Last week, the television station France 2 aired a terrific program about the state of French cuisine. I was briefly invited to appear on the show, but then the invitation was rescinded. They never explained what the issue was; I suspect it was budget-related, as they were going to have to bring me to Paris to do the interview. I was disappointed, of course, but also a little relieved; the thought of being interviewed on French television en francais scared the crap out of me. Despite my non-participation, the book made a cameo appearance in the documentary, which was great (although they mistakenly identified me as a food critic for The New York Times—sorry, Sam Sifton!). Even better, the program included an excellent interview with my friend Steve Kaplan, a Cornell University historian and bread maven, and a wonderful segment about Michel Troisgros, the chef-owner of the Michelin three-star Maison Troisgros.
While I’m generally very happy with how my book turned out, there are a few things that I wish I’d done in retrospect, and the mistake that gnaws at me the most is that I didn’t give more space to Maison Troisgros, which is located in the city of Roanne, not far from Lyon. What makes the mistake even more egregious is that I interviewed Michel and his father, Pierre, in the course of my research. They were kind enough to meet with me on a Saturday morning, just before lunch service, and we spent several hours talking about French cuisine past, present, and future. I came away with some fantastic material (at one point, Pierre was noting how much better restaurant hygiene had become; by way of illustration, he told us that back in the day, they used to spit in the pan to see if it was sufficiently hot, an anecdote that had Michel doubled over in laughter). Stupidly, I didn’t use most of that material; in hindsight, I should have found a way to devote a couple of pages in the book to Maison Troisgros, because it represents something important in French gastronomy.
The restaurant was started by Michel’s grandparents in 1930. Pierre and his late brother Jean, who both trained under Fernand Point (along with Paul Bocuse), took over in the 1950s. Maison Troisgros was awarded a third star in 1968, and it became one of the loci of the nouvelle cuisine movement. It was during this period that Pierre and Jean conceived their most famous dish, salmon in sorrel cream sauce. Michel joined the family business in 1983, and that same progressive spirit has guided his efforts in the kitchen. His cooking is modern, creative, and draws on a wide range of influences (a worldliness that surely owes something to the fact that his mother was a foreigner—she was Italian). At the same time, it remains firmly anchored in the French tradition. Striking a balance between continuity and innovation is one of the biggest challenges facing French cuisine. Maison Troisgros has struck that balance: it is an historic restaurant, yet it remains as dynamic and vital as it was when it first earned that third star 43 years ago. In this way, it really is a beacon of hope.
In addition to remarkable food, Maison Troisgros has always been renowned for the quality of its wine list. Pierre and Jean were both formidable tasters and their cellar was loaded with treasures, particularly from Burgundy. (It is also worth noting that the brothers were instrumental in launching the importing career of Becky Wasserman; in the early 1980s, they made her the U.S. agent for their own line of wines, which gave her the street cred she needed to attract other clients). Michel has the same passion for wine, which sets him apart from many of his peers; one of the sad little secrets of three-star dining in France these days is that many of the chefs have very little interest in or knowledge of wine. After interviewing Michel and Pierre, I had lunch at the restaurant and plundered the cellar to the extent that my bank account would permit, which wasn’t very much but was enough to allow me to drink quite nicely all the same: I had a bottle of the 94 Raveneau Chablis Clos, followed by a half-bottle of the 99 Michel Lafarge Volnay Clos des Chênes. It was a memorable meal (especially the house classic, the aforementioned salmon, which was incredible with the Raveneau) at one of the few three-stars that truly merits a special journey, to use the Michelin catchphrase.
The France 2 documentary is worth a look, especially the Troisgros segment. It is in French, but even if you don’t understand a word of it, the footage of Maison Troisgros is wonderful (click the link to “Cuisine: une passion francaise”).