A sip of bright Beaujolais, the irresistible aroma of mirepoix bubbling in butter, the delicate crack of your spoon breaking a burnt sugar brulée crust… the French have a knack for making us fall in love with food.
French cuisine is often treated like an elixir, mysterious and complex, and impossible to replicate without years of scrupulous training. But home cooks fear not! This month we spoke with four local Alberta chefs who let us in on some secrets behind the fine food of the French.
Dominique Moussu, managing partner and executive chef of Suzette Bistro in Calgary, hails from the Brittany region of northwest France. Incidentally, Brittany is probably one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and it’s no surprise the food from there is pretty good too.
“The food at Suzette is a tradition, not a concept,” Moussu says. “We do food that is really Brittany. Savoury galettes with cheese, egg, mushroom and spinach, crêpe bretonne, and a lot of seafood. For me, moules a la crème is to die for.”While Moussu’s carefully crafted techniques, honed over years at culinary school in France, may be difficult to replicate, he says there is one trick that will immediately elevate whatever French dish you’re trying to cook: add butter.
And if you’re asking yourself, “Is that too much butter?” the answer is no. You could probably add a little more.
“We put butter on everything,” he says with a laugh. “Butter is very important in Brittany!”
Try making Moussu’s favourite spring dish to cook at home, creamy egg and mushroom salad!
The most devoted of chefs may argue that classic French recipes should never be tampered with, but others — like chef de cuisine Bryan Cruz at The Marc in Edmonton — encourages adding a bit of flair to French food.
“The style of cuisine at The Marc is traditional with a modern touch to it,” he explains. “Chefs are trying to modernize what a bistro is in Paris, and I want to bring that kind of philosophy to the restaurant.”
Osso buco, beef bourguignon, and escargot infused with bone marrow and horseradish, are just a few examples of Cruz’s contemporary takes on French cuisine. Especially for the at-home chef or someone just starting out, Cruz encourages experimentation to take a bit of the pressure off. You can’t expect to produce a perfectly crisped confit or flawlessly flambéed crêpes Suzette the first time!
“The first thing I would say is, don’t overthink things. It can’t be perfect all the time,” Cruz says. “A lot of times it’s just trial and error, and if you’re cooking at home, nobody is going to judge you on whether you’ve made something really authentic. All that matters is that it tastes good.”
Speaking of tasting good, try Cruz’s recipe for moules marinières, aka sailor-style mussels!
Nestled in the French quarter of Edmonton is Café Bicyclette, a cozy café serving up both authentic French and Quebecois-style dishes. Chef John Lau specializes in simple, yet exceptional ingredients, which he says are the key to some of his favourite French dishes.
“I love cassoulet. It’s a low-cost, delicious dish that can be either a vegetarian or a protein dish,” Lau says. “Salade Niçoise is another well-balanced dish with protein, vegetables and starch, but it’s not too heavy.”
And when you think about ingredients, French food suddenly isn’t so different from Italian, Mediterranean, or
even Japanese cuisine; using quality ingredients will result in a quality meal.
For the home cook, Lau says being able to maximize on simple, yet high-quality ingredients (many of which you can
still find at low cost) will give you more room to experiment and result in a truly delicious dish.
“Always keep the word ‘play’ in your mind to enjoy cooking,” he says. “Cook with a variety of ingredients, and try different methods to prepare a dish. Use the ingredients you believe in to build up a new idea!”
Start with one of the originals, and try Lau’s traditional take on Cassoulet.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of eating at Cassis Bistro in Calgary, go… right now. Focused on authentic fare from the south of France, chef de cuisine Callum Walklin says Cassis’ menu is all about traditional French food.
Walklin says the bistro is so committed to tradition they’ve even made gratin using a recipe from the legendary French chef Escoffier from 100 years ago!
Pulling off an authentic French dish may seem daunting or even impossible, but Walklin also has some butter-related advice to allay your fears.
“The biggest difference is the amount of butter we use compared to at home,” he jokes. “But keep in mind, it’s supposed to be really rich cuisine. Don’t be afraid of French cuisine, there’s lots of great recipes out there. Just remember to use a lot of salt, butter, cream and garlic!”
Try Walklin’s savoury pissaladière, a traditional French open tart.