YANKEE IMPERIALISM or American ingenuity--whichever it was, it was the Americans who paved the way for Europe's cooking teachers to begin talking to each other. The language, the first time around, was English, as the International Association of Cooking Schools held its first European Regional meeting at La Varenne cooking school in Paris in September. But, though more than half of the three dozen attending members were American, it was still presumed to be the largest gathering of European teachers ever -- because as far as anybody knew, it was the first. And the preponderance of them, at least 10, were from England.
If a round of meetings and dinners lasting from 8 a.m. to past midnight can be called a holiday, this certainly was a busman's holiday: The first activity for these cooking teachers was a cooking class. And the three-day whirlwind of Paris meetings reflected the cooking-school dichotomy of lecture-demonstrations versus hands-on classes, alternating lectures and panel discussions with trips out on the town to sample food firsthand.
French cooking teachers were distinguished by their absence, said Francois Dionot of Washington's L'Academie de Cuisine and vice president of the IACS. "Do you think European cooking teachers are going to join an American organization?" Other than the La Varenne staff, the only other French teacher attending was Danie lle Delpeuch, who raises ducks and geese for foie gras and teaches its preparation in her Perigord farm. And she is living in New York nine months a year now, promoting American foie gras and teaching the cooking of it. However, a few more Gallic representatives showed up for a panel discussion on European food trends and a reception to honor Simone Beck, author of "Simca's Cuisine" and co-author of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," who teaches (in English) in the South of France.
Jane Grigson, correspondent for the London Observer magazine and author of numerous cookbooks, led the panel by emphasizing that networking is crucial for cooking teachers, then she drew lines for battle with a diatribe on the food of her home country. "We have a well deserved reputation for filthy food," she said of the English, who lack the advantage of the French, who "have this rigid training which at least saves the untalented from disaster." In England, continued Grigson, "People say to me, 'I love your books, I keep them by my bed.' But I don't think they ever get to the kitchen."
Paul Levy, wine and food editor for the London Observer magazine and author of the "The Official Foody Handbook," which is about to be published in England, had even worse to say about English cooking, though he announced some good news from England -- that there are several dozen chefs serving very good French food as well as Indian and Chinese, and that "there is a pasta shop on every corner," so that fried foods are giving way to "something boiled in plain water."
Levy's diatribe was extended to the French: "Ten years ago six journalists understood what nouvelle cuisine is or was;" then, "ten years later the same six understand what it is or was." He did have good words for the food of the American south, where he was born and raised.
Patricia Wells, also American born, restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune and author of "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris," complained about the rapid growth of frozen food sections in French supermarkets, which now include even frozen croque monsieur. She had praise for the lightening of the French diet: For example, French restaurants are serving charcuterie in smaller portions so "you get the satisfaction but in a light way." She also welcomed a resurgence of good bread in France. As to whether light eating reflects an interest in health, Wells said, "The way people look and the way the food looks" are what a Frenchman considers important; health is only a side effect. Francois Simon, a Frenchman who writes for Gault-Millau, and who once worked at a McDonald's in Maryland, took heart in the French recently "returning to understanding of locality and seasons," and claimed that they are now beginning to read and learn about wine.
And that is where the Americans crucially influence Europe, said Grigson; Europeans have copied American winemaking techniques and scholarship. Simon chimed in with, "The influence of America is that they are great appreciators."
While the English cooking teachers remained quiet in face of charges that their cookery is stuck in the past, other members of the audience defended them. But the most vigorously nationalistic protest to the panel came from Giuliano Bugialli, who teaches cooking in New York and Florence and is opening an Italian kosher cooking school in Jaffa, Israel.
"You don't say the word but you are talking about Italian food," challenged Bugialli. "You are scared to death to say Italian cooking. You say pasta but you don't call it Italian cooking." He went on to brag that Italy knew enough not to swallow nouvelle cuisine wholeheartedly, and that all this talk of lighter cooking is really more Italian than French. To which Julia Child chided, "We should all admit if it's good, it's Italian?"
