My last time in Paris was just months before embarking in a professional culinary career – some 27 years ago.
Looked forward to returning as a bona fide culinarian. Yes, I was going to hit the museums, stare at the architecture, people watch, and buy clothes. But I was obviously going to follow the food.
First impressions? Physically, Paris looks and feels the same. Still the city of lights with a wild pace. The bread, cheese, wine, charcuterie, and croissants are still fantastic – and cheap! I believe these food staples are a constitutional right. As for the rest of the food scene? Appears there’s a changing of the guard. Classical French cooking is not dying, but it may have insisted upon itself for too long. Food moves, these days, at the speed of curiosity. Interestingly, the French are the avant-gardists with nearly all their art forms; but with food, their food, they are staunch loyalists. This begs the question: are the French classics the standard by which culinary schools ought to instil the fundamentals? After all, how often do French classical restaurants open up these days in North America?
Nevertheless, my first meal in Paris was a uber-classic lunch just steps from our apartment in the Bastille. Chez Paul is as classic a joint as they come. I ordered a pot au feu of veal head and brains served with gribiche. I couldn’t help myself. I craved something deliberately nostalgic. And it did transport me to what originally attracted me to French cuisine: its die-hard convictions. But its self-entitlement, on the other hand, is at times hard to swallow.
Every joint carries a TripAdvisor sticker. But my itinerary for the week was pre-determined. I was going to visit the kitchens where three Northwest graduates were working, and dine with them after working hours at their favourite spot. Industry cooks, after all, know much more than tourists getting leads from, well, other tourists.
I can’t thank all three graduates enough for accommodating me with such open arms.
They remind me, again, that I teach people first, about food second. They are also a great testament to how important it is to challenge oneself in this field, everything in you, what you think and feel about food…and life itself. As a school, we like to think we foster and mentor our students to accept challenge wholeheartedly and not fear going to one’s UNcomfort zone. Visiting Paris is one thing; living in it AS A COOK is another. Naturally I offered my support, but how I envy them. What exciting clogs to walk in.
I have to admit, I return home feeling in no shape or form like I just had a vacation. It didn’t feel like work, but on my immigration card I wanted to write down that the purpose of my trip was reflection. Why not? We all need it from time to time. And reflection is to teaching what time is to a fine wine.