The memoir of a young diplomat’s wife who must reinvent her dream of living in Paris—one dish at a time. So, not unlike another diplomatic wife, Julia Child, Ann must find a life for herself in a new city. She explores the history and taste of everything from boeuf Bourguignon to soupe au pistou to the crispiest of buckwheat crepes.
The memoir of a young diplomat’s wife who must reinvent her dream of living in Paris—one dish at a time
When journalist Ann Mah’s diplomat husband is given a three-year assignment in Paris, Ann is overjoyed. A lifelong foodie and Francophile, she immediately begins plotting gastronomic adventures à deux. Then her husband is called away to Iraq on a year-long post—alone. Suddenly, Ann’s vision of a romantic sojourn in the City of Light is turned upside down.
So, not unlike another diplomatic wife, Julia Child, Ann must find a life for herself in a new city. Journeying through Paris and the surrounding regions of France, Ann combats her loneliness by seeking out the perfect pain au chocolat and learning the way the andouillette sausage is really made. She explores the history and taste of everything from boeuf Bourguignon to soupe au pistou to the crispiest of buckwheat crepes. And somewhere between Paris and the south of France, she uncovers a few of life’s truths.
Like Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French and Julie Powell’s New York Times bestseller Julie and Julia, Mastering the Art of French Eating is interwoven with the lively characters Ann meets and the traditional recipes she samples. Both funny and intelligent, this is a story about love—of food, family, and France.
To help her better understand and connect to the food and the country that she loved Ann Mah traveled across France learning about regional dishes. The result is a charming and fascinating first hand account of life and cooking in France. Ann Mah recently talked to us about her travels, the food she cooked and joys and occasional struggles of living in Paris.
BAF: This is such a personal story. Can you talk a little bit about the writing process you went through?
Ann Mah: Well, as I mentioned in the book, I’m an introvert and I’m a pretty private person so to write about my emotions and feelings at the time really took … I had to screw up a bit of courage to put that down on the page.
BAF: When people hear you’re living in Paris they must think it’s a wonderful thing.
Ann Mah: The thing about living in Paris is that if you are there and you have your chatting with friends or acquaintances who are not there everything, every mundane thing in your life sounds wonderful. Whether it’s hour long waits at the prefecture to get your carte de séjour renewed or standing in line at the bakery. Which is wonderful yet can take a long time out of your day. A stopped toilet etc.
Everything that happens to you people are envious of. Even though these things are not that fun. Paris is a great town and I love it with all my heart but sort of being thrown into the city, navigating it by myself, not really knowing a single person and speaking French that had a long way to improve was a daunting experience at first.
There’s a lot of red tape in Paris, or in France in general. I think that’s probably the price you pay for all the wonderful parts about France but when you’re new there and when you haven’t mastered the subtle art of dealing with bureaucracies nor the subtle vocabulary or interacting with bureaucracies it can be very challenging.
BAF: How did you come to discover French food?
Ann Mah: I grew up in a Chinese-American family. I’m Chinese-American. I grew up eating Chinese food every day because my mother, who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, she craves rice. She doesn’t feel satisfied unless she’s having that every single day. My dad was born in California as well and he is and was the family cook and he is a very adventurous cook. He is always experimenting in the kitchen. When I was growing up he has his own sour dough starter. He has made vinegar. He’s a scientist by profession so he’s very enthusiastic and curious about doing it DIY in the kitchen before that really became a trend.
One of the things we used to do together was watch Julia Child on television. I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of television but cooking shows were considered okay. Educational. He and I would watch together. I really became fascinated by this whole other cuisine that I didn’t know anything about. We didn’t eat it on a daily basis. He had a dog eared copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and we cooked a few things together and that sort of is what sparked my interest in French cuisine. Then when I was 6 years old we took a family trip to England and France and I just fell in love with Paris as a tiny little girl. There was a cold snap in England that summer and Paris was having a heat wave. It was just like night and day.
BAF: Sort of their thing. I guess I was curious to know how did you decide what dishes to pursue in this book.
Ann Mah: Well the book uses Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a road map to travel through France. I wanted to pick the classics of French cuisine. The dishes that were classic though to an American audience. Everyone things of Bœuf Bourguignon when they think of Julie Child. When I think of Paris I think of steak frits. Such a typical meal to eat there.
I wanted to also include some dishes that were perhaps more rarely admired like andouillettes sausage which is a tripe sausage and I know I have a lot of friends who spared me the embarrassment of going to a restaurant and ordering it. Warning me against it and it smell. I knew I definitely wanted to explore such a decisive dish.