Thus the discussion was expanded, with Grigson noting that northern Europe was entirely missing from the meeting. Patricia van den Wall Bake said that when she arrived in Holland 12 years ago, only one woman was teaching cooking to six people. Now cooking schools are snowballing (among them hers), and restaurants and catering have become excellent.
Bugialli, claiming that his was the first cooking school to open in Italy other than state-run professional schools, said that in the 14 intervening years at least 25 schools have opened. Clara Maria Altamiras has started Alambique, an entire chain of cookware shops and cooking schools -- taught by chefs -- in Spain, and for the first time top French chefs are coming to give demonstrations in that country.
Attendance at Bugialli's and Beck's classes are largely Americans, and Americans frequently attend Alambique's classes in Spain as well as Lynne Kasper's, which she transplanted from Denver to Brussels. Even Marie-Blanche de Broglie's cooking classes in northwest France, which are taught in French, have had almost all American students. Teachers from several schools reported a great increase in attendance by Australians and South Africans, and somewhat less by Japanese.
In private the English teachers were more forthcoming. Kenneth and Annie Lo run Chinese cooking classes taught by chefs of their London restaurant; they attract mature students and chefs. London now has more and more classes in home kitchens, Annie Lo said, which are mostly run by transplanted Americans. And more mature women -- as well as men -- are beginning to tip the balance of cooking students from the traditional English mode of young girls preparing for marriage or household service.
Shirley Corriher, who teaches food science in Atlanta and throughout the United States, had a personal experience with English cooking classes to relate after the meeting. The English students, she said, were "very rigid . . . They did things exactly like they were told." As the only foreigner, and one who questioned everything, she was "a thorn in their side" until one day she tried an unorthodox technique for greasing the pan for a savarin -- thickly buttering the pan, setting it to chill and harden on the windowsill, then oiling it -- and hers was the only one that didn't stick. Thereafter the students took to looking over her shoulder to see "what the American was doing."
The French may have been largely absent from the discussion, but their culinary impact was tasted from the morning's cafe au lait served in big pottery bowls, and chocolate croissants from Millet, a highly respected bakery in nearby LaVarenne; to the nightly banquets at local restaurants. The first was at Taillevent, the three-star restaurant considered the most difficult to reserve (three months' wait for a couple for a Friday night, said Bob Noah, who arranged the restaurant dinners). Controversy bounced through the group as some severely criticized the banquet -- particularly for its salty and over-reduced sauce under the saddle of lamb and the even saltier roquefort en crou te -- while others found the dinner very good for a large banquet and the foie gras and marquise au chocolat exceptional.
Earlier in the day the group had seen what such a dinner is about, in a tour of Taillevent's kitchen. The plate warmer, which holds 500 plates, would be emptied that evening just for this one group. The saddles of lamb would have to be started at 7:30 p.m. to be cooked and allowed to stand a time equivalent to the cooking time. The wine would be chosen from the cellar's 340,000 bottles in 11 basement caves and cellars in six other locations (the wine list was said to equal the size of a phone book for a small city). This dinner that evening would account for about half the work of the kitchen staff -- the 16 cooks and four dishwashers and two oyster shuckers. All the silver, from the forks to the serving platters, would be polished by little metal pellets tumbling in a giant polishing machine. Everything for the dinner except the bread would be made in-house. It is a very serious business, the kitchen at Taillevent, except perhaps for the pulled sugar clowns and elephants stored ready in case a child comes for a jet-set birthday party.
The tour, which also included the kitchen of La Tour d'Argent, was preceded by a rundown of French restaurant trends by Noah and Gregory Usher, another restaurant consultant who acts as a headhunter in France for American restaurants and bakeries (and now sometimes for French ones as well). Noah blamed faddishness on food journalists ("Gault-Millau are into vegetables now, but goodness knows, it might be spun sugar tomorrow") and decried the "dangerous" importance of Paris as the mecca for restaurateurs and the disappearance of decent inexpensive "mom and pop" restaurants.
