French, Fusion, Fluenced, Foreign.

Recently I was eating at Monjul in the 4th and was struck by the chef’s use of “foreign” ingredients; spices, herbs and other non-traditional items. Later, talking with my barber (who practices his razor-cut trade across the street) and another customer, I asked him, had he eaten there and what did he think of it? He said well, it’s traditional French food. Huh, I replied, to me it’s more like fusion food or Asian-influenced cuisine. The other client agreed with me. So what’s the difference? French chefs have come in for some hard criticism lately (what a buddy of mine calls a well-deserved kick in the shins) for being too hide-bound and yes, traditional. But after the famous trip to the Orient a decade ago by several influential chefs (Gilles Choukroun, I recall being among them), dishes and restos began to change. It should be noted than Alain Senderens and others visited China decades before but I would challenge you to recall how much substantial impact that trip had even though he is quoted as using Szechuan pepper, ginger and soya sauce in his cooking. Now a bit of a back-story. There have for a long time been migrations of cuisines from the periphery of the French Empire to Paris; think brasseries from Alsace, Magrebian chow from North Africa, Viet Namese food from Southeast Asia. And there are surely one heck of a lot of pure imports: Italian, Indian, Turkish, Chinese, etc. But there was little cross-fertilization. Everyone ate tempura and fried egg-rolls when in “pure” ethnic/foreign places, but few French chefs would translate the process to their cooking. Among the “traditional” places, the first wave I recall was that of the “exotic” fruits of the 1970’s; it’s hard to believe kiwi fruit was seen as exotic then but it was. Then one saw the use of unusual black peppers, lemongrass and Asian spices. Now it’s not at all unusual to see what two of us did yesterday: “beignets” of tomato, which were really made with dough usually seen with phyllo wraps or crispy dim sum. And pasta and Israeli couscous are served with everything, as if they were standard traditional French items. Fusion, I believe is another matter. The first fusion places were mono-thematic; that is they were Franco-Sino like Cartes Postales in the 1st. Now, of course they include Franco-fill in the blank places as well the likes of restaurants serving pan-Asian-French food. In the US, I’ve even seen a Spanish-Japanese table and in Toronto a nouvelle-Korean one. Something-influenced food, is, I think a bit different. If you look at what Ze Kitchen Galerie or Carte Blanche or Monjul put in front of twenty people, you see a range of products, spices, herbs, techniques and influences that when done like they do, make for an exciting experience. Then there’s world food, exemplified by Spoon and it’s spawn serving hamburgers, grilled (a la plancha) seafood, sushi, well you name it, everything but kielbasa and kangaroo. But I would argue that these places are completely different from traditional French, fusion or otherly-influenced reestarants. Finally, I must mention places that are confusing, confused and herky-jerky to the point they make a total hash of the menu. Primary among them is Chamarré-Montmartre whose one from columns A, B or C (standing for Indian, Franco-Mauritian and Far Eastern) menu makes for a mess. As my kids say, what’s the point here Dad? Well, I think if France is to remain the leader in international cuisine (and not cede its position to innovative chefs in Spain, the US and the UK), its “kick in the shins” needs to have two results: first, more of the above, to keep the techniques and ingredients and pairings moving forward; and second, a re-do of some of the hallowed traditions to fit the new drastically-reduced economy, what Gerard Vie and Alain Senderens and a few other brave souls realize they have to do to keep customers coming in. And while were at it, how about opening for Saturday, Sunday and Monday lunch? This could well be another “best of times, worst of times” era. On verra! These thoughts were prompted by my thoughts at: Monjul 28, rue des Blancs-Manteaux, 4th (Metro: Rambuteau) T: Closed Sunday dinner and Monday lunch Lunch menus at 14 (2 courses) and 18 (3), Sunday brunch at 19 and a la carte 30 €  Ze Kitchen Galerie 4, rue des Grands Augustins, 6th (Metro: Saint Michel) T: 01 44 32 00 32 Closed Sundays. A la carte 30 €.  Blog: John Talbott’s Paris©by John Talbott 2008
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