Lessons from a French Kitchen
by Richard Goodman
When we think of French cooking, we probably have a romantic notion of that world, of its larger-than-life chefs, of the gorgeous restaurants, of joie de vivre. Here comes the graceful waiter bringing you some storied dish with its acrobatic name, candles glowing at your table, the select wine breathing in your crystal. You take a bite. You say something like, “The French know how to live!” You close your eyes in gastronomic ecstasy. The chef must certainly be skilled, must have spared no expense in creating this masterpiece. This notion has certainly been encouraged in movies and in books. Think of the film, Julia and Me. Think of the book, A Year in Provence.
Though we may think of French cooking and cooks as wild and carefree impresarios, geniuses of the stove, with little regard for anything but their art, that’s not my experience. In fact, it was in a French kitchen where I learned about thrift. It was a surprising lesson, and it stuck.
I learned about thrift—or economy, or frugality, however you want to call it—in a French restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I worked as an apprentice chef there during the summer of 1973 when I was twenty-eight. It was a small restaurant, with basic bistro food, not terribly distinguished, but all of it was new to me. The chef, a thin, sinewy Frenchman named Edmond, hired me because his assistant had to have an emergency appendectomy, and I just happened to apply for a job that same day. I was walking by the restaurant, smelled wonderful smells, walked in, and brazenly asked for a job. I’m not sure what gave me the gumption to do that, because I had absolutely no knowledge of French cooking. I had to be taught everything.
Those first few weeks were a whirl of learning where things were and what they were called, the names often in French. It was an awkward time, as all first days on a new job are. Here, though, was the added pressure every day of a kitchen in the throes of the evening dinner rush. I made many mistakes but managed, somehow, not to get fired. Then came a day early on in that light-washed kitchen when I was slicing tomatoes for a dish called tomatoes Provençal for the first time. I was about to throw away the ends of the tomato, with their tough, vine-like centers, when Edmond looked up at me from his own work. I soon found he knew exactly when to look up.
“What are you doing?” he said in his sing-y accent.
“What do you mean?”
“Do not throw that away,” he said. He came over and swept up the tomato ends with his hands and put them in a plastic bucket nearby. In the bucket were similar odd lots—celery branches, the outer wrappings of onions, the slim peels from carrots, potato skins and so on.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Fond,” Edmond said.
Well, I didn’t know what stock was, but I learned. Every few days we filled a large thick pot with water and in it placed all those useless (in my mind) pieces of food. Also tossed in the vat were the wing tips of uncooked chickens and any other part of the chicken we didn’t cook, like the backbone. Edmond would add salt and peppercorns and bay leaves and other herbs and bring the pot to a boil. Then he’d lower the gas almost to extinguishing. It was a wonderful thing to see this concoction bubbling easily away, for hours and hours, to ultimately become the base for many of the sauces we made. It was almost as if it were a kind of liquid clock, its small bubbles reaching the surface in unflagging regularity. We made other stocks, veal and fish, on the same principle. We used whatever I, for one, would normally have thrown into the garbage. As I say, the only picture I had in my mind of French cooking before that job was opulence, splendor and excess. So, this seemed very un-French to me, this poverty-like use of bits and ends, this cuisine of meagerness. I was wrong.
Nothing was wasted in that French kitchen. Grease from roasted ducks or chickens wasn’t thrown away. Edmond caught me on that one, too. In the case of chicken fat, it formed an icing-like incubation for the pâté we made in those little loaf-shaped pans we used. For duck, it was a white blanket for the uncooked duck to rest on while it cooked. When we de-boned a duck breast or a chicken breast, those bones were retained for stock. Extra scraps of dough, the result of making tartes aux pommes, were saved and put in a plastic container for use when we made new tartes. Once, I was prepping pigs’ feet. I was coating them with mustard and crumbs made with day-old bread. (“Do not throw the end of the baguette away, Richard.”) It was arresting to be handling un-cooked trotters. There was something weird about it, about cooking the part of an animal it walked on, hooves and all. After all, it was a foot. I must have looked a bit aghast, because Edmond smiled and said, “In France, we eat every part of the pig but the sheet.” What an amazing idea.
Thrift in that restaurant went beyond food. The cardboard boxes that held the inexpensive wine we used to cook with were disassembled and spread across the kitchen floor. They protected it from spills and various messes we made during the evening. Plastic wrap and tinfoil were re-used. Added to this, the owner, Jean, would pop in from time to time as we were plating meals. He watched us carefully as we delved out portions. “Pas trop,” he would say, “Not too much.” At the end of a furious evening of cooking, depleted and stunned with fatigue, I hauled the garbage outside to where it would be picked up the next day. It was mostly, if not all, food the diners hadn’t finished eating. Everything else had been repurposed.
Thrift in a restaurant makes sense. There is often a wafer-thin line between profit and loss, so you have to be vigilant. Practicing thrift or economy on a personal level is a whole different matter, though, especially when circumstances don’t force it upon you. I recommend reading the first chapter of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, a book that was written a mere fifteen miles from the kitchen where I worked, for some philosophical heft. Fittingly, it’s titled, “Economy.” Thoreau says that if we live economically, we not only will spend less money on whatever it is we’re doing, we will spend less time on providing for the necessities of life and so will have more time to live.
I wouldn’t recommend his bill of fare, however. What he ate at Walden sounds awful.
Thinking back on the lessons I learned in that French kitchen in Cambridge, I can see how thrift not only saved the restaurant money, it liberated the owner, the chef and his awkward apprentice from performing a multitude of tasks. We didn’t have to order certain things, compare prices, dispense money, unpack, store, cut and slice certain items and so on. We could do those things with what we had right in front of us and so spend that saved time on doing what we were there for: making wonderful things for you to eat.
In other words, thrift, rather than being pinched and constraining, was liberating. I have a feeling that Thoreau read the essay, “Self-Reliance,” by his occasional employer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that it helped put him in a frame of mind to be thinking economically. Because, in fact, economy brings a kind of freedom. You are depending less on others, more on yourself.
At the close of that summer working in the French kitchen, I not only had learned to cook standard French dishes tolerably well, I had learned how clever and satisfying economy can be. It was all a delicious kind of puzzle in a way. What can this scrap be used for? It’s a satisfaction that’s hard to explain, especially in this land of plenty. But I can tell you one thing: it made me feel virtuous—and not in a sanctimonious way. That job taught me to take what I needed, and nothing more. It made me feel clever, resilient, capable. For a young man a bit lost, a bit uncertain, a bit untethered, this was a kind of rescue.
Now, some forty years later, I try to practice economy in the kitchen however and whenever I can. I don’t always succeed, that’s for certain. I’m lazy. Very. I’m often harried. I don’t always think of a way to use the tomato ends or any other remnants of food. I don’t make stock. I don’t have a garden or a compost heap—I’m a city dweller—so I can’t use them there. But when I start to throw the celery ends, carrot peels or onion skins away, when I’m about to toss the ends of that baguette into the trash, I think back to the lessons learned in that small, intense French restaurant in Cambridge. And I can still hear that voice in my head, with a pronounced Gallic accent, saying, firmly, “Richard, what are you doing?”
|Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, The Soul of Creative Writing and A New York Memoir. He has written for The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Review, River Teeth, Chautauqua, Vanity Fair, Ascent, French Review and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction writing at the University of New Orleans. www.richardgoodman.org|