Then there’s one dish that was very very meaningful to me. Which is Aligot. It’s a potato puree beaten with melted cheese. It doesn’t really travel outside of it’s own region of Aveyron. That region is so special to me and my husband because of our café owning friends who have hosted us there and really been sort of our French family. I knew I had to include that as well.
BAF: Were there any surprises for you in a sense that you obviously knew France. Any new discoveries or what did you come away from that you didn’t expect?
Ann Mah: I think the thing that surprised me the most, really shouldn’t have, but it did was that any time I went to a region and asked where can you find the best Choucroute garnie for example or where can you find the best Bœuf Bourguignon? People always said, “Oh well I think my grandmothers is the best.” What surprised me was this loyalty to home cooking, to family cooking and to people who are still spending time, not every day, regularly, maybe once a month or once every couple months to cook these slow braised dishes that really are a lot of work.
BAF: You touched on this briefly, is this a tradition do you think that is dying out or is it still the cooking tradition or this labor intensive tradition still going on in France?
Ann Mah: I really think it’s still continuing. Not every day. I think French people especially in a big city like Paris aren’t as time crazed as the rest of us but definitely for that one special meal of the week as a weekend project for when the family gathers like the intended family gathers at the table. Definitely a slow cooked meal will be produced and it will be generally a dish from that persons region.
BAF: I was just going over the Alsace chapter. You touched on it a big way you talked about the language and certainly it was interesting how, was it the grandson didn’t speak (the Alsatian dialect) but he clearly loved the tradition of the Choucroute and how important it was to him.
Ann Mah: Yes. Absolutely. Those women in Alsace I had gathered with a group of 6 or 8 older women. All grandmothers. All widows actually. They invited me to their cooking club for the evening and prepared a traditional Choucroute garnie. Really talked about their lives grouping up in this village in Alsace. They kept switching into the Alsatian language and then when the grandson came home. He was a young man of about 18 or 20 … He had just been playing volleyball so he wasn’t to keen on a heavy meal but boy did it make them all happy when he tucked into a big plate of it and said how delicious it was. That was the taste of his childhood really.
BAF: How did you one meet up with all these great groups and interesting characters?
Ann Mah: I have to say it was not easy to find them. It took some work to gain their trust. I was very lucky. I think I was very very lucky. The group in Alsace I found through my husbands work. He had a colleague who was married to a man from Alsace. The group of ladies included his mother. That was just a very lucky stroke of luck.
When I cooked Soupe au pistou for the village fait this summer. Festival with a group of maybe 20 Provincial women. That was arranged through a friend who lived in the village where we had been renting a house for 6 years in a row. Other, for example, in Britney I met at least one older Breton women who invited me into her home to talk about her memories about making crepes and galettes and I met her through a cooking professor. I met the cooking professor through the owner of a creperie in Paris.
It was really just through being persistent and trying to find people who were from that region if I knew I was planning a trip there. Then once I was there in the region on the ground it was definitely through just continuing to ask do you have any friends who make casoulett for example. Do you think they would mind if I spoke to them? That type of thing. Just being enthusiastic and curious really took me a long way. Also it was through luck and luck that I spoke French.
The other that I wanted to add is that once you sort of express even a little bit of interest in … I’m talking about outside of Paris. Paris is considered among most French people Paris is considered a very cold place. Once you go into the country side and really express some interest in their traditions they’re really proud. Their pride shines through. They really want to introduce you to local history, to the best recipes. They want to talk about it.
BAF: Where does this unique connection with food that the French seem to have comes from?
Ann Mah: One of the things I love the most about France is the connection between place and food. For example, Cassoulet this connection between the beans that happened to be growing there and the ducks that happened to be thriving there. Then that evolving into this delicious dish and recipe. It’s really rooted in the terroior. In the area. Then how it takes shape there and is past down between generations but changes. Cassoulet has changed. Initially there were no beans in Europe. Beans are a New World plant. They originally used fava beans.
That has evolved into white beans and now Cassoulet can have all different kinds of meat aside from duck. I personally love a classic Cassoulet but I would be interested to see a modern spin on it too. The recipes are not static. They’re changing but I guess the form of them continues. I really love that.
I think France really has deep regional pride. For me the regions of France are so different and so distinct from each other. The cuisine of the regions is very different from each other. I don’t know. Maybe there’s more of sort of a continuation of the traditions.
BAF: So much has been written about France and its food. Was this a bit daunting to be sitting down with the idea of writing another book about France and its food?
