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FIRST TIME EATING....   FRENCH HAUTE CUISINE

 

THE FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME

The first time I ate French Haute Cuisine was actually in France, where there was a utensil on the table that to this day is still a mystery to me.  I decided to treat it as ‘decorative’ seeing as I also had a perfectly useful knife and fork and didn't seem to need to spoon for anything I was eating, but I will say that not knowing what that was made me feel that much more alien there.  Fortunately, no one seemed to notice I hadn’t used it, and rumour has it, it might’ve been something to use to scoop up sauce.  Hopefully, this article can keep you from feeling like you missed a few etiquette lessons when it's time for you to venture into the world of snails, sommeliers and suspect spoons. 

 

 

Tell us about your first time eating French food

 

SOME BACKGROUND

When people hear the words ‘French food’, they normally think about fancy restaurants with formal waiters, mystifying menus, bewildering wine lists, and complicated table settings.  The truth is, there are other kinds of French food as well- French steak houses, brasseries, bistros, and French country food (usually served in homey surroundings) to name a few.  I thought it would be good, though, to begin by explore the fancy version- ‘haute cuisine’ as it’s called- as this is the one that seems to strike fear into the hearts of quite a few people.  The first question, though, is how did French food become so fancy?  Is its revered status something we brought upon ourselves?  Or do the restaurateurs really want us to be intimidated while we eat?

Well, the beginning of all of this ritual and rich sauce seems to trace back to one man: Chef Antonin Carême.  He’s a French chef who went to work for England’s King George IV about 200 years ago, creating lavish banquet buffets for the king each night, with full cream sauces, exotic ingredients and many other cornerstones of what makes haute cuisine so, well, ‘haute’.  From there, like all outstanding employees often do, he was lured away to work for royal after royal, and eventually cooked for most of Europe’s blue bloods, from Napoleon to Russia's Romanovs.  He then created some of the first haute cuisine cookbooks, writing down recipes that became the foundation of what cooks first learn in many cooking school today.  Meanwhile, all the royals who needed to replace him once he left to work elsewhere, felt that no other chef would do unless they were also French, hence the rise in esteem of French cuisine.  From this, French food managed to spread its tentacles (or should this be ‘snail feelers’?) far enough to bring croissants to China, and cream sauces to Columbia. 

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Haute cuisine restaurants are formal, because their whole purpose is to celebrate dining as an art form.  As a result, every element of the dining experience will have been considered in great detail, and the chef and proprietor will be trying to create an experience for you that's as close to their idea of perfect as possible.  Many are decorated with Louis XV-style furniture and murals, to evoke perhaps, the time of when haute cuisine was first created.  Other restaurants may look more modern.  Whichever way, there will be a full dinner setting on the table, likely with decorative plates (these will be replaced with whatever dishes you order later), and the standard full set of cutlery around it.  You'll never have to worry about which glass is for what, because that will be obvious when your waiters pours your water, and wines.  As for the cutlery, using whatever is furthest outside is the usual way to choose what forks and knives, or sometimes spoons) to use; keep your eyes peeled for cutlery that comes out with food that you order, though, as of course, that's what you should use in those cases.

 

WHAT TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT

So how can you master dining out in one of the most intimidating circumstances?  Well firstly, it’s important to debunk the idea that it’s intimidating.  Eating haute cuisine French food basically breaks down into four pretty straightforward courses- three being the same as American food- book-ended by drinks at the beginning and end.

            The first drink is called the aperitif.  It can be any cocktail that you like.  A popular choice is the Kir, a mix of white wine and cassis, or the Kir Royale, using champagne.  Cassis is made from blackcurrant, giving the drink a grapey-cherry kind of flavor.  After your aperitif, will come the three courses that you’re probably used to- the appetizer, main course, and dessert- plus a fourth course of cheese.  Not too complicated, right?  There are just two tricky things: What to order, and what to drink with it.  If the menu is completely in French, then one possible way to avoid dealing with it is to order the ‘prix fixe’ menu, which is a set menu covering all courses.  The downside with this is you might not like what’s on it.  The other option is to discuss what’s available with the waiter.  This will have a few benefits: You can ask him what’s popular, or what the chef recommends today, talk about the ingredients, and in the process, you’ll get what you want, develop a positive relationship with your waiter, and possibly with the chef too.

