Friday, January 25, 2008

How Fine Dining Came To the Hinterland

A Commentary on the Evolution of Regional American Cuisine

Some Historical Cooking Tidbits

Our story could begin in many ways, but historically it begins with Italy in the middle of the 16th century. It was 1553 when Catherine de Medici made her way to Paris to marry the future King of France, Henri II. Italian cuisine is certainly one of the most ancient in Europe, although the Greeks will point out (quite rightly) that many Italian techniques and dishes can be traced back to Greece and even Asia. It is a fact however, that Catherine did take with her a team of the finest cooks in Florence. And they did profoundly influence the cookery of French high society. French chefs had a little over two hundred years to develop and refine their skills under the noble houses until 1789. The French Revolution brought a crashing finale to not only the old social order, but to the ways in which chefs lived and worked as well. Modern restaurants were essentially created by unemployed culinarians seeking to survive after the dissolution of the great estates of their former patrons. From 1553 on, Catherine and her Italian kitchen whizzes did begin something of a revolution in French cookery. It is usually referred to as a “refinement” of the then accepted cooking practices. It would not be the last. French chefs have continued to the present time in their efforts to organize, simplify and codify their great art. The fact is that French cooking has not, nor ever will remain the same. It has always evolved and will continue to do so.

Certainly, one of the mega chefs of the 20th century in terms of his influence upon following generations of chefs is the legendary Fernand Point. From his writing, reputation and influence, Point is a deeply respected, personal hero of mine. Point founded his restaurant, La Pyramide in the Rhone valley town of Vienne in 1923 and continued to operate it until his death in 1955. Chef Point trained several of modern France’s most accomplished chefs including the Troisgros brothers, Alain Chapel and “The Lion of Lyon”, Paul Bocuse. Of course, I never had the privilege of meeting Point in person, (I was just in the first grade when he died). However, as the reputed father of Nouvelle Cuisine, I have stumbled across his footprints my entire career.

Now to the Americas: The cooking history of the United States reflects not only the foods of the native peoples but the traditions of her multi-cultural settlers as well. The natural resources of the new world blended with the eating habits of waves of immigrants from every region of the planet. Early American society was agrarian, and this is reflected in foods and attitudes based on the rural availabilities and individual cultural tastes of the settlers backgrounds. Adaptation proved to be the key to survival. Game, large and small, was plentiful and the waters teemed with an abundance of aquatic edibles. The pioneer cook also found him or herself confronted by a host of novel produce, much of which was unknown in England and Europe.

Native Americans instructed the settlers in cultivation, preparation and preservation of these new foodstuffs. Our early cookbooks, such as they were, consisted mostly of very broad guidelines and were useless to illiterate pioneers in any case. The early “recipes” that did exist offered, by today’s standards, rather vague guidelines, such as “wine glass and teacups full”, “as much spice as needed”, “some”, “a little bit”, and so forth. Similar instructions still appear in family recipes that have passed down orally from one generation to the next. With modern agri-business, transportation and shipping, many regional distinctions have been blurred; however, creative chefs at excellent restaurants all across America are remembering our heritage. Many are now exploring menus that reflect heirloom products and regional flavors coupled with sophisticated cooking techniques.

There have been many changes in American dinning and restaurants in my lifetime. Fifty years ago, there was a vague genre known as “continental cuisine” that is rarely seen in today’s culinary circles. Certainly in the big cities, one could find restaurants offering their take on any number of ethnic varieties including sophisticated French. But American restaurants offering American Cuisine were a different story entirely. Regional American food was local food and only the more refined American dinners appreciated (or cooked) French. Most French cookbooks of the time, were written by French chefs in French, then translated into English, and assumed much expertise on the part of the reader. Then, in 1961 came the publication of volume 1 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. This book was a detailed approach to the art of cooking with few assumptions and lots of explanations. Also, it had beautiful illustrations by Julia’s husband, Paul Child. It was followed by a second volume of the same title and, in early 1963 by the famous “The French Chef “cooking show on Boston’s public television station. Every celebrity chef cooking show and personality today owes their existence to this seminal event. In this same era an American President and First Lady were being served genuine French cuisine in the White House by a genuine French Chef, Rene’ Verdon, Le Maitre Cuisinier de France. French cooking became popular, chic, and accessible.

We can’t look at modern food history without a nod to the natural food movement of the 60s and 70s as well. Has any foodstuff been held up to as much ridicule as has simple tofu? There was a time when the word “organic” evoked images of “commune cuisine” or at the least health food “nuts”. That time is long past. Any large supermarket in the US today features whole sections to organic foods and yes, that includes tofu in several grades. Many of us care very much about what nurtures our bodies. And sales figures support this assumption too.

La Nouvelle Cuisine, The New Cooking, burst upon the fertile countryside of California several decades ago. Coupled with the golden state’s passion for quality foodstuffs and their commitment to world class wines, a monumental revolution ensued. It was the right place and the right time. California followed a very European model for success. Classic cooking techniques, mostly French and Italian (and in time, Asian) were employed using local ingredients. Local bakeries, artisan cheeses, superb produce, organic sources for perfect meats, boatloads of the freshest seafoods, AND California wine created an electrifying atmosphere.

Chefs with readily recognized names today, helped create the groundwork of this movement, like Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck. Another very good example would be Chef Philippe Jeanty, who for years presided over the Domaine restaurant located on site at the vineyards of Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California. Such a fantastic location in the heart of Napa valley with tremendous wine resources was at the chef’s disposal. Chef Jeanty continues today with his “Bistro People” concept of bringing French bistro cooking to the west coast. This “California Story” is a model for anyone in American food service today. Restaurants, wineries, food producers and innkeepers have learned to work in a symbiotic relationship the last few years, and not just in California. All regions of our country can boast restaurants, hotels and inns that proudly serve regional fare. What an exciting time to experience expertly and creatively prepared New American Cooking!

Please share with us your thoughts concerning New American Cooking and do mention specific names and locations of establishments that you have experienced. We also hope that you will contact us with any questions or comments concerning any of Avanti Savoia’s “Culinary Treasures from around the World”.

Bon Appetit Y’all!

Chef Joseph

Chef Joseph Lowery is the Chef Consultant at Avanti Savoia. He has worked as a chef, author, and cooking instructor since 1971.