It cannot be denied that the French excel all nations in the excellence of their cuisine," wrote the influential cooking teacher Fannie Farmer back in 1896. Why she then proceeded to add ketchup to her vinaigrette and sugar to her champagne sauce is a mystery she took to the grave. But it underscores the peculiarities inherent in our historic reverence for French food. Americans both fear and worship it: All that cream and butter! All that work! All that money! As for the French, their attitude toward most American food has long been a simple mixture of horror and contempt. Increasingly, however, it's become clear that the traditional imbalance between France and America on matters culinary is starting to change.
Formal French restaurants that once represented the epitome of fine dining in America are almost extinct. Such established New York restaurants as Laurent, Le Cygne and Prunelle all closed in the course of the last year; Los Angeles recently lost L'Ermitage and La Serre, and L'Orangerie's reputation is falling fast. A few are going strong-New York's Lutece, a shrine to classic cuisine for three decades, retains its high rating and still requires reservations weeks ahead of time. But the shift in American allegiance is unmistakable. "The torch has passed," says Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat restaurant surveys, which now tabulate popular taste in 20 regions across the nation. "A new generation of American chefs is edging out the French chefs who were dominant from the end of World War II to the '80s. I wouldn't write off the French, but Americans have shown they can do it."
Clearly, both the recession and a national mania for counting grams of fat have had their effect on our appetite for old-fashioned French cooking. But something else is at work here. Our perception of French food-more important, our perception of great food-is changing. What we've started to understand is that the best food in any country, including this one, must begin with the country's own best ingredients.
When Julia Child returned to America in 1959 after an extended stay in France and began helping Americans to master the art of French cooking, her message primarily dealt with technique. According to her books and TV shows, you could go to the supermarket, buy a chicken, follow her meticulous instructions and serve poulet saute aux herbes de Provence. And thousands did, learning how to saute, how to deglaze a pan, how to make a sauce. Their cooking improved tremendously-but something was missing. No degree of skill in the kitchen can wholly compensate for a pallid supermarket chicken stripped of its flavor by modern farming, processing and marketing methods. Not until Alice Waters returned to Berkeley after her French epiphany and founded Chez Panisse in 1971 did the American culinary revolution become complete. Waters didn't aim to re-create French food, she aimed to recreate French greatness. She did it the way French home cooks do: by gathering the besttasting ingredients available locally and using culinary techniques simply to enhance their natural flavors.
The truth is, food doesn't travel. Ideas and principles of good cooking travel, but flavors are rooted in their birthplace, dependent upon the sun, the air, the soil and the water. The most highly regarded young chefs in America today aren't trying to replicate French food-even if they're French. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose new restaurant JoJo serves what many call the best food in New York (box), cannot be categorized: his classical French training is evident, and so are his startlingly original ideas. Vegetable juices, flavored oils and vinaigrettes are the foundations of his cooking, not the cream-based sauces and long-simmered stocks he was taught. At JoJo he fills small ravioli with rabbit and touches them up with red pepper juice, or sets a perfectly sauteed sweetbread atop a chestnut puree gently spiked with a truffle vinaigrette. In Los Angeles, food lovers are agog over French-born Joachim Splichal's cooking at Patina: he makes gnocchi out of wild rice, fills spring rolls with snails and wraps whitefish in leeks. Ruth Reichl, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, calls it California French. "It's like good French food in France," she says. "It's food that tastes of itself."
In France, meanwhile, both tourists and longtime expatriates report slipping standards that remind them all too uncomfortably of home. Good bread, once a French birthright, is hard to find. An open-air market in Paris may still offer some of the freshest, most delicious produce in the world; but just as often, say visiting food lovers, all that's available are insipid fruits and vegetables shipped unripe from other countries. In 1993, when the nations of the European Community drop trade barriers and become a single market, the same policies that have eroded American regionalism, making the horrid Delicious our national apple and shredded iceberg lettuce our common culinary denominator, will be looming over Europe. "Beware, the Barbarians are at our gates," wrote Jean-Pierre Quelin, an editor at Le Monde, last summer. "The remedy is great cuisine--the danger is a united Europe." Already the Ministry of Culture is so worried about the creeping Americanization of French eating habits-epitomized by the raging popularity of McDonald's in Paris-that elementary schools are introducing classes aimed at helping children develop their palates. Frederique Bleu, a teacher in Paris, told National Public Radio that her students can barely taste degrees of sweetness anymore because their taste buds are so regularly overwhelmed with sugary foods.