            French food tends to have a reputation of being made from strange animals or their body parts that you normally only hear mentioned in an emergency room.  Be as adventurous as you feel comfortable.  It is true that snails are on many menus, but before you get grossed out and skip them, do know that they’re typically seasoned nicely, and if cooked right, are similar to feel in your mouth to oysters.  Other nice appetizers include soup choices, like lobster bisque, or salads with exotic ingredients.  Foie gras is on many menus, and while I’ve eaten it in the past, I generally avoids it now, due to a combination of eating way too much at an event a few years ago and feeling queasy afterward, and not wanting to feel guilty about how it is made these days.  

For your main dish, if you aren’t particularly adventurous, typically, you can’t go too wrong with poultry dishes- duck, chicken, game hen, quail, pigeon.  Usually there will be some sort of beef and fish on the menu too.  A very simple fish dish, for example, is one that’s prepared with a “meunière” sauce.  It’s a butter-lemon-cream sauce- all good things.  For beef, be aware that often, it’s not a typical steak (though steak poivre is, being steak in pepper sauce); some beef variations you'll find instead are veal, tongue, or even ox cheek or tail (which yes, isn't actually beef, but is four-legged and stands around grazing).

 

 

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WHAT TO DRINK

            Next, order your wine.  Wine is a must with French food, probably because great wine comes from all regions in France.  The basic rule of red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat applies.  Choose whichever wine you like, or again, if you don’t recognize anything, ask either the waiter for a recommendation or the wine waiter if there is one, also known as a sommelier.  Don’t be afraid to ask them for help; sommeliers love to talk about wine- this is what their whole job is!  Also frankly, everyone will be happier knowing you’ve ordered a well-chosen wine rather than just something you randomly picked from the menu that probably isn’t the best choice to pair with what you’re eating.

 

EATING THE MEAL

After this, relax!  Your work is largely over.  Eating haute cuisine French food is going to be similar to eating anywhere- basic table manners apply.  A few surprises might appear at the table, but they’re all good surprises: Sometimes a chef will send out a small dish of something for you to taste before the meal starts, called an 'amuse-bouche'.  It could be anything from a mini-appetizer, to yes, a snail (this happened to me once when I'd never had one before, but I ate it with barely any visible squirming).  Whatever you are sent, accept it graciously, and eat it.  Also, between the courses, the waiter might bring you a little tiny dish of sorbet (like slushie, often lemon or grapefruit-flavored).  This is to cleanse your palate- wipe your taste buds clean for the next course.

 

DESSERT, COFFEE, and... TO CHEESE, OR NOT TO CHEESE- & WHEN, IS THE QUESTION

      When you’ve finished your main course, after your dishes have been cleared, you’ll be brought a dessert menu, shown a dessert trolley, or the waiter will simply tell you what’s available. This may be any number of wonderful concoctions.  Delicious creations like crêpes, mousse, sorbet, and various types of tarts and pastries will likely be on the list.  Let your tastebuds do the choosing.  The only thing out of the ordinary with dessert is that if you want to have soufflé for dessert, some restaurants might ask you earlier. This is because it takes more than half an hour to make, so they’ll need to start early if you want it.  There might also be a choice to have dessert wine.  Dessert wine is much sweeter than regular wine, and but will be served in a smaller glass- take sips as you eat your dessert.

     The only extra course in haute cuisine French that we don’t normally have is ‘Cheese’.  Take note: When this course comes will depend on what country you are in!  In France, expect your cheese before dessert.  In England, and some other Commonwealth countries, it will come after dessert.  Whenever it comes, the waiter will either bring you a plate of pre-selected cheese or roll a cart of cheeses to your table.  If this is the case, you can then select a few cheeses that you like.  I’d recommend keeping the choices to three (it’s not an all-you-can-eat buffet!).  Again, feel free to ask the waiter what each one is and how strong it is.  Strong cheeses will have strong flavors and could smell like old sweat socks (and so could your breath afterwards).  Mild cheeses will be more like those you might find in the supermarket.  Eat your cheese with bread or crackers.

