Restaurant. Menu. Chef. Sauce. Marinade. Sauté. These are all words invented by the French that are now ubiquitous within the world of food. Throughout history, classic French techniques have formed the foundation of most professional cooking and continue to be fundamental to modern cuisine. Today's class began with a lecture and presentation by Rollie Wesen—an accomplished chef and instructor at Johnson & Wales who also happens to be the son-in-law of Jacques Pepin.
First we discussed the differences between classic French cuisine and regional cuisine. Basically, French food falls into two categories—haute cuisine or fine dining (think Escoffier or Thomas Keller) and bistro cooking which is essentially French comfort food (steak frites, cassoulet). Chef Wesen then posed the question, "Is cooking an art or a craft"? I see it as a craft. It's a skill that is developed and honed from years of repetition. Of course, there is artistry involved, but I see that as the icing on the cake, so to speak. Rollie made the analogy of a great pop singer, say Taylor Swift, who doesn't just write a song in some inspired, cathartic moment, and then move on. She has to perform that song, over and over again with consistency for years to come until it becomes a classic.
Dishes on our afternoon menu, like bouilliabaisse and coq au vin, have become French classics because of cooks who have mastered their craft. As culinary students just starting out, it's important to master the basic techniques before we move on to the artistry. So we moved into the kitchen to take on the classics with the utmost care and attention to detail. We braised the coq au vin—a savory stewed chicken with red wine, mushrooms, and pearl onions—then the bouillabaisse, a fisherman's stew with lobster, haddock, mussels and shrimp. The broth was scented with onions, fennel, chile flakes, wine, and saffron—it was like an elixir for my perpetual winter sore throat. We whisked fresh vinaigrette for our salad Lyonaise made with frisee, lardons of bacon, croutons, and topped with poached eggs. Then it was on to the steak Diane, a bistro classic invented in New York by a French chef. The steak is seared, then the browned bits are deglazed with shallots, mushrooms, demi glace, cream, brandy, mustard, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. It was a good day to sample everyone's results! Like chef Wesen said, "French regional cuisine never goes out of style".