any additional ingredients to best express its innate qualities."

While classic French cuisine is known for its richness, this new approach means that contemporary fare is a lot lighter and more veggie-forward. It's all about terroir, here: think Provençal extra-virgin olive oil, tiny Nyons olives, slate-gray Puy lentils grown in the volcanic soil of the Auvergne, cured Bayonne ham from the Basque region, and of course, the hundreds of excellent French cheeses.

It should go without saying that to recreate this sort of cuisine at home, you'll need to start with phenomenal ingredients.

"Whether classic or contemporary, French technique can only do one thing: amplify the innate nature of the product itself," explains Rose. "If the product is mediocre then any French technique applied to it will only make it more mediocre."

Try the Same Thing at Home

Combine a French triple-cream cheese like Brillat Savarin with homemade black cherry jam, or braise baby artichokes and drizzle with French butter. Wrap slices of in-season Cavaillon melon with rich, meaty Bayonne ham, or toss together an earthy lentil salad with funky French goat cheese. Roast seasonal carrots with just a hint of five-spice powder, or enjoy grilled fresh cod with homemade garlic mayo made with top-quality, pasture-raised eggs.

French Food With an International Twist

Another trend you'll find in Paris restaurants from Le Grand Bain to Septime to Tomy&Co to Le Saint Sébastien is French food with an international twist. Thanks to a host of international and well-traveled chefs, as well as chefs who have become inspired by the presence of top cooks from across the globe, today, lacto-ferments from Scandinavia meet Mexican mole, Korean gochujang, and Chinese XO sauce on Parisian plates.

"In contemporary French cooking," says Rose, "the vision of French cooking is broadened by the influence of what we have learned about the way other cultures define and amplify deliciousness as well as all of the thought and commentary on good food and cooking in general."

At Le Grand Bain, says Delling-Williams, the team often marries typically French ingredients and flavor profiles with Asian techniques and ingredients, using seaweed and algae to add flavor and texture to dishes or even adapting, say, a Thai cabbage salad with peanuts, fish sauce, and maltose by using French Brussels sprouts instead of cabbage, a lemon-butter emulsion, and crushed hazelnut praline, as Delling-Williams did at Au Passage nearly ten years ago.

"Everyone was like, that's so amazing!" he recalls. "And essentially all I'd done was taken this Thai salad and just turned all the ingredients into something that everyone would kind of recognize."

Gouzy has taken similar liberties with local cuisine, taking inspiration from both his travels and from the multi-cultural landscape of modern Paris to create dishes like Turkish-influenced shawarma — a staple Parisian street food — made with French veal sweetbreads and béarnaise sauce.

Edward Delling-Williams, , owner of Le Grand Bain

French cuisine – just like all cuisines, just like language – has evolved.

— Edward Delling-Williams, , owner of Le Grand Bain

For Gouzy and Delling-Williams, this time of change is long overdue.

"People are saying, well, we're losing this old, traditional style of French cuisine," says Delling-Williams, "but you're only talking about French cuisine of a certain era, that was defined by certain books and certain people."

"But French cuisine — just like all cuisines, just like language — has evolved," he continues. "And it's taken a long time to get there."

Try the Same Thing at Home

Start with an essential French technique — like béarnaise sauce — and add your own international spin, like using cilantro in place of tarragon. The same can be done by flavoring steak tartare with Thai flavors (lemongrass, cilantro, fish sauce, and ginger in place of capers, parsley, mustard, and sherry vinegar) or adding an unexpected spice, like star anise or ginger, to a classic stew-like veal blanquette or beef bourguignon. You can even add a Southern flair to classic hollandaise with a kick of cayenne. Let your imagination — and your palate — be your guide!

Classic French Revitalized

Of course, there's still room for classic French cuisine in Paris. In fact, to hear Gouzy tell it, it's well overdue for a makeover. The secret to keeping it modern? Taking advantage of age-old recipes and techniques and revitalizing them for a new generation.

"We have millions and millions of ways of cooking depending on the region or influences from border countries or immigration," says Gouzy. "France has evolved. We need to modernize, but we can't forget where we come from."

"French food is never going to go away," says Delling-Williams. "The one thing that I would like more than anything is for more places to come back and do it properly."

Indeed, this is starting to become a local trend, with spots like Bouillon Pigalle, Brasserie Rochechouart, A l'Epi d'Or, or Rose's La Bourse et La Vie revisiting what a classic French bistro should be. These restaurants are featuring old stalwarts like French onion soup, rum babas, and more, with good-quality ingredients and time-honored French techniques. Even Martin is bringing some of these classics back, with winter dishes like veal blanquettes and stews or fish with beurre blanc sauce appearing alongside simpler plates.

Classic French restaurant dining isn't just about the food and flavors — it's also about the experience. In a classic French restaurant, sole meuniere is deboned by a practiced waiter tableside, and crêpes Suzette is often flambéed in front of your eyes. Gouzy has returned to these old-school theatrics, updating them for a new generation.

Try the Same Thing at Home

Taking the time to perfect coq au vin, French onion soup, or quiche Lorraine is a true pleasure from which you can reap the rewards. From the experience side of things, consider flambéing crêpes suzette or steak au poivre to the delight of your friends and family.

For Gouzy, revitalizing these classics is a wonderful way to pay homage to France's illustrious culinary past. "We can't rest on our laurels and our ancestors," he says. "We have to keep that taste of nostalgia… even if we're nostalgic for things we've never tasted!"

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