Wednesday 21 August 2019

Bonne Cuisine: history of French food revolution

Amuse Restaurant, on Dawson St
Chez Max

Paolo Tulio

The history of food in restaurants can't be told without mention of France. After their revolution, there were a lot of chefs whose employers had lost their heads, and consequently, the chefs had lost their jobs. Many moved to Paris and opened up restaurants, much to the pleasure of the Revolutionary Council.

The French took to gastronomy with enthusiasm and by the start of the 19th century, Napoleon had embraced gastronomy as a necessary part of diplomacy. All through the 19th century, French cuisine was the state of the art. It was what chefs and their patrons aspired to. The great hotels of London and Europe's larger cities competed in their search for great French chefs to head their kitchens. The greatest perhaps was Auguste Escoffier, who transferred from the Riviera to London's Savoy Hotel to head their kitchens.

By the 20th century, there was no argument, top quality cooking was French cooking. There weren't many restaurants in Dublin in the first half of the 20th century, but many Dubliners will remember Jammets in Nassau Street, where the haute cuisine tradition prospered, as it did for a while longer in Stephen's Green's Russell Hotel, the first kitchen in Ireland to be awarded a Michelin star.

So here we are in the 21st century and not much has changed. The only two-star Michelin in Ireland is the very French restaurant, Patrick Guilbaud. Of the one-star restaurants, nearly all have a strong French influence on their menus. Perhaps that's not surprising as the Michelin tyre company is French, and French cuisine tends to attract stars like a black hole might.

A visit to France today will quickly show you that haute cuisine is not all the French kitchens are capable of. Haute cuisine remains at the zenith, but French regional cooking and what is called 'cuisine grand-mere' (grandma's cooking) are more common in restaurants, where cost is very much part of the equation.

So today in Ireland, we can find haute cuisine by following the stars, but for regional cooking and cuisine grand-mere, the search is a little harder. Over the years, I came to enjoy several Dublin restaurants, apart from the Michelin stars. For example, on Stephen's Green you can find La Mere Zou, one of the few restaurants with a history longer than 20 years. It's good, honest cuisine and has stayed very well priced, especially considering its location. Not far away, beside the Merrion Hotel, is Pearl Brasserie - almost, but not quite, Michelin standard. Excellent modern French food, but be prepared to pay more than the normal.

I've come to like many restaurants who serve a menu of simple dishes. To my mind, simplicity is a hard thing to achieve. If you can make a simple dish succeed, you're doing well. When a dish is simple, there's nowhere to hide if things go wrong. So places like the French Paradox in Ballsbridge, Brioche in Ranelagh and La Maison in Castle Market have succeeded by doing what so many brasseries do in France - they produce good food at prices almost anyone can afford.

If my memory serves me right, the first to bring this kind of French provincial cooking at reasonable prices to Dublin was Troy McGuire in l'Gueuleton (4) on Fade Street. It wasn't surprising that it often had long queues outside its door.

Perhaps the most typical French dish in a brasserie would be steak and chips. You'll find that on a French menu as 'biftek et frites'. I love that word 'biftek', a French transliteration of beef steak. This French classic can be had in Chez Max (1), where you really ought to order it medium rare with plenty of Béarnaise sauce.

The most recent arrivals in Dublin are Saison (3), which is where Town Bar and Grill used to be - underneath Mitchells on Kildare Street - and Amuse (2) at the top end of Dawson Street. Both of these are proper foodie emporiums, with interesting menus and really well-prepared food.

Beyond the capital, French cuisine is still going strong. In Cork, there is the well-known Les Gourmandises, and its consistently high standards has kept it a favourite of Corkonians for many years now. Many years ago, I made a habit of staying at the Cashel Palace Hotel, when my clients were paying, and I enjoyed two things. I liked the bedroom immediately above the entrance hall with its absurdly large bathroom, and I enjoyed convincing my clients that we should eat in Chez Hans. That was 40 years ago, but it's still there, serving good food as always.

I once had to spend ten weeks in Waterford, but back then, the only places to eat were in hotels. These days, the choices are far larger, and if you enjoy good, solid, genuine French cookery, you can eat in L'Atmosphere, where the food is both excellent and affordable. Lastly, there's a good French restaurant in Limerick called The French Table. It's on the quirkily named Steamboat Quay and its menu is properly French. Certainly worth a detour if you're in the vicinity.

So, two centuries after Carême, the upper end of gastronomy is still the French tradition. In truth, I have no issues with that. Good food should be welcomed, no matter whence its origins.


How to order steak in a French restaurant

How to order a steak in a french restaurant  

It's a certainty that on any French menu you'll find 'biftek et frites' or beef steak and chips. The real classic of the genre comes with Béarnaise sauce, a wonderful sauce that goes as well with steak as it does with chips.

The French tend to eat their steaks on average less cooked than we do. Bear that in mind as you look down this list.

'bleu' means 'blue' and means barely seared on a hot griddle.

'saignant' literally 'bloody' and pronounced 'sane yon' is the equivalent of rare.

'à point' means medium rare, but rarer than you'd get here under the same name.

'medium' is 'medium'.

'cuit', literally 'cooked', is medium well.

'bien cuit', literally 'well-cooked', is the French equivalent of 'well done'. Expect a pitiful look if you order this.


Paolo's personal favourites

Apart from steak and chips, I love provincial French classics, like the southern French cassoulet - sausage, beans, goose and duck.

The French technique of confit, which is cooking, for example, a leg of duck very slowly in duck fat, results in meat that is tender, where other techniques would leave them tough.

France enjoys regional cooking, and each region is proud of what it alone can offer. If you're in Burgundy do try the andouillette, their local sausage. The wise will not ask 'what's in it?'

la difference

There's a difference between Ireland and just about everywhere else, and it's the treatment of bread.

Here in Ireland, once starters are finished, so is the bread. It'll be whipped away from you. However, in France - and the rest of mainland Europe - it's taken away before desserts, so that if you have a delicious sauce on the main course, you can mop it up with bread.


Irish Independent

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