Restaurants are moving from the provinces to Paris even after they are well established, as have Duquesnoy from Troyes and LeDivellec from La Rochelle. And while the group who visited Duquesnoy found the move felicitous, those who dined at LeDivellec supposed something had been lost in the translation. This seafood restaurant both overcooked and undercooked the fish for the group and generally underwhelmed these visitors, even though its famed black pasta -- colored with squid ink -- was an interesting novelty to see (though undiscernibly different in taste from plain pasta).
Paris is becoming overweighted with starred restaurants, said Noah, pointing out that of the 46 starred restaurants added to the Michelin Guide in the last 20 years, 24 are in Paris; and all but one of the new two-star restaurants in Paris in 1984 were provincial restaurants that had moved to Paris. There is also an explosion of fast food restaurants in Paris (estimated at over 200 new ones in the past few years), which are replacing "mom and pop" or "petit zinc" restaurants.
On the positive side, said Noah, the French are increasingly demanding "real food" and no longer will "pay for presentation over substance . . . People are no longer standing for only 'samples.' "
"Degustation menus, unfortunately, are still popular," said Usher of those dinners consisting of 'samples' of food. But clearly these two consultants are reflecting a rising distaste.
Bistros and brasseries are modernizing, said Usher, using waitresses as well as waiters, sometimes cooking from central kitchens for several branches. And hotel restaurants are upgrading in Paris. There is an increase of chef-owned restaurants among the top-rated ones. And an Americanization of eating through fast food (Love Burger, Dallas Burger, Bunny Burger are among France's 600 fast food restaurants), though hamburgers account for only 30 percent of the fast food market and viennoiseries -- serving croissants, brioches and the like -- account for 60 percent. In France, as in the United States, it is difficult to find good staff for kitchens and dining rooms, and pastry chefs are in particularly short supply.
Young people are drinking less wine and more water, he said, and while wine lists are growing larger and more eclectic in restaurants, the wines are of more recent vintages. The kir is drying up as an aperitif, in favor of a glass of champagne or scotch, added Usher.
And following on the heels of the trend towards more beautiful plate presentations, chefs are spending more money on restaurant interiors, according to Usher, who stated unequivocably, "The most beautiful interiors, of course, are in America and elsewhere."
The assembled cooking teachers were ready to put their money where their mouths were, and so they wandered through the Rue Mouffetard market buying white peaches, raspberries, blackberries and tomatoes in all sizes. They toured the kitchenware shops -- Culinarion, Dehillerin, Simon and Au Bain Marie -- and found small metal molds for their cooking demonstrations and marbleized porcelain for their food photography. They lunched on charcuterie and good chewy peasant bread at Val d'Or and floated down the Seine in a Bateau Mouche at sunset, comparing American and European salmon, fresh and smoked, and nibbling canape's such as lumpfish caviar with mayonnaise and salami in aspic, which reminded the Americans that the French are not so far ahead after all.
Such a meeting couldn't get by without at least one cooking demonstration, and so they saw the complete rundown of bouillabaisse, capon with truffles stuffed under its skin, and tarte tatin at La Varenne, as Anne Willan, the school's founder, translated and explained that a Parisian chef "softens and subtles the flavors of regional dishes." The reason for French culinary preeminence is regional cooking, she said, and noted that the five major Provencal sauces -- rouille, pesto, tapenade, aioli and sauce vert -- have all become more feasible to make because of the food processer, since they all required pounding by hand.
She passed around new products to examine -- fennel extract and chocolate extract in liter bottles, powdered vanilla, and the currently fashionable sea beans, also called pousse-pied or samphire. She showed a proper farm-raised chicken with toughened feet, firm leg tendons and a big crop, which indicate it was free ranging, and cautioned that if the cavity of a chicken is wet, it has either been frozen or not fed properly. And she pointed out that a chef is always concentrating flavors as he cooks. Plenty of cooking tips were being exchanged, none better than using a tall can with both ends removed as a stand to hold that difficult pointed strainer, the chinois, while food is being pushed through it. As the chef rolled out his pastry between waxed paper, the Europeans marveled and the Americans looked amused, since they having been doing that since childhood.