"The French just aren't as demanding as they used to be," says Patricia Wells, the American food writer long resident in France and author of "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris" and "The Food Lover's Guide to France." "They used to tell the shopkeeper, 'This is not acceptable, it's not a fresh fish, it's not a good loaf of bread.' But fewer people today are brought up with that intense critical eye toward all food." In country markets, she notes, fine ingredients are still available. Local people still gather excitedly to admire and taste the season's first fresh olives. "I worry more about restaurants," Wells says. "I think French chefs have tons to learn from Americans, but I don't think they'll ever learn it. They're too suspect of anything new. 'Ca ce fait pas' is what you always hear-'It isn't done that way'."
But Wells, who has just published "Simply French" (367 pages. William Morrow. $35), a cookbook written with one of the greatest chefs in France, Joel Robuchon, is quick to emphasize that Americans still have a great deal to learn from the French. She spent four years visiting the kitchen of Jamin, Robuchon's Paris restaurant, watching and analyzing the way he and his staff prepare the food that critics have called astounding. "This was my Ph.D. food," she says. "I don't think I will ever cook the same way again." Although many of the recipes in "Simply French" are anything but simple, they all emphasize certain principles the French still seem to know better than anyone else: choosing first-class ingredients, combining them with discretion and taking pains with the details of culinary technique. You can make their scallop and caviar "sandwiches" if you want-two slices of scallop, each carefully buttered, with a bit of caviar between them, briefly warmed and served with a sauce of cream, caviar and mussel cooking liquid-but their recipes for roast chicken and green salad benefit from exactly -the same principles.
What Americans could most profitably learn from the French, of course, has nothing to do with recipes; it doesn't even have anything to do with cooking. It's about eating. "I don't think as a culture America will ever really care about food," says Wells. "We have such an uptight attitude about it. We think it's sin." She's right: surely this is the only country where people are cajoled into buying food products because they're "guilt-free" or, "sinfully delicious." Food isn't a sin and it isn't an indulgence. It's one of life's natural pleasures, but most Americans have never found it easy to eat companionably in that spirit. If you're lucky enough to visit a restaurant in Paris, look around you. The animated faces, the buzz of conversation, the clusters of friends lingering for hours, the sense they convey of being perfectly comfortable-no American restaurant, even one with terrific food, elicits precisely that feeling of convivial pleasure at the table. No matter what may befall the baguettes or the lettuce in years to come, for that invigorating faith in dinner as a state of grace-Vive la France.
Photo: An invigorating faith in dinner: Wells and the ingredients for a masterpiece (STEVE GOLDSTEIN; FOOD STYLING BY CLAUDIA McQUILLAN)
Three and a half years ago, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Alsatian-born chef at an expensive French restaurant in New York's Drake Hotel, woke up bleary and decided a glass of fresh carrot juice was just what he needed as an eye-opener. It opened his eyes, all right. Gazing at the juice he began to think that it might taste very good with shrimp. He added a little cinnamon to the juice, a little nutmeg and cayenne, some butter. The sauce was ready in moments. Later he made zucchini juice, asparagus juice, fennel juice. Served with a little meat or fish, quickly cooked, the juices provided lively flavors with less fat than traditional sauces. The restaurant already h three stars from The New York Times; after he put two of his new dishes on the menu, the rating jumped to four.
At JoJo, the restaurant he opened last April, Vongerichten's inspired handiwork with juices, vinaigrettes and oils results in amazing dishes, each offering a bouquet of intense flavors and satisfying textures. Is this French cooking? "I developed it here, for New York," says Vongerichten, who speaks with a brisk French accent. "Maybe I should call ,cuisine New Yorkeur'.
Yet classical French training underlies everything he does. "You have to know the quality of ingredients, how to cook with the seasons, how to mix what foods with what," he says. "Not strawberries with fish-which I have seen here." Perhaps what is most impressive to diners accustomed to more casual American kitchens is the flawless quality of the cooking and assembling of each dish: the way every bean in a black-bean salad holds its perfect texture, the way fresh greens are chopped to release the most flavor. Nothing is slapdash, nothing is extraneous.
Unlike many of his counterparts in France, Vongerichten is not interested in serving extravagant meals at astronomical prices. "I wanted to put my kind of food on an everyday level," he says. The prix fixe lunch-three courses for $25--is one of Manhattan's stunning gastronomical bargains. And Vongerichten parts company with his peers back home in an even more dramatic way. While most of them respect other cuisines, Vongerichten has an outspoken passion for sharp, simple Asian flavors. Could there possibly be a greater cuisine than French? You bet. According to New York's leading French chef, the best food in the world is Thai.