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Continental Error-lines

Scott Tycer tries to clear up the confusion over continental cuisine

Aries was the critics' choice for top restaurant in the Press's 2001 Best of Houston issue, so we take a special interest in what chef-owner Scott Tycer is up to. Imagine our surprise when Aries showed up recently under the "continental" cuisine heading in Inside Houston magazine. Tycer worked for many years under Wolfgang Puck, one of the founders of the California cuisine movement. Had Tycer given up the distinctive, restrained cooking style he made famous at Aries in favor of veal Oscar and beef Wellington? We called him to get the lowdown.

Q. So you're cooking continental cuisine these days?

A. Absolutely not. I'm doing the same thing I've always done.

Q. Did you ask Inside Houston to put your restaurant in the continental category?

A. No, they selected the label for me.

Q. Well, you're in good company with Benihana and Américas.

A. (laughs)

Q. What does "continental" mean to you?

A. It means the continent of Europe, but in cooking it means strict adherence to classic technique. Like if you're cooking osso buco, you have to do it in the classical manner from start to finish. And it means dishes like veal Oscar with crab and hollandaise.

Q. Did you hear it much in California?

A. I heard it misused a lot. Before the New American cuisine came along, they called everything continental. Even Wolfgang's food was called continental cuisine before California cuisine was coined. Now it's kind of like a bad word.

Q. How did it get started? Obviously they don't call their food continental cuisine in Europe.

A. In the book The Last Days of Haute Cuisine (March 2002, Penguin), the author (Patric Kuh) explains how the original American haute cuisine restaurant started in New York. It was part of the World's Fair held in Queens, and the French government brought an entirely French cooking team to represent them in the World's Fair. That's when the term "continental cuisine" first came into play. The style evolved from there.

Q. Does it surprise you to hear your place called continental?

A. Not really. They call me French, they call me all sorts of things. I'm not happy with the label; I'd prefer New American, but that's not that great, either.

Q. So what does New American mean?

A. Well, what would differentiate it from continental is that a New American restaurant is innovative. That's what makes the United States a great restaurant culture and a great business culture. Continental cuisine, on the other hand, is cooking that adheres to the rules from start to finish.

Q. Where do you find that kind of cooking in Houston?

A. I have heard Chez Nous is very classic -- maybe they are really continental.

Q. Where do you find that kind of strict adherence to the classical rules in France?

A. You don't. Maybe at the Michelin three-stars you still see the whole brigade of chefs. But at the one-stars and even the two-stars, you see the American style emerging. It's partly because of the economy. Value is the key. The young chefs in France prefer the innovative American style.

Q. Do you think lots of Houston restaurants call themselves continental because that's the section where Tony's is listed?

A. Probably. I think Tony Vallone has done more to steer us than any chef ever. He has always had the best rooms, the highest bills. He controls the direction of Houston cuisine.

Q. Is Houston the last major city in the country where the term continental cuisine is still used without irony?

A. Continental cuisine is not an adequate descriptor anymore for what's going on here or anywhere.

 
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