FIRST TIME EATING.... FRENCH HAUTE CUISINE
FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Share more tips of your own
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
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.
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.
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
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!).
(is it a good dining experience for
(how different is this from American
Rate French food yourself!
BASIC FRENCH FOOD TERMS
The cocktail at the beginning of your meal.
Usually, this is an alcoholic mixed drink, different
from the wine you'll have later.
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
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
cakes or other bite-sized items served as a group,
either as a snack or dessert.
Chopped raw steak with eggs and herbs. Yes- raw!
Steak au poivre:
Cooked steak, however you like it done, in a pepper
Coq au vin: Rooster
or chicken stewed in wine.
Dover sole fish that is prepared in a mild butter lemon
Cuisses de grenouille:
Frogs' legs. (tastes like chicken... soaked in
swamp water) These are rarely on menus these days.
Circles of beef tenderloin
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
more French food term items to the list
CRITICAL DO’S AND
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
Know basic etiquette.
Which fork is for what, and so on- it will help you feel
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.
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.
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.
Suggest more DOs and DON'Ts
For more information, try:
The Food Virgin eats: