Many people in the Chicago area will remember my father Réal well. He was the longtime director of the Alliance Française. A wonderful gregarious man, very gifted at public speaking who absolutely loved food. There are two things I did not inherit from his set of genes. The first is the gift of public speaking. To speak publicly at my father’s level is an art form. He was brilliant. He could say one thing and literally mean another. I can remember one speech he gave while mad at me. He wove in some fatherly advice and a healthy dose of discipline. Not a single person in the crowd realized it. People were clapping and cheering. I was getting scolded publicly. The second was his cooking gene. Very sad about the first one. Positively giddy about the second. Quite frankly, the man could not cook at all. Or for those who knew my father well, his cooking was ‘god awful’ as he was fond of saying. I think my sister Anne inherited that gene. Thankfully my cooking gene came directly from Provence via my mother.
I say this almost as a confession on my father’s part. Growing up, my father kept a jar of peanut butter stashed away in his sock drawer for quick snacks and emergencies. Yes, that was the extent of his cooking skills in the 1970’s and 80’s. Nothing wrong with peanut butter, but thankfully my mother had the foresight to stock the refrigerator full of ratatouille and daube of beef in case she wasn’t going to be around for a meal. Later in life my father decided to finally learn to cook. He had worked his way through all my sister’s recipes and came to me. Anne boiled everything to death with the exception of her special occasion pasta. Any serious cooks here might want to take out a piece of paper and jot this recipe down. Boil some pasta. Carefully choose a shape that might lend a touch of sophistication to the meal. Toss in a can of expensive tuna fish, oil and all. Since this is a two to three ingredient dish the selection of tuna is paramount. Sorry Charlie – no cheap tuna. Only the top shelf from Whole Foods will do for this one. If it is a holiday or your chef brother comes over for dinner, then add some olives and parsley to gussy it up a bit more.
This line of cooking worked well for my father. ‘Anne, how do I cook broccoli?’. ‘Dad, bring a pot of water to a boil and drop it in.’ “Anne, how do I cook potatoes?’ ‘Dad, bring a pot of water to a boil and drop it in.’ ‘Anne, how do I cook…’ and so on and so forth. Thousands of recipes were transcribed in this manner. One day my father reached out to me and asked for a recipe. His refined palate was exhausted from a steady diet of boiled vegetables. He craved some new culinary inspiration. You have to understand my father was a serious diner. He ate at all the great Chicago restaurants on a regular basis. For a long time, his office was on Ontario street next door to Jovan’s legendary restaurant Les Nomades. His apartment sat on the other side. A perfect sandwich for me to begin cutting my teeth in Chicago restaurants. My early dining years were well spent eating there frequently. While most kids my age were happy with burgers and hot dogs, I was exploring serious French cuisine one plats at a time.
So when my father asked how to cook something I tried to combine his current skill set of boiling with something both new and classic. He wanted to prepare asparagus. I suggested a simple Hollandaise to enhance the mastered boiling technique. I started to give him a sure fire recipe. After the fourth ingredient, I was met with an awkward silence on the other end of the phone. “Francois, this has a lot of ingredients. I’ll just ask Anne how to prepare asparagus.” This was the complete opposite of my mother. She feared absolutely nothing at all. Thankfully, inspired cooking came from her.
I was being hung upside down like a rabbit about to be spanked when she growled at the doctor with a devil-like ferocity that I needed a flute of Champagne immediately
Food shaped my story from the very beginning. While I was in the womb my grandfather Pépé insisted on feeding my pregnant mother a hearty Perigord diet of goose foie gras and black truffles to ensure that, despite growing up in the savage New World thousands of miles from the French motherland, I would become a proper gourmet. The feasting continued on day one when, instead of getting the traditional spank and sip of mother’s milk to herald my arrival, I was handed a flute of bubbles and a serious addiction to the good life. You see, my Maman was born in Champagne, France and it was the age-old custom to wet the lips of a newborn with a sparkler. The way she recounts my birth is: I was being hung upside down like a rabbit about to be spanked when she growled at the doctor with a devil-like ferocity that I needed a flute of Champagne immediately. It’s best not to question a woman who just had the equivalent of a melon pass through the most intimate part of her anatomy and survive to tell the tale.
I grew up in Chicago, living life on the fence between two cultures, French and American. I might throw in a third because of Zenita Shaw, my childhood Nanny. Zenita was an amazing woman with Southern roots and a heart of pure gold. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, like other major cities, Chicago erupted in violence. Zenita took me into her home and kept safe on the deep Southside hidden in plain view. Chickens were frying, pots of collards stewing with ham and cornbread baked amidst the crackle of gunfire resonating in the streets. She kept us calm with heaping plates of comforting food. It was my first direct exposure to Southern food and it profoundly affected my palate. It was my first lesson on how food affects moods.
All the Europeans at the University of Chicago naturally gathered together to share in familiar cultural experiences. Remember America of the 1950’s is very different food wise than it is now. The Raineri’s were an Italian family who lived below and often shared Sunday meals with us. Vittorio was an absolute stickler for the authentic Italian flavors. As a self-avowed espresso purist he drove 90 miles to Wisconsin to get water from a natural spring to make his coffee. This is long before Starbucks hijacked the coffee scene and appeared on every street corner, sometimes twice. And long before espresso was even popular in America. My mom could tell you the three restaurants in Chicago that had an espresso machine. I know as a young boy I was dragged to them several times. The smells and sounds of Chicago’s Taylor Street where we shopped for groceries with Vittorio felt like short trips to Italy. He found enough imported pastas, prosciutto, San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, authentic spices and other food stuffs to make meals at his home feel like vacations in Italy.
My mother came from an upper middle class family that lived in the south of France. The extent of her food education prior to meeting my father was learned eating in restaurants like Baumaniere in Les Baux; Pieds de Cochon in Paris or having her father’s cook Mémé prepare dinner. Ironically, my mother herself learned to cook by reading Julia Child’s seminal book ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Through Julia, she was reunited with her mother culture. We used to watch Julia on TV. My first moments in the kitchen were spent pretending to be a male version of Julia.
If the French are notorious for being uncompromising, folks from Marseille are renowned for being even more stalwart than the stubbornest goat. Family members cease to be family members; neighbors’ houses are razed while they were on vacation and garden gnomes’ go swimming with the fishes’ godfather style over disputes about what are the correct fish for a lunch of bouillabaisse. There is a charter that precisely dictates what fish may be used in Bouillabaisse. No variations permitted. I learned to be pigheadedly passionate about French food from the best of the best.
It has been 60 years since she first washed up on our shores and yet she remains unabashedly French. She will forever exist in old France where society screeches to a halt for all of August, Sundays are reserved for marathon family lunches and French food is the undisputed heavy weight king of the world. Though she would laugh if I said it that way.
So entrenched in her Frenchyness that when my 17-year-old cousin Emily came from Marseille to study in the USA, my mother was confronted with the modern face of a new and different France that was equally and stubbornly rooted in beliefs. The dinner conversation was like a Chinese ping pong match. My mother would say ‘een Frahnce we do zees like zees’. Emily rebutting ‘excusez moi, excusez moi, mais non, non, it ees not like zat!’ France 2000 collided squarely with 1950’s France.
As a youth she escaped a French convent her father imprisoned her in via a rope fashioned from bed sheets armed with a vague plan that led from rural France to London and ultimately America. I suppose we all try to escape our youthful influences only to come back full circle and actually relish them. I fought my love of classic regional French food till I got older and realized every bite is like going to my home.
No feat was too daunting or act too unworthy of ultimate sacrifice to ensure a proper meal at her table. One of the great stories of my childhood was of a legendary Moroccan party my mother threw for a bunch of European expats at the U of C. My mother had sawed off all the legs of our dining room table and ringed it with all of our household cushions to provide the proper mood for a lavish Moroccan feast. I will never forget the mixed look of horror and anger on my father’s face as he arrived home that night. It is an understatement to say my mother was resourceful.
Often my sister and I would cram onto her three speed bike fitted with baskets and ride off on some wild adventure in search of culinary ingredients. This usually involved peddling off into the ghetto where organ meats could be found. Seafood and organ meats were non-existent in neighborhoods we grew up in, and common ingredients like shallots and fresh basil were not to be found anywhere. Even our milk and dairy was sourced from small family farms in Indiana. Despite the challenges, the smells of Southern France perfumed our kitchen and my adolescence.
I am going to jump forward to my first executive chef job for a second. I was 21 years old when Louis Szathmary hired me to be the executive chef at the Bakery Restaurant on Lincoln avenue. In my first month he called me to his office. Louis had just gotten back from an event in Florida and he said he heard a funny story about my mother and asked if it were true.
My father was a society man while my mother was a free spirit who rebelled against that. Dad had gotten box seats for the opening of an opera and my mother wanted nothing to do with it. She fought going to the very last moment when my father, scarlet faced, was upset about what she chose to wear. My mother stepped into her dressing room and came out a moment later in her overcoat, ready to go. When they got to their box seats my father was still very much annoyed. How you presented yourself in public, especially at highbrow events like opera openings was paramount. He scolded her that she could not wear her overcoat in these prestigious seats. My mother looked at him with a look of trouble. I think my father sensed he was in over his head in the battle of wits with someone from Marseilles. She removed her coat revealing she had nothing on. Naked as the day she was born. My dad turned red as a beet. For the first time in the history of the Opera, a coat stayed on throughout an entire performance.
It may be cliché to claim one learned to cook hanging off their mother’s apron strings, but I really did. She was a free spirited natural who cooked like a jazz musician riffs. Edible poetry in constant motion. She had a fearless style that was never daunted by lengthy recipes or even the need to follow them religiously.
My poor pets
If there are small children in the crowd you may want to cover their ears or have them get a drink of water right now. Everything is a potential food source to a Frenchmen. The pets of our household didn’t fare too well. I filleted my sister’s goldfish at age two and ate my braised pet rabbits by age seven. I was visiting my grandfather Pepe at our family’s auberge in Perigord. I kept two rabbits in a cage near the restaurant. At seven you never think about things like adults do. Every morning I played with my two beloved rabbits. They were so cute. One morning I awoke and ran to see them. Pepe and the Chef were standing near the empty cage looking both guilty and remorseful as they explained during the night the rabbits had picked the locks and fled to the countryside. I was in tears as my grandfather consoled me. That afternoon we had a typical lengthy lunch with all the relatives. Halfway through a really long chicken leg my grandfather leaned over and asked how I liked the “chicken”. Mouth part full I smiled and replied it was delicious. He confessed. What would have sent a normal child into therapy for years maybe decades didn’t bother me. I had the chef gene. Through highly scientific independent research I found this to be a trend in children raised with French parents. Granted I only asked one former French girlfriend for my study. She also grew up with pets that turned into pates.
My mother worked as a nurse at Billings Hospital in Hyde Park. One day she came home with a live turkey given to a parting doctor as a gag gift. The turkey ran around our condominium’s basement hallways till she worked up the courage and hunger to send old Tom on his way to the next incarnation. I think our neighbors were scared to complain because you never knew what my mother was capable of. Holding the turkey neck in one hand and wielding a heavy Chinese cleaver almost as big as her with the other, she muttered a prayer, closed her eyes and swung. The turkey swerved his neck out of the way and my mother severed the top of her finger off. Before going to the hospital she drop kicked the turkey to freedom. He was last seen running across the Midway towards the ghetto to face a new and undoubtedly equally perilous fate it had just escaped.
I eventually stopped cooking my pets and went to the New England Culinary Institute. I graduated from one of the first classes in the early 1980’s. I developed my chops under early mentors Michel LeBorgne and Michel Martinez.
I remember the first day of school clearly. Chef Michel LeBorgne’s gaze intimidated us newbies. Fiercely staring us down like the marine drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. He challenged one of us to come and chop an onion. I averted my view hoping not to be selected. One brave soul got up and fumbled with a knife long enough to severely cut his hand and be dragged off to the hospital in tears. LeBorgne earned another notch on his gun. He warned us that chefs have the highest divorce rates (check), drug and alcohol abuse rates (check) and suicide rates (thought about it several times after surviving a particularly grueling dinner service when I was left wondering why I chose cooking for a vocation). He recounted his own poverty stricken apprenticeship in France. He and a fellow commis shared just one pair of shoes between the two of them. Thank god they worked opposing twelve hour shifts and could share them. I think they also walked to school uphill in both directions. We were too scared to question anything he said. The speech intended to screen out any chef wannabes who didn’t get the memo that being a cook was a masochistic profession not geared for everyone. Choosing to cook is a bit like choosing self-mutilation as a hobby. You had to have the spirit of a pirate with a predilection for the rock star lifestyle. Just without the money to afford your habit and the subsequent rehab required to reintegrate successfully back into civilian life when it’s over. Maybe this is where the suicide statistic pops in. Readjustment to society’s norms was a huge challenge, even for the best of us.
Michel Martinez was an Escoffier man. He did his apprenticeship under one of Escoffier’s legendary apprentices. This guy was a walking god and everything he cooked magically transformed into something heavenly. I remember the day he taught me how to poach salmon. We had a massive caldron that held something like 50 gallons or more. Chef Michel slid the salmon into boiling court bouillon. After a short while he asked if I knew how to check to see if salmon was cooked. I replied no. He rolled his sleeve up and thrust his arm into the boiling inferno. He held it there squeezing the fish for what seemed like hours. I was slack jawed in amazement. He asked again if I wanted to check it. I stuttered no still not believing my eyes.
Another day. Martinez had us making a beautiful old school pate. The kind you have wet dreams about. Really it was quite possibly the best recipe I have ever tasted. I still make it his way to this day. We were mixing all the raw meats, pork, chicken livers, pork fat, with cognac and a collection of what I call medieval baking spices. You know spices like cinnamon and cloves that came into prominence in the Royal kitchens while peasants were happy eating boiled rats and gruel. Chef Michel reaches through us and takes a big taste of the raw forcemeat. I always thought raw pork and chicken supposed to kill you. Our god had tempted fate; we all were expected to do the same. We reached in with our own quivering fingers and tasted it. I am certain we lost a few students that day. The herd was thinning.
Michel was a raging alcoholic. He would walk down the line tasting sauces prior to service. First the lobster sauce. ‘Not enough cognac!” he would scream as he poured a half cup into the pot, stirred and tasted again with the ladle. Voila, Perfect. This was repeated with every sauce down the line, even ones that never had cognac in them. We quickly learned he poured the cognac straight into the ladle and drank it. A drunk chef made for an easier service.
My biggest faux pas was getting in between these two giants. LeBorgne was the hardnosed pretty boy and Martinez was the boxer who’s beat body wore every cut and scrape proudly. He was the sort that if you were going into the thick of it you wanted him standing next to you. LeBorgne had been telling us how he could run a crepe station with 22 pans in circulation at once. Chefs are never at a loss for slight exaggerations. Us feeble students could barely make two crepes at once. LeBorgne was the ultimate culinary juggler. I excitedly told Martinez about LeBorgne superpower abilities. He exploded in a drunken rage using a chorus of French words I only heard when I broke something beloved in my house. The two of them went at it back and forth. Then I heard my name. Total silence. I tried to slink away and hide but LeBorgne caught me. My life flashed before my eyes. LeBorgne had this persona of being a bad boy not scared to resort to violence. During the first year of classes at NECI it was widely reported he head butted and broke the nose of a student for cracking eggs the wrong way. As the story went, LeBorgne has asked this stooge to crack 180 eggs and separate them for a wedding cake. The kid had lined up six flats of eggs and started playing the drums with two spoons across the fragile shells. LeBorgne grabbed him by the ears and smashed his face in. Blood streaming down LeBorgne’s face. The closest to death I came at LeBorgne’s hands was making an omelet. French omelets are to be oval shaped with absolutely no color or wrinkles. During a busy lunch I made one that apparently had hidden flaws. All chefs possess a magical skill of being able to see things no one else can see. Even without looking at it. LeBorgne was livid. How was I going to serve that piece of shit? He threw it into the garbage can and shook the pan in my face. He locked his steely blue eyes on me and seared my neck with the pan. I looked him in the eye and said “thank you Chef”.
I had a few more run ins with LeBorgne the first year. Nothing past his often zealous attempt to break my spirit and possess my soul. All part of hazing the first year students. The second year we respected each other. Decades later I hold a fond and special place for him in my heart.
I will never forget the day Chef Louis Szathmary came to talk to us at school. His electrified speech sent shivers down my spine and crystallized my need to be in a professional kitchen. Chef Louis was a character straight out of the classic European kitchens of yesteryear about which I fantasized. He told me he began his cooking career as an OSS agent stationed at the Hotel Adlon during World War II in Berlin. When he came to the United States in the late 1950’s he had no money in his pockets. Does any immigrant ever come here any other way? His brother Geza helped him get a job cooking for Jesuits in I believe New York. After preparing his first meal for his new employers he was asked to make a dessert. He couldn’t speak English yet and obviously looked befuddled. His employers said just make something for dessert. Something or anything. Louis went into the storeroom and began closely scanning labels to see if any said “something” or “anything” on them. Almost in tears he called his brother who explained what something and anything meant.
Over the course of his lengthy career he accomplished so much it would be impossible to mention even a mere fraction in the time we have. What struck me most was developing food for the space program, creating Stouffer’s first five frozen dishes. Including the spinach soufflé I ate a lot of in the 1960’s. That was his grandmother’s recipe. Even today when I make the quintessential Provencal Swiss Chard gratin I am reminded of Louis. Most importantly, he initiated the change in status of Chefs in America. Prior to 1974, cooks were listed as domestics according to the Federal government. This may seem like a minor event in our current world of celebrity Chefs, but it was a major point back then. He realized this when he tried to get credit at Marshall Fields. He was asked his career and then told he was not qualified for credit as a domestic. He began the push that elevated Chefs and cooking into a respected profession. I had the great fortune to start first as a commis and then return as his Executive Chef. I fondly remember Louis and wish he were still here. I would love to share a meal with him now that I am mature enough to appreciate what he did and his beautiful character.
Life in kitchens was far from serious. To break the monotony of lengthy hours and sweating in hot kitchens, we played a lot of practical jokes. The hard work spawned a sense of humor bordering on the perverse. Louis’ kitchen was staffed with an oddball collection of Eastern Europeans. Two stories jump out in my mind. We had a young artist named Miklos whose father came to visit for a brief period. Sandor was a chef from Hungary. Sandor was built like a tank and worked harder than anyone else. We held a party in his honor inviting many Chicago area socialites. Sandor barely spoke English and would just smile, nod and say thank you to everyone. I pulled him aside with a feigned look of horror and told him through choreographed pantomimes that what he was saying was completely wrong and even terrible. In mock horror I pantomimed what Sandor was saying. He looked absolutely horrified then thanked me and walked back into the dining room bowing to all the socialites proudly exclaiming “fuck you, fuck you very much” to everyone that said anything to him. Louis was a bit pissed at me the next day.
Teodor was a Romanian porter who spotlessly cleaned the entire restaurant and apartments above with a vacuum cleaner mounted on his back and a small knife to scratch out any errant piece of gum. Despite his smallish frame, Teodor was solid muscle. I could never really speak to him with words directly. We communicated through profane gestures and shared laughs. One night after receiving his paycheck, he went out looking for a little action. He spotted an attractive hooker walking down the street. After motioning his intentions and budget, an agreement was reached and the two started walking towards his studio apartment. What Teodor didn’t realize was the “prostitute” was really an undercover cop and two Dick Butkus sized Chicago cops were monitoring him from an unmarked car. After the female cop made the sign, the two cops walked up to arrest him. Teodor thought they were trying to steal his date and in a whirlwind knocked both of them out. He started dragging the terrified female officer upstairs. Luckily Louis was very well connected and managed to get Teodor off with minor bribes. Louis was always saving people from themselves.
Life in the Kitchens
I had the great pleasure to work with some of the most colorful cooks, Chefs and oddball characters that if I dedicated the rest of my life to writing endless blog posts, books and perhaps even a few movie scripts based solely on my kitchen experiences, I may not have enough time to document all the absurdities. I had a French Canadian waiter named Tony who could literally smoke four cigarettes at once in about ten puffs, mutter something incomprehensible like “I had two eggs side by each both facing the sun with an orange glass of juice for breakfast” before racing back to the dining room and continue elegantly serving people.
My sous chef at the time was a culinarian foot soldier named Dave Mottershall whom we lovingly called “Animal”. Animal is every Chef’s wet dream of a sous – fun, passionate, loyal and with an insatiable work ethic that forced you to keep up or be crushed by his single mindedness to be best. Dave was a guy who could crush it day in and day out, week after week and never flinch, even after a 14-day stretch when I would return from the Saturday farmer’s market overloaded with enough ingredients for twenty new dishes that would appear that very night on the menu because I had some drunken, food fueled fantasy the night before combined with three too many espressos. By contrast my other sous chef Andrew would end up curled in fetal position babbling like a newborn eventually missing a full week of work because he tried to make sense with the 38 massive menu changes in five months of operation. He literally panicked himself so bad he developed some form of short term psychosis that rendered him utterly speechless and howling at the moon.
We all worked together at a seafood restaurant called Dayboat, owned by a stereotypical New Yorker rumored to have the dubious distinction of being immortalized in Anthony Bourdain’s epic tale of kitchen life, “Kitchen Confidential” as the infamous Silver Shadow. Read the story even if it is a tall tale.
What is Provencal Food?
Provence is heaven on Earth. The land of golden sunshine peopled with a population that really knows how to live and eat. They are joyous, defiant, independent with a playful spirit. The land where so many great artists and writers made their home. Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Pagnol, Daudet. Flowering thyme, mountain savory, bushes of fragrant rosemary, feathery wild fennel and lavender grow rampant on the stony hillsides and perfume the air. The markets are filled with the most colorful and abundant produce, insanely fresh seafood and pastured meats. The cuisine is simple, rustic, homey. When you have ingredients this incredibly fresh and vivid you don’t want to manipulate them much. Staples like tomatoes, garlic, saffron, sweet peppers, hot peppers, anchovies, olives, olive oil find their way into the cuisine often. Provencal people live the farmer’s market spirit like none other. Many Europeans shop on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. Some do it because refrigerators are smaller than our American counterparts. Provencal food is simple and does not hide. The provenance and freshness of ingredients is of utmost importance.
“Stews form the philosophical cornerstone of French family cooking: they embody – or spark – something akin to an ancestral or racial memory of farmhouse kitchens – of rustic tables laid by mothers, grandmothers or old retainers.” – Richard Olney
In Provence, what you eat on a daily basis reflects the seasons. Summer brings perfect crimson tomatoes, sweet peppers, tiny green beans and those amazingly fragrant melons from Cavillon. In the Fall wild game starts appearing on the tables. Partridges, pheasant, woodcock, boar and wild hare. Almost every phone conversation with my mother eventually gets to food. We start talking about cèpes persillade then migrate over to a civet, or stew, of rabbit she remembers from her youth that is thickened with the blood of the rabbit. Winter brings luxurious black truffles from Vaucluse and slow cooked stews like beef or lamb daube. If you are on the Coast maybe an octopus daube. Daubes are traditionally cooked in the leftover embers on a fire overnight. And spring is the rebirth with artichokes, favas, asparagus.
Provencal cuisine is feminine and egoless. I say that because to contrast we can look at what most of our country eats at home. We like large portions of meat. Yeah give a 36-ounce steak. My mother was horrified by the size of portions when she immigrated here in the 1950’s. We want strawberries and watermelons in February. We do not have the patience to wait for tomatoes to ripen and become perfect. We behave like spoiled children not getting what we want. Man conquers nature rather than man lives within nature.
I had a sommelier named Arthur Levin who is very intelligent. While we were sharing a meal and a bottle he recounted his five years living in Paris as an IBM executive. He taught wine classes as a hobby, probably to justify his wine habit. He started noticing a pattern about French people. They knew the nuances of their region’s wines better than anyone. They could tell you the variations in soil or which slopes produced the best grapes. But mention Bordeaux to people who live in Burgundy and you might as well be talking about life on Mars in gibberish. I started paying closer attention to my own family in Marseille. I noticed that they looked at food in another region of France almost the same way we do when we travel to a foreign country on vacation. Absolute curiosity. Maybe they heard the names of a few dishes. They would order and inquisitively taste them. Notes were shared and conclusions about the “foreign” culture drawn. It reminded me of a cruise to the Bahamas. We stopped off at a small island and ate curried goat and conch fritters. Back on the boat we talked about how different it was from what we ate every day.
“Provence is not one but many regions with no precise definition. The Provence of the high country where the mistral blows, icy and biting at times, after it has swept along the valley of the Rhone, is not the Provence of the dazzling white coves between Marseille and Cassis. Nor is it that of the peaceful hills of the Var, the ochers of the Esterel or the villages perched high on the Alpes-Maritimes where culinary traditions have their origins among the mountains and valleys and where the bright popular accents of Italian influence are seen.”
The late, great food and wine writer Richard Olney said “Provence is not one but many regions with no precise definition. The Provence of the high country where the mistral blows, icy and biting at times, after it has swept along the valley of the Rhone, is not the Provence of the dazzling white coves between Marseille and Cassis. Nor is it that of the peaceful hills of the Var, the ochers of the Esterel or the villages perched high on the Alpes-Maritimes where culinary traditions have their origins among the mountains and valleys and where the bright popular accents of Italian influence are seen.”
Provencal cuisine may bear similarities across the entire region. You can find soupe de poisson everywhere along the coast. Village by village variations have spurned more arguments and family conflicts than you can fathom. Even the name is argued over. Soupe de poissons or soupe aux poisson. Some foodies argue soupe de poisson has visible pieces and with soupe aux poissons we are only left with the soul of the fish.
Even the quality of ingredients in a regional context are argued over. I was having lunch with the Jean Luc and the rest of the Zuger family who own Chateau Malescot St. Exupéry in Margaux. One of my favorite Margaux’s. Count Jean-Baptiste de Saint Exupéry, bought the property in 1827, and was great grandfather to aviator and Le Petit Prince author Antoine de Saint Exupéry. Mr. Zuger served us a fine luncheon of roast chicken with cèpes (porcini). He was extolling the virtues of cèpes foraged in Bordeaux forests when my uncle Pierrot corrected him. Monsieur surely you are mistaken. Everyone knows the best cèpes come from Perigord, not here. Mr. Zuger countered. Sure they are good but best. Hardly. The cèpes of Bordeaux, and Margaux in particular are what the three star chefs look for. We almost had a duel over who had the best cèpes.
In America, we eat without much thought to regionality. Yes, we have a regional cuisine but it is much less pronounced than elsewhere. Far less influenced by ingredients than by whomever settled a particular region. It’s hard for us to grasp the nuances and complexities of foreign food. We prefer to keep it simple and generalize quite a bit. We condense the varied cuisines of large nations like India or China into one simple box. Szechuan, Hunan, and Cantonese get lumped together as Chinese. I was at Powell Books a few weeks ago attending a lecture by Victor Hazan talking about his new book of Ingredients formed from his late wife Marcella’s notebooks. He said that the vastly different regions of Italy are more a collection of cultures rather than a union. We lump together into Southern Italian and Northern Italian if we are well read, or simply Italian if we are not.
French food reigned as the world’s greatest cuisine for well over a century, maybe two. Really since before the French revolution. Royalty from around the world sought French chefs to hire. Even smaller employers like restaurants in America hunted French Chefs. Charles Ranhofer went to work at Delmonico’s in New York City way back in 1862. Culinary trivia, in 1894 he authored a brilliant cookbook called the Epicurean. Nine years before Escoffier wrote Le Guide Culinaire. Chefs from France continued to be exported spreading the lore of French grand cuisine worldwide. The world was much larger back then. Change occurred slower. Nowadays with the internet, fads have shorter life cycles. I apologize if you missed out on a fad while I have been talking. Perhaps in the course of this speech Burmese food will have peaked and disappeared.
During the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s French food hit its apex and started the slow decline to obscurity. With popularity came generalizations. It is hard to get past the over used simplification that all French food is about is cream and butter. We forget or never learned that the food cooked in the Basque region along the Spanish border differs dramatically from what is cooked in Alsace, near the German border.
So often we think of Provencal food as any dish containing tomatoes and basil and sprinkled with herbes de Provence. Incidentally, whenever you see herbes de Provence with lavender in it you know it was made for the tourist market. Waverly Root wrote of this phenomena in his treatise on French food, ‘Food of France’. He described a scallop dish cooked by a Chef from Jura in Parisian restaurant called ‘Coquilles St Jacques a la Provençale’. A dish certainly never cooked in the South of France.
“We are poor; Provence is rich” – Franck Cerutti
Provence was a poor region that spawned a very frugal diet. Olive oil was not used in every dish because it commanded a good price. According to the highly respected Chef Guy Gedda, “Provencal cooking is not to put basil and garlic in everything, Not to put olive oil in everything. One never, never used to put pine nuts in the dishes of Provence. In desserts, yes.” The peasants used lard. They sold the olive oil they pressed. No food was ever thrown away or wasted. Instead, left-overs were recycled and given a breath of new life. Leftovers from a daube of beef, the wonderful Provencal beef stew subtly flavored with olives, cinnamon, saffron, orange and tomatoes, turned into cannelloni’s the next night. Or mixed with Swiss Chard and sheep cheese and turned into raviolis.
