Parlez-Vous Franglais

could not stop laughing....Paris is a hub for fashion, art, architecture, tourism and most importantly, gastronomy. From the time I was thirteen I dreamed of visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, Centre Pompidou, the Champs Élysées, and the rest of the ubiquitous Parisian icons. This was all prior to knowing that I had a love for food, and certainly before being a chef was ever on my radar. Since my transition to the kitchen, my desire/need for a visit has only increased. It all started with high school French class.

Many of my fondest memories in high school were of my French classes with Madame Motsinger. Kentucky is worlds away from France in many ways, but she made the experience incredibly full by incorporating a hearty bit of cultural and historical teachings into her classes. I spent four years in her classes and developed a pretty solid base of the French language.

Flash forward 17 years, with nearly no practice outside of French culinary terms, and kitchens in Los Angeles and Chicago that were primarily English and Spanish speaking; my French has withered away. I can still pronounce many of the words, tell someone what my name is and a spit out a few other useful phrases, but that’s about it. On top of that, our travel through Spain and Germany had filled my head with new words and expression in other languages that I had been focusing on in order to get by. This was a quite frustrating for me…but amusing to Amy and the person on the receiving side receiving my butchered attempts at communication. I was dropping in “por favor” about ever third time I was trying to say please.

Thankfully, there are many people in Paris and throughout France that speak English quite well, but I had to show them I was trying. With the obvious goal of dining and cultural endeavors, we chose to plant ourselves in the south side of the 10th arrondissement, on the border of the 3rd, 4th, and 11th. These are the areas that I had repeatedly seen on the lists of the “hippest” spots for dining, culture, and access to the classic places, without the Champs Élysées price tag. It turned out to be all of that and more.

Amy and I are big fans of Anthony Bourdain and couldn’t resist visiting some of the places that we’d seen on the “The Layover.” We rose early to get to the still warm croissants at Du Pain et Des Idées and tried a few other delights as suggested by the friendly staff; an outstanding apple tart, a croissant, a pinwheel of buttery deliciousness, caracole of red fruits and praline, pain de mes amis, and a small savory roll of lardons and mimolette…all were completely delicious and made for nice snacks throughout the day and the next morning.

Traditional Bistro Fare was an absolute must. We headed to Bistrot Paul Bert
and enjoyed a charred octopus salad before diving into the quintessential steak frites. This time it was a massive entrecôte de bouef (ribeye, medium-rare, sorry, I just can’t do rare ;-P) with well done, super crispy frites, and a side cup with just enough bernaise for all of the fries and the steak. To finish we chose a Gran Marnier soufflé, it was as big as my head, and full of air…(watch it). One menu du jour for the both of us, a couple of glasses of wine for us and we teetered out. Thankful, that we decided to share.

We spent the first few days walking through the streets of Paris and experiencing the culture in the smaller neighborhoods and it was quite nice. There were amazing boucheries, fromageries, boulangeries, cafes, that we took full advantage of, but we often mentioned to each other that we must have been missing something. Paris was great, the food was interesting, but we had not been wowed in the way that we expected, perhaps our expectations were just too much, but we had not even seen the Eiffel tower…That was all about to change.

The next morning we woke early, unnecessarily snagged more pastries from Du Pain et Des Idées and hopped a train to the Champs Élysées. Upon exiting the metro onto the middle of the epic boulevard, we looked around a bit and noticed a beautiful building, a few statues and the humongous road in front of us. As if it were planned, we both saw the Arc de Triomphe in the distance at the same time…”WHOA!”…in unison. At that moment, Paris became the Paris that I had read and dreamed about. This was the start of quite a grand day.

From that point we walked, and walked, and walked. Our day took us on a winding path past some of the most amazing buildings and views that either of us could have ever imagined. The Louvre, Eiffel tower, Notre Dame cathedral…yes, they are all packed with tourists, locals, street performers, police, cars, and it can sometimes be too much to absorb in the moment, but this was the exclamation point on all of my ideas of Paris. Every corner and every turn of the head held a new view, one more amazing than the last, they’re all seared into my memory and made all the years of waiting worthwhile.

Tired and fully saturated with the views, we decided to stop our tour once the sun had set. We snagged a table at the nearest café, just across the River Seine from Notre Dame cathedral. Le Petit Châtelet is a quaint bistro with a chalkboard menu and an open-table near the window. We settled in and ordered the menu du jour. In contrast with the American standards of nomenclature, the “Entrée” is actually the appetizer/starter, and the “Plat” is the entrée/main plate. It took a few days to get accustomed to that. We started with classic escargot with parsley sauce in puff pastry and mushroom bisque, delightful and a bit lighter than anticipated. For our plat we chose to share beef tartare with frites and andouillete with mustard sauce and potato gratin. It is important to understand that when ordering I had no prior knowledge of andouillete, and that was why I chose it.

