Why France is the culinary capital of the world

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

"You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It's the little differences." - John Travolta as Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction"

W hen my wife and I had the chance to go to Europe a couple of years ago, we thought a lot about where we wanted to go and why. Being restaurateurs, we narrowed it down to Italy or France.

I have always been a fan of both cuisines and a huge fan of Italian wines, but I had always felt the French wines had an off smell I couldn't identify. In hindsight, I see that I must have had a few corked bottles and some subconscious ill will towards the French. In spite of this, when it finally came down to making a decision, France won out over Italy for the single reason that France has Paris and it was our honeymoon.

I have always believed that the United States has as fine of food as any other place in the world and I still do, but now I understand why France is the culinary capital of the world. Our top restaurants compete and achieve as well as any French restaurant, it is just the rest of the restaurants in France that up the level of culinary expertise.

The apprenticed chef in France will have a much more thorough knowledge base than the apprenticed chef in America. It stems from the fact that France still operates under the independent booth, public market system.

In the U.S. we go to the supermarket to buy mass-produced foods that a company in John Doe, USA, has made, packaged and shipped to all the other John Doe cities in the country. Take bread, for example. Every town that gets John Doe bread shipped to them doesn't rely on a local baker to produce fresh baked goods. I know you are thinking "We have bakeries." True, but say approximately 10 percent of the town purchases from the bakery, while the rest buys John Doe bread and leaves an enormous gap in the amount of trained bakers. And the more bakers, the better the competition, hence better baked goods all around.

This happens in every aspect of our food production from bakeries to butchers to dinner chefs. We have Applebees and Outback Steakhouses on every corner because to receive quality food from independent chefs is much more hit or miss.

In France, with their independent booths and stores, there is an upped level of culinary training on a huge scale: the entire country.

Another influential determinant on the quality of food in France is the fact that their farming system is based on small farms with mainly non-genetically-altered produce surrounding the cities, rather than huge farms of genetically-altered foods 3,000 miles away from their destinations. The effect this has is that the French farmers provide superbly fresh items in season and have intimate knowledge of what makes their produce taste great. Our system is wonderful in that we can have cheap, reliable food shipped to us year-round, but the downside is that the growers produce their crops for holding time instead of flavor.

There has been a trend in America to move toward more specialized stores and to use more fresh local foods in restaurants. Hopefully this will continue. Until then, support your local specialty stores and visit a farmers' market when you have a chance.

Oh, and I got over my unfounded ill will towards French wine - I just had to taste the knowledge base of their wine industry.

Enjoy, Juneau!

• Brady Deal is a MA with Sysco Foods and can be reached at deal.brady@sea.sysco.com.

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