Ann Mah: Absolutely. There’s such a tradition of books, travel books about France, French food, French cuisine, about traveling in France but for me I had a very clear idea of the kind of book I wanted to read. Which was a book that really explored these classic dishes from a modern perspective. How their existing in today’s world but also really integrate. I wanted to real something about someone, a foreigner, interacting with people. With locals. Finding out the true story. I was very curious about discovering the true history and true current story of these dishes.
BAF: Can I ask you a little bit about Julia Child and your connection with her?
Ann Mah: I have a deep admiration for Julia Child because of her work. Her cook books which are detailed and extraordinary but also because she was also a trailing spouse. A diplomats wife and she was able to carve out a career for herself despite her paraparetic lifestyple. I admire the partnership she had with her husband, Paul, and really for me though when you move every 3 or 4 years it can be challenging to start all over again with friends but also with work.
I really enjoy what I do but with every new city it’s learning a whole new thing. A whole new culture all over again. Julia child was really able to use her experiences and embellish upon them and create an enriching life for herself. Not just family but work. She, to me, really achieved a wonderful balance between to two. I admire her very very deeply. Mostly for that reason.
BAF: Okay. I’m sure. My final question is always what’s next?
Ann Mah: I try to get back about 4 times a year to do research. I’m currently working on a novel about wine. It’s a wine mystery. That as Mastering the Art of French Eating involved a lot of traveling around France and eating. This involves a lot of drinking wine. The research is very arduous!
In fact, just started taking a wine class with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust to really try to understand wine better and to understand the work of a Sommelier and pairings of wine and food. I’m excited. The research is fun and detailed.
© 2014 Booksaboutfood.com
“Mastering the Art of French Eating makes you want to be in Paris as [Mah] describes the delight of crusty baguettes spread with butter and jam, surprise glimpses of Notre Dame caught from the bus, nursing a glass of red wine in a cafe that has mirrored columns and a zinc bar. . . . the book has appealing honesty and vulnerability, overlaid as it is with the pain of her husband’s absence. It will also make you very hungry.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Mah admirably fits her research into easily digested bites, the reader’s enthusiasm mirroring her own.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A well-written entrée into French dining.”
—The Daily Beast
“Consistently passionate and emotionally resonant, Mah’s prose brims with true love . . . A bighearted, multisensory tour of France.”
“The author’s investigations into the importance of each dish to the people she meets are beautifully woven together with her reflections on culture, identity, love, and marriage, resulting in an enjoyable and thoughtful read that sparkles with humor. . . . This honest, funny, and eloquent memoir is sure to delight lovers of France, food, or travel.”
“The real joy of this book . . . is in Mah’s mouthwatering, bite-by-bite descriptions of the plates set before her in Parisian cafés, country homes, and hole-in-the-wall foodie hideaways. Francophiles will delight in the smattering of French words and phrases sprinkled throughout every page, and serious cooks may endeavor to follow the lengthy recipes for a signature regional dish included at the end of each chapter.”
“Whether you’re French or Francophile, a long-time connoisseur of French food or someone who’s just figuring out the difference between frites and frangipane, feasting through France with Ann Mah is a delicious adventure. Ann’s writing is lovely, her curiosity boundless and her good taste assured. Spending time with her in Mastering the Art of French Eating is a treat.”
—Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table and owner of Beurre & Sel Cookies
“Ann Mah dishes up a welcoming concoction, a good dose of French history, a personal, vibrant, enthusiastic picture of life in a country she adores, without apology. I am hungry already!”
—Patricia Wells, author of The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris and Simply Truffles
“Excellent ingredients, carefully prepared and very elegantly served. A really tasty book.”
—Peter Mayle, author of The Marseille Caper and A Year in Provence
“Ann Mah writes inspiringly about basic French dishes we thought we knew all about. She joins Elizabeth David in being a joy and an instruction to read.”
—Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce
“A tour de force through French cuisine, Ann Mah crisscrossed France, learning about all my favorite foods—from buckwheat galettes to the secrets of authentic cassoulet. Her personal culinary tale will have you packing your bags. But if you can’t make it to France, Ann offers delicious recipes, culled from experts!”
—David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris and My Paris Kitchen
“Ann Mah goes straight to the essential in this lively, mouth-watering book as she explores the foundations of French cuisine. She even goes where all before her have failed to tread—the wild country of andouillette—to tempt with her stories and her approachable recipes. Bravo!”
—Susan Herrmann Loomis, author of On Rue Tatin
“Like a bowl of homemade cassoulet, this book is warm to the touch. Ann Mah writes about her international experiences—and origins—with great sensitivity. She gives us a peek into French kitchens foodies will envy, and no Francophile could resist.”
