French restaurants wane but influence still strong
Le Pommier Bistro Francais on the South Side closed in January 2011, one of five fine French restaurants to close in the region in less than a decade.
A seafood dish at Spoon in East Liberty. Chef Brian Pekarcik says, "You can't get away from French technique and foundation." He learned kitchen fundamentals at a traditional French restaurant in San Diego.
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French restaurants and chefs were the stars of the American fine dining scene for decades -- until suddenly they weren't. Much was made of the fact that the United States dominated the recently released World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards, with eight spots, but it's not the first time it's happened.
It is one more reminder, though, that French cuisine no longer holds the dominant role in Western culinary culture.
That's particularly true in the Pittsburgh region, which in less than a decade has seen five of its fine French restaurants close -- the latest Le Pommier on the South Side in January 2011. And in Philadelphia, one of this country's most acclaimed French restaurants, Le Bec Fin, closed in March after 42 years.
Some place the blame for the decline squarely on Mother France, whose traditional food culture has proven vulnerable to the modern forces of McDonald's, two-career households and a shortened work week in that country for restaurant professionals.
In his 2009 book "Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France," author Michael Steinberger describes how these and other forces have diminished France's own restaurants, as well as the reputation of French cuisine around the world.
But the shifting fortunes of French restaurants in America have just as much to do with the enhanced reputation of other cuisines, particularly our own.
"When I grew up in France, no one knew how to roll a sushi roll, but now everybody does. The borders have kind of vanished when it comes to food," said Yves Carreau, who was born and raised in Lyon, France, but now owns the Sonoma Grill, Seviche and NOLA on the Square, all Downtown and none of them French.
Thirty years ago, when the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., opened American Bounty Restaurant, featuring the cuisine of the Americas, "It was controversial," said Douglass Miller, assistant professor of the institute's Hospitality and Service Management. "People said there is no American cuisine."
But American cooking enjoys a much better reputation today. "In the States, we're developing a generation of chefs that have their own identity," said Mr. Carreau. "American cooking has evolved in a way that has surpassed in popularity French cooking and maybe even Italian cooking in the United States."
As French restaurants have closed, they have been replaced by more diverse offerings. In addition to Le Pommier, the greater Pittsburgh region has lost Laforet in Highland Park, Chez Gerard in Hopwood in Fayette County, Ma Provence in Squirrel Hill and Palate Bistro, Downtown. Meanwhile, just two small French restaurants have opened: Paris 66 in East Liberty and Brasserie 33 in Shadyside.
At the same time, upscale restaurant openings have been dominated by contemporary American restaurants, along with more examples of Latin American, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Italian.
The absence of French restaurants should not be confused with an absence of French cooking, however. French technique continues to be the backbone of a culinary education.
It has become "an integrated part of modern American cuisine," said Kevin Sousa, chef-owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield, as well as Union Pig and Chicken, and Station Street Hot Dog in East Liberty, all distinctly American restaurants. "At the hot dog shop earlier, I was teaching a kid how to brunoise an onion," said Mr. Sousa, describing a knife cut technique.
At Spoon in East Liberty, the menu also doesn't scream French, at least at first. Chef Brian Pekarcik's boldly flavored, creative dishes include stuffed chicken wings with chinese sausage and kimchi fritters, corned beef and cabbage and tandoori spiced king salmon with braised lentils. But his current menu also includes halibut with crab-stuffed shrimp and hollandaise, scallops with potato mousseline and truffle beurre blanc, duck confit and a blue cheese souffle.
"You'll try to branch off and be different and use different ingredients, but no matter what you do you can't get away from that French technique and foundation," said Mr. Pekarcik. He learned kitchen fundamentals at a traditional French restaurant in San Diego, Calif., where the owner was from Lyon, France.
"French techniques are just so ingrained in what we do. Most kids don't even realize they're using French technique anymore," said Mr. Sousa. In fact, some culinary historians believe that the techniques we know as French actually came from Italy, brought over the border by Catherine De Medici when she married the King of France. The French codified, branded and exported what they learned, and now they get the credit, said Michael Zappone, chairman of Culinary Arts at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Downtown.
Even restaurants that push culinary boundaries, like Salt of the Earth, rely on French techniques and ingredients, Mr. Sousa said. And among diners and professional cooks, there's a deep attachment to the cuisine that inspired this country's culinary awakening. Consider the popularity of beef tartar, steamed mussels or duck confit, all dishes that are both traditional and trendy.
As for Philadelphia's Le Bec Fin, the restaurant is being saved by new owner (and former manager) Nicolas Fanucci, who spent more than five years as general manager of the famed French Laundry in California. He brought on other French Laundry alumni Walter Abrams and Jennifer Smith as executive chef and pastry chef.
They plan to reopen Le Bec Fin in June and restore it to its former glory. Their chances of success seem good. After all, there's nothing Americans love more than an underdog.
First Published May 13, 2012 12:00 am