Breaking Bread with David Downie

Author David Downie dispels a lot of myths about French food and cooking in his wonderful new book A Taste of Paris. To follow up on our review of the book yesterday, we asked Downie a few questions about the complex question of “authentic” French cuisine, what current restaurant trends he finds promising, and where to get a gander at how the French cooked and ate in centuries past.

The Paris Blog: I got a wonderful visual in my mind of you sneaking into kitchens of restaurants and palaces, as you describe in the book. For the more meek among your readers, what food-related places could we legally visit to get a feel for how Parisians ate or prepared food 100 year ago, 300 years ago, 600 years ago?
David Downie: That’s easy: lunch or dine at Le Grand Vefour, the Rocher de Cancale or L’Escargot Montorgueil and you’ll travel back to the 19th- and late 18th centuries. In terms of seeing kitchens or how people ate, that’s also a cinch: go to the Musee Nissim de Camondo (pictured), a wonderful house-museum, for a turn-of-the-19th/20th century kitchen and dining room. You can also see the giant cooking fireplaces from the 1200s in the Guard’s Room at the Conciergerie/Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cité, and the cooking fireplace from the 1400s of the Musée de Cluny (the museum of the Middle Ages): the ticket office is where the kitchen used to be!

david downie portraitYour book described how “French” cuisine has always borrowed from that of other cultures and called it its own. Is this still a tendency?
That’s a tough one to answer. I don’t think French chefs go out of their way to knowingly steal things and re-baptize them “French” but it is definitely a culture of “adopt and adapt” and the French by and large—this is a generalization—are not great at acknowledging foreign influences. They are a proud and often nationalistic people. This extends to everything from cooking and fashion to medical science and technology.

The stereotype of French cuisine is that it is heavy, bloody and tradition-bound. The innovators in France are often maverick foreign chefs. So what is French cuisine in this day and age? Is it even possible to describe?
The short answer is, no, it’s not possible to describe “French cuisine today” in less than 100,000 words and even then, by the time you finished your book on the subject, things would have moved on. With tongue at least in part in cheek, in my book I talk about cuisine d’auteur as in film d’auteur—roughly indie cooking meaning unique to a particular culinary artist. The thing is, the vast majority of chefs no matter how good they are are not artists, they’re artisans and should be proud of their skills. They imitate each other and the current versions of postmodern post-nouvelle nouvelle turn out to be fairly predictable and recognizable: aesthetics, miniaturization, maniacal fussy plating, verticality, artistry and novelty are all! Digestibility, practicality, warmth-on-delivery, good flavor, enjoy-ability and other fuddy duddy old-fashioned notions have gone out the window.

book cover“Exciting” is not compliment from you when describing a dish or restaurant. And yet you love some of the innovative dining establishments that have provided a lot of recent excitement in Paris such as Frenchie and Spring. Can you help me understand the difference between “exciting” and “innovative”?

I think it’s great to be enthusiastic about food and the dining scene, and being adventurous or intrepid and innovative is generally a good thing for a gastronome. “Excitement” to me suggests overstrained nerves, being overwrought, emotional, and so forth, and excitement can be great in lots of contexts—lovemaking or watching an exciting movie or anticipating the release of a book you’ve worked on for years. But when I’m eating I want to be relaxed, happy, elated, perhaps, not excited. Often we throw words around without thinking about what they mean.

So many innovations in French cuisine and restaurants are done by non-nationals. Does this mean French-born chefs are less adventurous? Are French cooking schools overly tradition-bound?
I’m not sure that the innovations are all coming from non-nationals though it’s true that outsiders have always contributed to the excellence and novelty of French cuisine. Some French chefs have traveled abroad and come back with novel ideas—at Frenchie for instance. This is another dangerous generalization but I would venture to say that the French as a nation are possibly less adventurous than certain other nations or peoples, especially Americans, largely because they come from a very old culture with many traditions and their educational system is highly traditional, hierarchical and competitive as in win-lose (they have trouble seeing win-win paris restaurantsolutions). The French are like the ancient Roman god Janus: they look backward and forward at the same time. Many schools, especially hotel and restaurant schools, are indeed hidebound. Americans come from a different world, a place where innovation is taken for granted, where traditions are relatively few and are not revered to the same degree. In America unless you belong to some moneyed “aristocracy” or “elite” your baggage is usually pretty light and you can fly easily (and also crash easily). The French are born with very heavy baggage—cultural, historical, familial.

What innovations of late do seem very French to you?
That’s an excellent and difficult to answer answerable question! I think the bistronomie movement—serving gastronomic meals in a bistro setting and at affordable prices—was a positive innovation and shows how tradition and novelty are not always at odds. Another current trend is a return-to-the-roots “innovation”: the combination of à la carte classic restaurant dining and table d’hôtes dining in the same establishment. That’s what went on in the late-1700s and into the early decades of the 1800s in most restaurants in Paris.