—Elizabeth Bard, author of Lunch in Paris
“From the peaks of the French Alps to Brittany’s buckwheat fields, Lyon’s bouchons to Burgundy’s wineries, Ann takes us all over France in pursuit of its culinary traditions. But at the heart of her story is Paris—and all the love, wistfulness and deliciousness found there.”
—Amy Thomas, author of Paris, My Sweet
Bavette aux Echalotes
(Skirt Steak with Shallots)
This is my interpretation of a set ofloose instructions given to me by William Bernet. At his restaurant, Le Severo, most of the meat arrives at your table sauce-free. The bavette aux echalotes (skirt steak with shallots) is one of the few exceptions. Like many classic bistro dishes, this one relies on the quality of its ingredients. Bernet would encourage you to use aged meat.
For the steak:
1 skirt steak, 9 to 10 ounces, patted dry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon mild-tasting oil such as sunflower or grape seed
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1Yz tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 cup chicken or beef stock or water
Preparing the steak
Trim the steak of excess fat and season with salt and pepper. Place the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Test the heat of the pan by touching a wooden spoon to the oil-if the oil is hot, it will lightly sizzle. Place the steak in the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, until the underside is well seared and browned. Turn the steak and cook the second side for 40 to 50 seconds, or until medium rare. (Skirt steak is a thin cut, and the meat cooks very quickly.) Transfer to a plate, cover loosely with a tent of foil, and keep warm while you make the sauce.
Making the sauce
In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter with the meat drippings. Add the shallots and saute over medium heat until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the red wine vinegar, thyme, and stock (or water), and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover and cook until the shallots have softened and the liquid has almost disappeared. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter and add any juices re leased from the meat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding a few drops of vinegar if needed.
Slice the steaks against the grain into thin strips. Serve with the shallots spooned on top, accompanied by mashed potatoes or steamed green beans.
From Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Ann Mah, 2014.
Paris / SteakFrites
I’m not a voracious carnivore, but there’s something about being in Paris that makes me want to sink my teeth into a bloody piece of beef. Perhaps it’s the French paradox, the seductive theory that a diet rich in cheese, meat, and red wine actually lowers cholesterol. Perhaps it’s watching all those sexy French women purse their lipsticked mouths while slicing through a juicy chop.
Steak frites is a relatively easy thing to order if, like me, you’re still struggling to master those nasal French vowels. The words fly off the tongue, without any hidden surprises-unlike, say, asking the waiter about preservatives only to find out you’ve interrogated him on condoms. But, as I found out during one of my first meals in a classic Paris bistro, ordering a steak leads to more questions.
«Que! cuisson desiret-Yous?” said the waiter in an offhand way, like asking my date of birth or my hair color. He wore round glasses, a white shirt with a black bow tie, and a long black apron that reached past his knees. It was difficult to discern who was older: him or the desiccated leg of ham hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room.
Thus far I had tricked the waiter into thinking I spoke French, but now, I realized, the jig was up. Medium, I thought, and tried a quick, desperate translation. “Uh … moyen?”
A look of weary disappointment crossed his face. But he’d been around enough American tourists to know what I meant. ”Apoint,” he corrected me.
Later I would memorize all my steak vocabulary-the hot sear and chilled interior of bleu, the rosy glow of apoint, the tough brown gnaw of bien cuit. I ould learn how to enjoy a steak the French way-saignanr-with a magenta center and juices that ran red. But at that moment I just repeated the words after him and washed them down with a gulp of wine.
I’ve wanted to live in Paris since I was six, when my family and I took a summer vacation to Europe. We went to London first, gray and proper, where we spent a week shivering into our teacups, even though it was mid-July, and I stared in terrified fascination at the Mohawked punks in Piccadilly Circus. Then we arrived in Paris, which was ablaze in a high-summer heat wave. It seemed alive, Paris, alive with warmth, and days that never ended, and beautiful people on the streets wearing beautiful clothes and speaking a beau tiful, strange language. Every aspect of the city assailed my senses: the grand buildings in pale limestone, the parks teeming with half naked sunbathers, the taste of baguette dipped in chocolat chaud, the seesawing sound of the sirens, the imprint of wicker cafe chairs against my sticky thighs, the Coca-Cola poured from chilled glass bottles that turned tepid without ice cubes, the smell of fresh crois sants and ripe cheese and human sweat. It was all so new and differ ent from the only place I really knew, our home in the sterile suburbs of Southern California. I didn’t like everything, but it all gripped me, holding me in an embrace that I would come to know was Fran cophilia.
