Trans-Atlantic table talk – Europe borrows a cup of inspiration on cuisine – copyright R.W. Apple Jr. NYT
Monday, April 26, 2004 GREAT MILTON, England Nearly 30 years after California wines showed their stuff to skeptical Europeans at the famous Paris tasting of 1976, a group of ranking chefs, food experts and others from the United States traveled to the English countryside this month for a weeklong effort to convince their French and British counterparts that American gastronomy has also come of age.
For the most part, they succeeded. After taking part in panel discussions on the state of the restaurant art on both sides of the Atlantic, and tasting the food of such chefs as Wylie Dufresne and Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Charlie Trotter, the Old World was handing out compliments to the New.
The gathering, unprecedented in the memory of food journalists, was the brainchild of Raymond Blanc, a French-born British chef whose grand, garden-girded country hotel near Oxford, the Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, has one of Britain’s most applauded dining rooms. He spent two years assembling an all-star cast of 100-plus participants for the conference, called The American Food Revolution, which was designed to celebrate what he described as the maturity, diversity and excitement of American cuisine.
Among the luminaries on hand were Pierre Troisgros, the avuncular French chef, who recounted the invention in the 1960s of salmon scallops with sorrel sauce, perhaps the most famous nouvelle cuisine dish, making it sound as if it happened yesterday; Heston Blumenthal, the British whiz kid, who described his use of lab gear to produce crisper French fries, and Theodore Zeldin, the great social historian, who called for the reinvention of restaurants as “hives of activity where people interested in painting, literature and other arts can mutually inspire each other” while eating well.
Plenty of Yankee surprises popped up on menus. Charlie Palmer, the proprietor of Aureole in New York and restaurants across the United States, even worked peanuts and peanut butter into a sophisticated chocolate dessert that everybody lapped up.
At a time of deep fissures in the Atlantic political and economic alliance, occasioned in part by the war in Iraq, Gerard Errera, the French ambassador to London, opened the proceedings at a dinner with the comment, “If we can solve between our three countries the questions of cuisine, then perhaps we can solve everything that divides us.”
Dufresne, the innovative 33-year-old chef of WD-50 in Manhattan, wowed Gary Rhodes, one of the most prominent younger British chefs, with his smoked mashed potatoes and slow-poached egg in Parmesan broth. “That poached egg,” Rhodes confided to a reporter from The Daily Telegraph, “knocked me sideways.”
Paul Bocuse, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, told me, “I’ve eaten marvelous food here.” He turned up later, in a gesture of homage, wearing one of the trademark red bow ties of Lee Jones, the Ohio farmer who grows designer vegetables for American chefs.
Daniel Boulud, who grew up near Lyon but has built his career in New York, turned the head of Derek Brown, director of the Michelin guides, who was born in Britain but holds one of the most influential posts in French gastronomy. A dazzling six-course lunch, including unmistakably North American ingredients like Alaska salmon, Meyer lemons, Maryland soft-shell crabs and Oregon morels, prompted murmurs of “delicious, delicious” from the fastidious Brown, who cleaned his plate every time.
Not everything went smoothly behind the scenes, despite planning worthy of an amphibious invasion. Suspicious British customs officials confiscated meat, cheese and shellfish destined for the gala dinners here, but the chefs substituted and improvised.
A burly kitchen worker from Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, flew in at the last minute with replacement country hams secreted in his luggage, and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley brought in suitcases filled with soft-shells that Boulud later served with an almond custard.
Last-minute menu changes made life difficult for Larry Stone, the sommelier at Rubicon in San Francisco, who assembled 180 cases of wine from 30 West Coast producers. Many came from little-known vineyards or had been produced in tiny quantities; some had never been poured before in Europe. One big hit with the Europeans was a port-style zinfandel called Off the Charts from the Parker Family Ranch in California’s Alexander Valley.
For many of the Americans, the event provided a thrilling affirmation of the work they have been doing in the last few decades, and a chance to counter the widespread European belief that American cuisine consists mainly of Big Macs.
“A few years ago,” said Drew Nieporent of the Myriad Restaurant Group (Montrachet, Nobu), “a conference in Europe on the American Food Revolution would have been laughed off stage. No more.”
Like Nieporent, Ruth Rogers, the American-born co-proprietor of London’s River Cafe, deemed the opportunity for professional interchange even more important than European recognition of achievements in the United States. She said: “None of us can afford to be self-satisfied now. We all need dialogue, and this is a start.” Although Jacques Pourcel of the Michelin three-star Jardin des Sens in Montpellier said French chefs had little to learn from their American confreres, Gerald Passedat of the two-star Petit Nice in Marseille argued that the French, having taught generations of young Americans, now needed to study what the Americans were doing.
“Unfortunately, we are too rigid,” he said. “Food is so central to the French way of life. There are different cultures, different clienteles, as well as intellectual and psychological barriers. But meetings like this will help us to breach them.”
One reason for French receptivity to American ideas may well be the daunting problems in their own restaurant industry, caused by a police crackdown on drunken driving (which has saved 1,500 lives in the last year, by government estimate) and what restaurateurs see as punitive fiscal and social policies, including a 35-hour work week, and taxes and social security payments higher than in neighboring countries.
“It is an absolute disaster,” said Sir Terence Conran, who runs a number of hugely successful restaurants in England, other European countries and New York, and a well-patronized but struggling pair in Paris. “The French government espouses policies which encourage restaurateurs to be fraudulent because they cannot even hope to survive by being honest.”
Several restaurateurs whose places stand atop the French food establishment, including Pourcel, said they had trouble filling tables even on Easter, traditionally one of the busiest days of the year. Andre Daguin, president of a French hotel and restaurant association, reported that 3,000 restaurants went bankrupt last year.
Later, in conversation, Dufresne, who with four friends had paid $1,400 for dinner at Tom Aikens in London the night before, offered another diagnosis. “Cost is the problem everywhere,” he said. “Haute cuisine is pricing itself out of the market. We need to do away with all the pomp. Get rid of the white tablecloths, the expensive silverware and the masses of flowers. That style has had its day.”
The New York Times