 

THE LAST WORD

            As mentioned earlier, French meals are book-ended by drinks.  Like with other cuisines, coffee is popular after a meal- bear in mind that it is usually served after- not with- dessert.  Following that, though, is another alcoholic drink of your choice.  Cognac is a very French choice, though you can have whatever liquor you like (I’m always game for Bailey’s).  And that’s all there is.  See?  Eating fancy French food isn’t so hard.  Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the experience and your first time eating French food won’t be your last.

 

FAMILY-FRIENDLINESS

            The ambiance in fancy French restaurants, is, needless to say, not a great place to bring kids, unless they're the type who will behave like everyone else in the restaurant, and use proper table manners and volume levels.  If you want to try this food, get a babysitter.  Or an etiquette teacher.  Or both.  If you do bring them, though, there will be all kinds of things they'll enjoy eating (see the dessert lists!).

 

RATINGS

Child-friendly Food/Atmosphere (is it a good dining experience for families):  5/10

Adventure Level (how different is this from American food):  4/10

 

 

Rate French food yourself!

BASIC FRENCH FOOD TERMS

Apéritif:    The cocktail at the beginning of your meal.  Usually, this is an alcoholic mixed drink, different from the wine you'll have later.

Amuse-Bouche:  A small pre-appetizer dish sent out at the whim of the chef.  Don't worry- it is not a mix up in the kitchen; your appetizer will follow next.  It is a little gift of something that the chef wants you to taste.  Whatever it is, be sure to finish it!!  The last thing you want is an irked chef for the rest of the meal. 

Prix Fixe:  A fixed price menu with pre-selected items for your whole meal.  If you like the choices, it's an easy way to order.

Petit-fours: Little cakes or other bite-sized items served as a group, either as a snack or dessert.

Steak tartare:  Chopped raw steak with eggs and herbs.  Yes- raw!

Steak au poivre: Cooked steak, however you like it done, in a pepper cream sauce.

Coq au vin: Rooster or chicken stewed in wine.

Canard: Duck

Sole meunière:  Dover sole fish that is prepared in a mild butter lemon cream sauce.

Cuisses de grenouille:  Frogs' legs.  (tastes like chicken... soaked in swamp water)  These are rarely on menus these days.

Tournedos:  Circles of beef tenderloin

Veau:  Veal

Glace:  Ice cream

Crème Brûlée:  Actually not a French dish, but a popular dish with a French name, meaning 'baked cream'. 

Mousse: A dessert that's like ice cream, but fluffier and not necessarily ice-cold.  Often chocolate.

Soufflé: A light, airy dessert that puffs up in the oven, lighter than cake, but heavier than mousse.  If you're in a hurry, order this in advance, as it takes a while to cook.

Digestif:  End-of-the-night cocktail.

 

 

 

Add more French food term items to the list

 

CRITICAL DO’S AND DEFINITELY DON’TS

Do

  • Make a reservation.  If you're going somewhere popular, you definitely can't just rock up and hope for the best.
  • Interact with your waiter- he's there to share his expertise and advice, as is the sommelier.
  • Know basic etiquette.  Which fork is for what, and so on- it will help you feel relaxed.
  • Dress appropriately.  If you're going somewhere fancy, why not wear something nice?  For men, jackets and ties may well be required.
  • In the U.S. tip as per normal.  If there's an additional line for a 'captain', it is customary to pay that person 5%.  This is the person who has helped choose your table and has overseen all the waiters.

Don’t

  • Order wine right away.  Have a cocktail at the beginning of your meal.
  • Don't expect the meal to be fast.  If you're in a hurry, go somewhere else and have French Haute Cuisine another night.  The whole dining experience is to be enjoyed, not raced through.
  • Don't try to change how the food is served.  The Chef will have gone to great pains to create each dish and pair it with the side dishes and sauces.  If you have allergic concerns, talk about them, and order a dish that you can eat as it is meant to be eaten.
  • Feel intimated.  Everyone has a first time trying things like this, and if you be honest and nice to everyone, you'll have a better experience than if you try to pretend you know everything and start ordering people around.

   

 

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