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Why is French cuisine missing from the U.S. restaurant landscape?

Why is French cuisine missing from the U.S. restaurant landscape?

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss the absence of a major French restaurant chain in the U.S.

Nancy Kruse
Nancy Kruse

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse asks why French cuisine isn’t more popular in the U.S.

Bret, I’d like to get your viewpoint on an issue that I find truly vexing. How is it possible that French cuisine is so badly underrepresented in our culinary landscape, especially in the chain sector? After all, its principles are essential building blocks of restaurants not just here, but around the globe.

Beginning students at The Culinary Institute of America still cut their teeth on the introductory Culinary Fundamentals class, which teaches the basics of stock making, grand sauces and French culinary terms. They take this knowledge into a kitchen that’s arranged in a brigade de cuisine, the French system that organizes the back of the house based on skill set; everyone knows his or her role and functions as part of a team. While many trendy chefs may favor barbecue over bordelaise, and the highly structured brigade may be substantially more relaxed, contemporary American operations invariably remain guided by these core culinary rules of the road.

Listen to Thorn and Kruse discuss the possibility of more French food coming to chain restaurants:

A couple of months back, you wrote a story about growing consumer interest in ethnic cuisines, noting the continuing dominance of the “big three:” Italian, Mexican and Chinese. French cuisine is much farther behind in the pack, lagging behind Spanish and Belgian. I don’t get it. It’s especially hard to understand given that French food enjoyed one of the most powerful and beloved broadcast adherents of all time — the late, great Julia Child, who remained a popular TV presence well into the 1990s and is still seen on reruns around the country.

To be sure, many independents still gravitate to the Gallic. New York City, which has a long history of terrific French restaurants, is in the midst of a boomlet, with new openings like Rebelle, La Gamelle and Vaucluse, among others. And hot boîtes are popping up all over the country, like Le Sel in Nashville, Tenn., The Blanchard in Chicago, and Chez Nous in Charleston, S.C. French-inflected steakhouses are also coming on stream, as with Marcel in Atlanta, which offers foie gras terrine, escargots and sole meunière, alongside some seriously large hunks of American beef. These places generate plenty of buzz, but they remain greatly outnumbered by pasta joints.

On the chain side, the number of French brands pales in comparison to other ethnic operations. NRN’s Top 100 report lists a total of 15 Mexican, Italian and pizza chains, but nary a single French one. La Madeleine, which is based in Dallas and appears in the Second 100 census, posted sales of $154 million last year. The brand embraces its origins through its positioning as a “Country French Café,” and its menu features patron-friendly favorites like beef bourguignon and croque monsieur, a ham-and-cheese sandwich. There is also plenty of standard fare, like Caesar salads and turkey sandwiches.

Hear Thorn and Kruse discuss the image of traditional French restaurants:

Sibling chain Mimi’s Cafe is concentrated largely on the West Coast, and had a rocky road a few years back when it moved aggressively to introduce a menu loaded with French specialties. I particularly remember the lentils. Lentils, Bret! It has since pulled back, and while it touts its French ingredients and authentic prep techniques, the current bill of fare is mostly populated by lots of familiar American dishes. However, there is a Frites Grill section that pairs meat or fish with scratch-made, twice-fried French fries, and there’s also a “Bit of France” section that includes a couple of quiches, some crêpes and, strangely, Chicken Parmesan.

Just up the coast in the San Francisco Bay Area is Left Bank, a three-unit chain that’s a favorite of mine. It’s modeled after a French brasserie and presents a savvy mix of easy-to-like entrées such as coq au vin and steak frites in a comfortable atmosphere. The menu is broad and engaging; it consists of tasty food that is prepared well and invites return visits on a regular basis. It seems to me that there should be legions of places like this operating from sea to shining sea.

C’est ridicule, Bret. How has the mothership of Western cuisine gone so far off course with diners here? Why has one of the great cuisines of the world and a foundation of the American kitchen become so marginalized?

Much American cuisine rooted in France

(Continued from page 1)

Bret Thorn
Bret Thorn

The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on French cuisine in America.

Nancy, current events have caught up with our conversation. You broached this topic before the horrible terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. I’m responding afterwards, with France much on my mind.

Over the weekend, my Facebook page, which I use for work, was filled, probably even more than most other people’s pages, with comments about Paris. Many of my Facebook friends are chefs, and many American chefs have spent time cooking in Paris or elsewhere in France. I got my culinary training in Paris, too, back when I thought maybe I wanted to be a chef.

France is still an important destination for people seeking a well-rounded culinary education and for American cooks to understand why we cook the way we do.

As you point out, professional American kitchens were set up based on the French model. Our basic techniques are French, professional kitchen terms from “mise en place” to “sous-vide” are French. So is “chef,” which just means “boss” in French, and even “cuisine,” which means “kitchen.”

So although relatively few American restaurants are outwardly French, they still have a lot of French spirit.

Many American dishes have French origins, from pork chops with applesauce, also known as côtes de porc à la normande, to pot roast, or pot au feu. Steakhouses are as American as you can get, but the sauces that go with that steak, from béarnaise to bordelaise to poivre, are as French as apple pie, or tarte aux pommes (although it’s true that much American apple pie probably has more Central European influences). French fries are probably Belgian in origin, but French people eat them in abundance. French toast is absolutely French, although they often eat it for dessert.

Not all French food in America is folded into our distant culinary past. Can you say croissan’wich? How about baguettes, which remain popular on bakery-café menus? French cuisine is there, and is so integral to much of what we eat that sometimes we miss it.

Maybe that’s why we don’t see a lot of explicitly French food on chain menus. So much American food is already kind of French anyway.

Hear Thorn explain why American consumers' tastes may be at odds with French cuisine:

Still, as you point out, there is a little boom going on of independent French restaurants in the U.S. (I’ll add to your list Bon Marché in San Francisco.) I wonder if that has to do with the nostalgia trend going on in the country right now, as people in these uncertain times look for succor in the past, or, in the case of some Millennials, what they imagine the past to have been.

But that still doesn’t answer your question as to why chains haven’t embraced French cuisine openly. I think it might have to do with the personality of French cuisine, which is kind of like the wine that’s typically served with it.

If you look at a typical big California Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s like a Sport Illustrated swimsuit model. Its appeal is straightforward and obvious. It may or may not be to your liking, but you’ll know either way immediately.

French wine is more likely an Audrey Hepburn character — lovely, to be sure, but someone you’d ideally spend more time with to get to know.

French food, similarly, is pleasant, but it doesn’t have the bright sparks of flavor that punctuate many Latin American and Asian dishes, nor does it have the immediate comfort-food quality, or low food cost, of a bowl of pasta.

A French meal, at its best, is enjoyed while sitting with friends and talking while enjoying some wine. Americans don’t eat like that much anymore.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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