French cooking is considered to be the most prestigious and respectable cuisine in the world. With its formal techniques, appreciation for fresh ingredients and simple flavors, pride in presentation, and rich and colorful history, French cuisine has come to rule the world.
To become a skilled chef, you must have extensive knowledge of French cooking fundamentals.
But how did French cuisine come to be so acclaimed? Let’s explore the many ways French cuisine has impacted food and culture around the world.
Medieval French Cooking
French cuisine and some of its inspiration can be traced back to medieval times. Back then, nobility dined on multi-course meals composed of wild game, meat, fruit, and grains, while peasants ate diets high in vegetables and legumes. Salt and imported spices were widely used in the kitchens of the elite and were considered a status symbol.
With few ways to preserve food, people in ancient times decided what ingredients to use based on what they had immediately available. Modern French cooking also utilizes fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Members of the upper class often had banquets or feasts to show off their wealth. These dishes were elaborately presented to impress guests, and the importance of presentation is maintained in French cooking today.
How French Cuisine Spread
Over the years, as cultures shifted and transformed across the world, so did cooking in France. Cooking found throughout the Middle Ages began to lighten and dishes in France began to shape into a cuisine we would more readily recognize today. It wasn’t until the 1600s that cookbooks and documented techniques were published.
Francois Pierre La Varenne published the first French cookbook in 1651 titled Le Cuisinier Francois. This inspired many chefs to record their work. The French Revolution in 1789 further helped to spread the study of cooking by shattering occupational restrictions established by the government. More and more French people began cooking for themselves.
Later, French cuisine expanded beyond France’s borders, and chefs from around the world studied these guides.
As the French colonized other countries including Asia, Africa, North America, and the Caribbean throughout the 1700s and 1800s, they spread their knowledge and cooking techniques.
What Is Haute Cuisine?
If you’ve studied French cuisine at all, you’ve probably heard of something called haute cuisine.
Haute cuisine translates to “high cuisine” and refers to a shift in French cooking from an emphasis on abundance and quantity to an emphasis on moderation and quality. Marie-Antoine Carême is often credited with leading this charge in the 1800s. He taught French cooking as a sophisticated art form that required technique and precision. His recipe manuals also made French cuisine more accessible.
Georges Auguste Escoffier, known as the King of Chefs and Chef of Kings and our school’s namesake, brought haute cuisine to the modern world. He revolutionized the fundamentals of French cooking including how food is presented and how it’s served. With his publication of Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, Auguste Escoffier adapted haute cuisine to be more modern.
Additionally, Auguste Escoffier furthered the culinary profession through an organized and smoothly-running professional kitchen with his innovative brigade de cuisine system, which features a strong hierarchy. It modernized culinary arts, giving kitchens a military-style ethic to deliver efficient and effective service under strong leadership. The brigade system is still used in kitchens around the world today.
French cooking continued to evolve and in the 1900s, nouvelle cuisine was born. This style of cooking was defined by the use of high quality, fresh ingredients; lighter meals; and simpler, but no less breathtaking, presentations. Modern French cooking draws inspiration from the many cooking concepts French chefs have developed and presented over centuries.
The Foundations of French Cooking
French cooking is incredibly complex and is built upon many years of history. Still most chefs would agree that technique, ingredients, and the dining experience are important components of this cuisine.
French cooking techniques require patience, skill, and attention to detail. These take years to master, but should be studied by all aspiring chefs.
Mise en Place
Mise en place means “everything in its place.” Before cooking a dish, a chef organizes their tools and prepares, cuts, and measures their ingredients. Everything should be close at hand and ready to go when it’s time to cook. A chef must be mentally prepared to execute the techniques to create masterpieces!
Sauteeing is a technique of cooking ingredients in a pan coated with olive oil or butter over medium to high heat. To sauter means ‘to jump’ in French, which is what ingredients do in a hot pan. One classic dish utilizing this technique is lamb chasseur.
Braising is a combination cooking method used to cook meat or vegetables in a covered pot over low heat until the products are tender. Chefs typically sear the surface of meat before lowering the heat to cook in fat or wine for hours to produce complex flavors along with soft and tender bites.
To confit an ingredient requires salting and cooking the product in fat. Traditionally, this technique was used to preserve meat. Duck confit is a classic French dish that uses this method. However, you can also confit many vegetables such as garlic or potatoes!
Flambe involves the use of flammable alcohol. When the alcohol is set on fire or flambeed, it burns the alcohol away in mere seconds while leaving the aroma of the liquor’s main flavor. For many years, restaurants would flambe various dishes tableside to highlight both the technique and enhance the dining experience for their guests!
Another marker of French cuisine that differentiates it from others is the use of high quality ingredients.
French dishes often use simple ingredients transformed by artful techniques. Fresh, naturally produced ingredients can always be found in French cuisine. Wine, cheese, olive oil, and seasonal vegetables are just a few staples.
Herbs and spices are also important to French cuisine and can contribute a depth of flavor to otherwise subtle dishes. A few commonly used in French dishes include herbs de Provence, tarragon, and nutmeg.
Students at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts get plenty of practice cooking with fresh and local ingredients in the French style in our Farm To Table® Experience.
Another foundation of French cuisine is the dining experience, which requires careful presentation, elegance, and community when eating. A version of this could be seen all the way back in the Middle Ages in the banquets held by the aristocracy, but French cooking underwent many changes to end up where it is today.
With the rise of haute cuisine, meals became smaller and presentations became more detailed and elegant. Nouvelle cuisine placed even greater emphasis on precision in presentation. Today, many chefs in fine dining restaurants are as talented at presenting their food as they are at preparing it!
A sense of community can still be felt in many classic French restaurants, which sometimes utilize banquet-style seating to bring guests together.
Master the Art of French Cooking and More
To become a great chef, one must be equipped with skills and techniques from different cultures and regions. French cooking inspires many types of cuisine and forms the foundation of fine dining.
At Escoffier, we honor the countless contributions of Auguste Escoffier, often called the father of French cuisine. Learn culinary skills from some of the best Chef Instructors in-person or online with our culinary and pastry degrees and diplomas as you study the art of cooking.
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