And the last night some went to their rooms to pack, some went to comfortable little restaurants to unwind, and most rode the elevator to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower for dinner at the new Jules Verne restaurant. Here was an illustration of the interior-design chic Gregory Usher talked about, with midnight black repeated from the service plates to the silk roses to the tiny high-tech lamps spotlighting the tables. Here the salmon fillet encrusted with peppercorns was better than any of the samples on the Bateau Mouche. Here the pigeon was rosy and juicy and gamey, fashionably dressed with caramelized baby onions, though the veal alternative tasted as if it had slipped upstairs from the mass-production cafeteria. In all, the view and setting were so spectacular, with the lights of Paris sparkling as a backdrop, that the restaurant would have been a hit even without food as good as most of this was.
Goodbyes were conducted at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, past midnight on a blustery Paris night. They were translated into the following: "Next year in England?" LENTIL SALAD WITH HOT BACON (Ambassade d'Auvergne) (12 servings)
It's back to tradition for the French, for regional food has become fashionable. Thus, despite losing a Michelin star this year (which was inexplicable to every food professional I asked), Ambassade d'Auvergne, an utterly regional and old-fashioned Parisian restaurant, is doing well. It's a family business, has been since 1967, with a staff of 32 to serve 90 seats. It serves the hearty beans, ham, blood sausages studded with chestnuts, tripe, confit and cabbage soups and stews of the mountains, and is particularly known for its Thursday special of lentil cassoulet. Part of its show is the tableside beating of aligot -- potato pure'e with cantal cheese and garlic -- in copper pots. And one of its most delicious dishes is this lentil salad, which at the restaurant is made with the exceptional lentils de Puy, but can be nearly as good made with everyday lentils. 2 pounds lentils 1/4 pound onions, chopped 1/4 pound country or Virginia ham, diced 2 tablespoons duck fat, chicken fat or vegetable oil Bouquet garni (1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs parsley) Salt and pepper to taste 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar 3 teaspoons dijon mustard 6 tablespoons walnut oil Chives for garnish, chopped 1/4 pound scallions, finely minced 1/2 pound thick bacon, cut into 1-inch strips
Put the lentils in a large pot, add three times their volume of cold water, bring to a boil and drain.
In the same pot, gently cook the onions and ham in the fat or oil until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the lentils, bouquet garni and water to cover. Cover the pot and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Drain if necessary and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let cool.
In the meantime, prepare the vinaigrette by combining the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper, then whisking in the walnut oil. In a large bowl toss the cooled lentils with the vinaigrette. Sprinkle with chives and scallions.
In a saute' pan brown bacon until crisp. Pour bacon (with its grease if desired), while hot, over the lentil salad. CHOCOLATE MARQUISE (Taillevent) (8 generous servings)
We can't reproduce the extraordinary saddle of lamb or foie gras of Taillevent restaurant, nor do we have a wine list to match it. But we can come reasonably close to Taillevent's rendition of this rich chocolate dessert, to be served in slices on a pool of pistachio sauce. 1/2 pound good quality baking chocolate 2/3 cup confectioners' sugar 3/4 cup butter, softened 5 egg yolks Pinch salt 5 egg whites
Pistachio sauce: 4 1/2 cups milk 2/3 cup ground pistachios 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar 8 egg yolks
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, add the sugar and beat with a fork or electric mixer, then beat in the butter, broken into pieces. Stir in the egg yolks, one at a time.
Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until very stiff. Remove the top of the double boiler from the heat and carefully fold the egg whites into the rest.
Rinse a 9-by-5 inch loaf pan in cold water, then fill it with the chocolate mixture. Place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours before serving.
To serve, wrap the cake mold in a towel that has been soaked in boiling water, then turn out the marquise onto a serving platter. Serve whole or in slices with pistachio sauce.
To make the sauce, mix the ground pistachios with the milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat once the milk has boiled. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture whitens, then pour the milk onto them, whisking as it is added. Place the mixture in a double boiler and heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Allow the sauce to cool before serving with the marquise.
From "The Gourmet's Tour de France" By Henry Viard, New York Graphic Society Books, Little, Brown and Company, 1983.