A lot of people are often curious about the Italian influence in Provençal food. The area around Nice was once part of the Italian Kingdom of Savoy. It traded hands a few times before permanently becoming part of France in 1860. I think a lot more had to do with its location. How different is the cooking of northern Indiana from Illinois? The combination of its proximity to Italy and isolation from the rest of France resulted in a cuisine of its own. Large parts of Provence were cut off by the rugged terrain. The coast did not really open up till the event of railroads. Even neighboring towns were not easily accessible to each other. This allowed the Provençal coast to develop their own independent cuisine and culture.
A Short and Terrible history of Provence
Like all the other countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, France’s food and culture was defined by its conquerors, invaders and immigrants. Southern France has a long history of being colonized by foreigners. Early Ligurian and Celt tribes intermarried with indigenous people. Phoenician galleys brought Greek traders who eventually founded a trade post where the future city of Marseilles. Marseille had the only harbor along the coast offering land travel north without mountains to scale. The Greeks set up trade settlements in the 7th century BC and introduced the custom of lots of small plates. They gave Provence olives and grapes. The expansion of olive groves and civilization went hand and hand with the expansion of the Greeks and Phoenicians. It has been said that the Mediterranean ends where olives cease to grow.
500 years later the Romans came to help protect the besieged Greeks and defeat the Ligurian Celts. Eventually the Romans claimed the region as theirs and formed ‘Provincia’, the first Roman province outside of Italy. They brought architecture, engineering, culture and food, most notable with legumes, anchovies, herbs and dried orange peels used to flavor various dishes. The Romans built some of their greatest cities, Nîmes, Arles and Orange. Anchoïade, the sauce made from Anchovies, Garlic and Olive Oil is a close cousin to the famed Roman sauce Garum. Salt cod and the art of charcuterie came from the Romans.
The Moors, who at their height of power controlled three quarters of the Mediterranean. Only to be rivaled by the Roman Empire which reached slightly further. The invading Moors brought the habit of serving many small vegetable appetizers as well as a preference of saffron flavored rice. They introduced lamb, eggplant and almonds. Cassoulet is a descendant of these early days.
The Spanish held parts of southern France till 1659 and their influence is deeply felt in Provence’s use of red peppers, green olives, ham, snails, sausages, tomatoes and liberal uses of olive oil.
Many of Marseille’s residents are descendants of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Marseille was also a major resettlement point for former colonists who returned when Algeria became independent in 1962.
The cuisine and culture of the people continued to be influenced by galleys that sailed voyages of discovery in the Far East and North Africa. Marseilles was a major point on the trade route which brought exotic ingredients like saffron, olives, tomatoes, North American salt cod, eggplants, peppers and many other staples to Provence.
In 2002 I was hired by noted Chicago restaurateur Jack Weiss to head up a new French project Pili Pili. He already had Coco Pazzo and Coco Pazzo Café and was expanding. The name and logo Pili Pili came direct from a Patricia Wells book on Provence. The word Pili Pili comes from Swahili and means hot pepper. In the Provence context, it refers to a hot pepper oil drizzled over pizzas and other things. The name was infectious and really reflected a lot of history in one single bottle. The peppers represented seafaring trade, olive oil conquest and herbs from the hillsides. A lot of planning goes into creating restaurants. Jack set me up with a temporary job at the Arts Club where we could secretly test recipes for Pili Pili. One-day Jack brought Bill Rice over to do an afternoon tasting. I think I made fish soup and the predecessor to my artichoke tarte Tatin with olive emulsion. Jack hated the tart by Bill Rice was an advocate and absolutely loved it.
My mother's recipe for ratatouille
- 2 Japanese eggplants diced
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 sweet onion diced
- 2 green peppers diced
- 3 zucchini diced
- 4 cloves garlic mashed
- 4 tomatoes skinned and chopped
- 1 cup basil chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
Submerge the diced eggplant in ice cold water and let sit for ten minutes to remove any bitterness. I started soaking eggplant rather than salting after reading a cookbook of Japanese dishes. I found it works better.
Heat olive oil in a large pan and sauté onions and peppers together over low to medium heat till softened and translucent, about ten minutes.
Drain eggplants well and add to onions and peppers. Continue cooking for another ten to fifteen minutes. The eggplant won’t be fully cooked but will be on the way.
Add zucchini, garlic and tomatoes and continue cooking on low heat till tender, about thirty minutes. Add basil, salt and pepper and cook five more minutes.
If you want, drizzle with a really fruity flavored olive oil and sprinkle on finely grated Parmesan. Even a poached egg served on top is incredible.
Two recipes using ratatouille.