The Politics of Food

Appetites: A Memoir and the State of French Cuisine

Last week, Kris Bistro and French cooking school Culinary Institute LeNôtre celebrated two events in one evening. The first was the signing and party for Marie LeNôtre's new book, Appetites: A Memoir. We received an advance review copy and have already finished it, which was no chore. The book is a page-turner, with some breathtaking revelations about how the respected French culinary school came into existence.

In the book, LeNôtre covers not only her own history but her husband Alain's as well, including the portions of his life leading up to when he met her. The fact that they were both already single parents with two children each by the time they met is one of the lesser dramas of their combined story. LeNôtre's early life as a young actress and model is fraught with its own perils. The rocky relationship in later years between the couple and the LeNôtre culinary empire is shocking. In time, tragedy gives way to forgiveness.

Appetites: A Memoir is not only an enjoyable read -- it also helps people get a culinary education. Proceeds are being donated to the Gaston LeNôtre Scholarship fund, named for Alain Le Nôtre's famous pastry chef father.

The signing and a live question-and-answer session were scheduled on the same evening as "Good France," which is an interesting concept unto itself. The global event was celebrated at more than 1,300 French restaurants and embassies worldwide and represented both a challenge and a message.

The challenge: Chefs and their staffs were asked to prepare a French meal that followed these guidelines:

• Traditional French aperitif (such as champagne and gougères) • Cold appetizer • Hot appetizer • Fish- or shellfish-based course • Meat- or poultry-based course • One or a selection of French cheeses • One chocolate dessert • A selection of French wines • One French liqueur

While all that sounds fairly traditional, there was one more guideline: "Menus will emphasize vegetables to represent the values of healthy eating by reducing fat, sugar, and salt content, as well as the values of environmental responsibility."

That hits at the heart of where traditional French cuisine faces an image problem. Many people think French food is heavy, fattening, expensive and formal. The truth is that it's often not or doesn't have to be that way.

Chef Cedric Gavoille (an instructor at Culinary Institute LeNôtre with a Michelin-starred restaurant background), the Kris Bistro staff and their students did a stellar job of executing a traditional French meal that stayed within the boundaries of sustainable, healthy eating. Dinner began with passed hors d'oeuvres, including little sphere-shaped scoops of beef tartar on rounds of bread, before proceeding to the first course. It was a veritable garden on a plate.

Many hands and much effort were obviously needed to create the big assortment of pickled beets, individual Brussels sprout leaves filled with cream made from the same, a huge variety of tiny leaves and greens, and baby carrots.

Second course was a small filet of red snapper in a light consommé strewn through with mirepoix (tiny diced carrots, celery and onion). The third course, half of a squab with lightly lavender-scented glaze, fulfilled the poultry requirement. Then came the plates of French cheeses, ranging from pungent, creamy Époisses de Bourgogne Berthaut to mild sheep's-milk cheese Ossau-Iraty AOP.

Ending it all was chocolate baba, a small yeast cake that's soaked in rum to make it soft, spongy and even more flavorful.

There were no complaints at the end. French food is indeed good. If it's been awhile since you've experienced a French meal, it's time to go back and re-evaluate. There are stellar examples across the city in addition to Kris Bistro, from Aura in Sugar Land to Artisans downtown to Chez Nous in Humble.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook