Lunch at Daniel, 2

October 3, 2010

Colman Andrews, who arranged the lunch at Daniel, wrote to tell me that my Iphone had very graciously changed “cuisses de grenouille” to “cuirass de grenouille.”
“Rather leathery, don’t you think?” he asked. He also pointed out that my phone had decided that foie gras en gelee should be foie gras glee – which both of us rather liked.

Then we continued a conversation we had started at the end of lunch. He said that Americans don’t like French food anymore, and that French cookbooks don’t sell. I pointed out that Balthazar is the hardest restaurant to get into in New York; it is packed from the moment it opens for breakfast until well after midnight. So clearly we do like French food.

This isn’t “writing”; it’s just a casual conversation, but I thought you might be interested. I asked Colman if he’d let me let you listen in.


Was thinking later about your contention that Americans DO like French food, they just don’t like to cook it, and I think there’s something to that. The whole point of the kind of stuff we had yesterday, though, is that NOBODY should try to cook it at home. It’s restaurant food and depends on a whole repertoire of stocks and other fonds, many hands to do the work, etc. That incredible multi-level soup, for instance… I mean, I guess somebody could reproduce something along the same lines if they wanted to go to the time and expense, but why would you? We might fool around on the fiddle but we don’t think we’re Pincus Zucherman. Why should we assume that we can cook like Daniel (or Jean-Georges, or Michel Richard, or….)? Whereas if you want to make, say, Italian food, all you really have to do is cook like Mamma—which of course is equally impossible, but much easier to imagine. Anyway, it makes it hard to write a book about cooking French food (though we did it, in a way, with the Saveur Authentic French book), which just leaves books about eating it I guess.

Would be nice to think that “nouvelle cuisine” was the next big thing, though. Yeah, right.


That’s why Americans love the idea of provincial French cooking so much. Bistro food books do sell. Our French home cooking covers always did well on the newsstand. People want to make cassoulet and poulet a la creme….all that cuisine de bonne femme.

As for chef cooking – I don’t get why anyone at all buys any of the chef cookbooks. Not just the French guys; you look at David Chang’s recipes, and every seemingly simple dish requires about a million steps. For me, part of the joy of that meal of Daniel’s was being reminded of how much pleasure there is in that kind of cooking. That soup was extraordinary – on so many levels – well, it all was. I don’t eat at big deal French restaurants much anymore, and it made me want to make the rounds again.

The one place I wish he’d gone in a different direction was dessert. I was trying to remember great nouvelle cuisine desserts, and I couldn’t. Or is it just that the new desserts are so much more interesting?


Yes, you’re right. I do think it’s interesting, though, that people (“our” people, the serious food folk) tend to think that they should be able to—that they have the right to be able to—reproduce the most elaborate and labor-intensive of restaurant dishes, when they would never think themselves capable of playing serious music or painting museum-quality art or imagine themselves capable of leaping into Scorcese or Coppola territory with their Flips.

I know what you mean about not going to big-deal French restaurants any more (though I do always try to go to one or two when I’m in Paris) and about wanting to make the rounds again. I don’t think there’s much of that kind of food left in NY though. We experienced together how things have fallen (or our expectations have risen?) at the Cuisses de Grenouilles. I didn’t like the last meal I had at Jean-Georges very much (though he is certainly capable of doing this kind of food). Per Se to me is a different thing, not French—which I would usually say is a good thing, though not necessarily in this context. Haven’t been to Citronelle forever, but I imagine Michel would still be a real contender in this arena if he wanted to be. It was this kind of cooking I had in mind when I called the piece I did on Michel Bourdin at the Connaught years ago in Saveur “The Last French Restaurant in the World”.

Re desserts, as you know that’s never been my thing, but I thought the fig tart was very good. I do think desserts are on a whole different level, conceived differently and using different technology, today. I can’t really remember any ground-breaking masterpieces from the old days either. Lots of sorbets and tarts as I recall, basically the same old stuff, though often very good. (You may or may not remember, but I recall vividly your reaction to the very very simple pear sorbet at the old Boyer.)

I tweeted about the menu and mused how wild it would be if nouvelle cuisine turned out to be the next big thing. It won’t of course, but I got a lot of comments back on that and all but one seemed to love the idea…

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  • This was so completely enjoyable to read; much in the same vain as literary or film criticism. Something from above that really interests me is Colman Andrews’s comment “tend to think that they should be able to—that they have the right to be able to—reproduce the most elaborate and labor-intensive of restaurant dishes”; this is so true of dance, food, writing and film- and an ongoing problem, I think especially of American life-not just enjoying but constant need to recreate. So fun to read!

  • Matthew Hunt says:

    Great dialog, and Colman’s comments about reproducing restaurant dishes got me thinking:

  • Qwendy says:

    Verrrrrry interesting talk, thanks for letting us in on it — as someone who cooks, I find that it is the combination of grasping a few important techniques or concepts, along with the will and the imagination to cook French food, like Colman said above, Mama’s Italian cooking is easy to IMAGINE, French is a totally different thing. But I am always surprised that all of the fine food people eat, and the serious cookbooks they have from said restaurants, don’t seem to infuence their cooking at all, as it does mine.
    About Desserts — a major topic for me — Serious Food people so seldom “get” desserts. Desserts are more than just Food, they are imaginative tours de forces, perhaps that’s why the food specialties are divided up, that said, why can’t most chefs apply their formidable imaginations to their desserts? It’s as disconcerting to be served a standard dessert in a fab restaurant, as it is to have one that has a totally different sensibility from the dinner.
    PS: I got to this post from Ludo’s Tweet ; )