"Chefs have become the owners of their plates."—Jacques Pepin
The French Culinary Institute kicked off its 25th anniversary bash on a deliberative note. Yesterday evening, celebrations began with a panel discussion addressing the role of French cuisine in shaping our culinary landscape in the past, present, and future. Hosted by Dorothy Hamilton, the founder of FCI and CEO of The International Culinary Center, the discussion ranged from defining the nature of French cuisine to its function in today's global food community.
The panelists were Michael Batterberry, Founder and Editor in Chief of Food Arts magazine; André Soltner, Dean of FCI and previously, the chef-owner of New York City's legendary Lutèce; Eric Ripert, Executive Chef and Co-Owner Le Bernardin; Drew Nieporent, famed restauranteur and owner of The Myriad Restaurant Group; and finally, Jacques Pépin, Dean of FCI and one of the world's greatest chefs and culinary teachers.
What Is French Cuisine?
While each panelist spoke to differing aspects of French cuisine, all agreed that it excels in elevating and transforming food, with an eye towards preserving the integrity of the ingredient. (In other words, precision and perfection.) Batterberry articulated two common perceptions of French food—either as the bistro fare associated with the 1930s, complete with checkered tablecloths, or "fancy" food out of reach for the masses.
When asked about being a French chef in New York City, Ripert spoke of Le Bernardin as a quintessentially New York restaurant, insofar as he draws inspiration from the city's multicultural identity. With regards to the American character of French cuisine, Dorothy Hamilton pointed out that in the 1970s, Alice Waters was primarily interested in bringing back the techniques and foodstuffs she had so admired in France—yet since then, Waters has become known for pioneering the new wave of American cuisine with its ingredient-driven focus.
Pepin emphasized the common language and conventions by which French cuisine flourished. More so than other culinary traditions, French cookery standardized the vocabulary and techniques by which all chefs were trained. It was in abiding by such rigorous pedagogy, even centuries ago, that the cuisine progressed and matured.
How It Has Changed
Pepin also gave a sense of how French food has changed in the last twenty-five years. Regardless of whether they were steaks, salads, or braises, dishes used to be served in large platters and tureens (think of Boeuf Bourguignon or Salad Nicoise). Now, chefs focus their attention to the singularity of a diner's plate.
"Chefs have become the owners of their plates; aesthetics in food didn't exist before like that," Pepin commented.
Soltner shared similar sentiments when asked about French nouvelle cuisine, which he characterized as being driven by simple ingredients of the finest caliber. Discussing the importance of using the best products and refined techniques led to the matter of haute cuisine.
What Haute Cuisine Means Today
"Haute cuisine needs an audience," Nieporent pointed out. With candor, he joked that despite his best efforts, he sometimes walks into one of his restaurants to witness his "own staff becoming pretentious and stupid." Such an attitude is counter to the growing generosity of chefs these days, Neirpoint added, who are increasingly eager to share sources instead of hoarding their own networks of suppliers. Agreeing, Ripert also touched upon the negative connations of haute cuisine—specifically, that of conflating pretension with formality.
Appropriately, the discussion ended with reflections on the future of French cuisine in an era of globalization. While the panelists argued that many European cuisines have developed through French methodology, they also recognized the fundamentally different canon of Asian cuisines and techniques. Such is the nature of the American culinary world, Pepin noted—that, whereas other nations mainly eat the food of their own peoples, Americans have inquisitive palates that demand diversity.
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