Our server informed us that andouillete was house specialty, but not always to everyone’s taste. I rarely, RARELY don’t enjoy food, but this was perhaps the thing of all things that I just couldn’t bare to eat. It smelled of wet dog and tasted like hatred. I simply can’t imagine how anyone could consume such a thing and I honestly thought that the server may have been playing a trick on the unsuspecting Americans, but it didn’t seem so. He returned to ask what I thought and I answered simply, “um…maybe not for me, but thank you for the experience” No harm, no foul, sometimes taking a chance works, other times it’s like standing behind an angry donkey. I was thankful that Amy’s tartare was hearty enough for two, and really delicious. For dessert we shared an apple tarte tatin. Completely exhausted and full, we headed home.

To quell my curiosity I had do a little research about andouillete. Come to find out that andouillete is an outrageously traditional French “pig colon sausage” for which there are contests and even a group of gourmands who rate the quality of a restaurants andouillete called the AAAAA – “The Amicable Association of Admirers of Authentic Andouillette” So, no joke on us, but proof, as our server noted that it is “not to everyone’s taste”.

As much as we wanted to continually eat solely French and Parisian food, experiencing the ethnic influences in the big cities is a must, and a great way to sample what the cities have evolved into. Our only meal that was not typical French cuisine was had at a small Kurdish sandwich shop; Urfa Durum. Amy had seen it on “The Layover” and had been insisting that we make it there before we left Paris. We had tried the two days prior, but the hours on the website were not updated and we arrived to a closed storefront. Our third try proved fruitful and the attempts were well worth it. Hand rolled flatbreads, baked to order and filled with simply grilled meats and vegetables. Steak hâche for me and lamb for Amy (as always), no sauce, just raw tomato, onion, lettuce, parsley and a splash of lemon juice…simply perfect and a great break from the weighty French cuisine we’d been packing in. It was an early dinner as I had to retire as my next morning was extra early and held adventures as epic as the Ile de la Cite, but entirely different.

Rungis Market, the largest food market in the world, dating back to 1110AD can only be described as: “THE LARGEST FOOD MARKET IN THE WORLD”…outrageous. I was thankful to have been prepped a bit by my dear friend Natasha Kilcoyne, who was a buyer for an Irish specialty foods distributor and spent nearly 10 years as one of two female buyers at Rungis. She instructed me to get a white coat, walk anywhere and everywhere, open boxes, ask questions…essentially “look like a buyer”. This proved to work just as she had said.

This place is BIG, over twice the size of the French city-state of Monaco. I awoke at 1:45am, donned my walking shoes and snagged a cab just after 2am. After a 35-minute cab ride and some confusion as to where to actually enter this gastronomic mecca, I arrived at the start of it all, the seafood pavilion. Business was in full swing. This one building, housing only seafood was roughly the size of 3 Costco stores, and contained countless varieties of fish, mollusks, bivalves and other water residing creatures of all shapes and sizes. Amongst the larger creatures was a 190kg, the largest I’ve ever laid eyes on.

I spent the next 10 hours walking from building to building (over 6 miles according to my iPhone) looking through boxes of fish, meats, poultry, fruits, vegetables, dairy, cheese, dry goods and I didn’t even make it through half of the market. I got to 64 before I lost count of unique varieties of poultry. There were whole beef, veal, pork, lamb, and goat carcasses. Wheels of cheese five feet in diameter; carts full of veal liver, bleached white tête de veau. I could go on and on and on. The greatest takeaway from the market for me though, was the way in which it contextualized the supply chain for me. There were 112 pallets of golden delicious apples…and that’s one of 14 varieties that I ran across. It’s been two weeks since my day at Rungis and I am still processing the scale of it all.

If you are ever in Paris, see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the rest of the essential classics, they are the storybook Paris that you see in movies on TV and postcards, they are not to be missed, but take a morning, wake up really early and snag a cab to Rungis market, it will change the way you think about food and deepen your appreciation and understanding of how food gets to your table. Of course the current trend in food is to shorten the distance between the farm and the table, which is a noble and wonderful cause that I work diligently to support everyday; but places like Rungis will always play a massive role in feeding an ever-growing world.

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3 thoughts on “Parlez-Vous Franglais

  1. Eddie H

    After visiting the spice bazaar in Turkey and being overwhelmed by the magnitude of its variety and size, I can only imagine what Rungis had in store for you.

    5 ft Cheese wheels? 190 kg fresh fish? 64 types of poultry? I can see the plethora amazing spices, eccentric vendors and excited, hard working chefs that abounded in my minds eye.

    Local farming is certainly as you said a noble and necessary action in many ways, but it is indeed a special circumstance of our developed society that gives us as consumers access to cuisines of the world, and enables us to appreciate foods our ancestors couldn’t have tried without getting in a plane.

    Love it!

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