The trip has gone down in Mah family lore as the nadir (or ze nith, depending on who you’re talking to) of my brother’s rebellious teenage years. He spent a lot of time plugged into his Walkman while my parents coped by drinking red wine. As our voyage continued, they-my parents and brother-seemed to grow more and more matted and worn, more impatient to return home to their own routines and clothes and space. In contrast, I became more energetic as the days passed.
“I want to learn French,” I proclaimed. It felt like my destiny. After all, hadn’t my parents given me a French name, Ann Marie? They responded with wan enthusiasm, dampened even further by the sticky oppression of our hotel room. We’d had a long week of sightseeing, my parents juggling the manic highs of their nursery rhyme-chanting young daughter with the manic lows of their ado lescent son. My mother considered French impractical, a pastel bonbon of a language, the linguistic equivalent of empty calories, unlike her native tongue, the useful, fibrous Mandarin Chinese. If you have any experience at all with Chinese mothers, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I ended up studying Mandarin.
By the time I made another trip to Paris, twenty-two years had passed. The second visit was with my husband, Calvin, who had lived there for a few years during and after college. He showed me two sides of the city-his old haunts in Belleville, a scruffy neigh borhood in the twentieth arrondissement, contrasted by the sweep ing grandeur ofHaussmann’s boulevards. Unlike so many childhood memories revisited, Paris didn’t disappoint. The city was on its best behavior during that vacation, all bright, clear June skies, a profu sion of flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens, and unusually patient waiters who refrained from speaking English when I tried to order in French. They say you’re supposed to be in love in Paris, and I was, headily-with my husband, with the beautiful city, with the slim flutes of Champagne we drank while gazing at the rushing fountain on place Saint-Sulpice.
Is Paris addictive? Maybe. After that trip I abandoned all other holiday dreams. Every penny saved, every vacation week earned, was earmarked for France. We visited in the winter to shiver under covered skies that never brightened; we went in the summer to bask in the sizzle of light that stretched until eleven o’clock at night. And each time I left, I craved more. More crusty baguettes split length wise and spread with butter and jam. More wrought-iron balconies adorned with window-box geraniums. More Art Nouveau metro stations, more walks along the Seine, more surprise glimpses of Notre Dame caught from the bus.
When I wasn’t in Paris, I sometimes dreamed of living there, of making a home in one of the ornate stone buildings that give the city such elegant propriety. What would it be like, I wondered, to be come part of a neighborhood, to be greeted at the cafe with a hand shake, to have the woman at the boulangerie prepare my baguette without asking, to commute home by crossing the Seine? I wanted to know bus routes, to have secret shortcuts, to greet neighbors with a murmured “Bonjour.” Most of all I wanted to watch the seasons change in the market, to consume and contribute to my own small patch of French terroir, to participate-if only for a short window of time-in the small, prosaic, unbroken traditions of French cuisine.
I wanted to buy a galette des rois on Epiphany and chocolate bells on Easter and foie gras at Christmas. I wanted those traditions to be mine, however temporarily, even though I knew that was a dream both impractical and abstract. We had American passports, not Eu ropean ones. How could we navigate France’s notoriously Sisy phean bureaucracy? How would we support ourselves without working papers? How on earth would we ever convince one of its wooden-faced civil servants to allow us to stay?
There was one possibility but I didn’t believe it would ever happen. Calvin’s career as a diplomat meant we moved often between overseas assignments-he’d already served in Turkmenistan, New York, Bei jing, and D.C. Why not Paris? And yet it seemed far-fetched to hope for such a plum assignment, even though Calvin spoke fluent French and followed French politics as avidly as he did the National League baseball standings. The American embassy in Paris was one of the most desired posts in the world, often considered a reward after hard ship tours in places like Africa or Haiti, or unaccompanied stints in war zones. But now the unbelievable had happened.
We were in rural Pennsylvania, on our way to visit Calvin’s grandparents in State College, when we stopped for gas at a rest stop, Calvin checked his e-mail, and we discovered the good news. Later, in our motel room, I didn’t sleep the whole night, my mind dancing with images of picnic lunches in the Luxembourg Gardens, and casual glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, and late-night ice cream cones licked while crossing the Seine. It seemed impossible to believe too good to be true-that we would live in Paris, together, each with our own work that we loved. The frustration I’d felt over the challenges of trailing-spousehood-lack of a steady job, lack of a steady home, distance from friends and family, loss of independence and identity-melted away with the promise of three years in Paris. Some lucky confluence of fate and aligning stars had brought us to the City of Light. Or, for me, the City of Dreams.
Before I moved to Paris, back when I was an American who fantasized about living there, I had an image of the perfect cafe. It had mirrored columns and a zinc bar, rattan chairs and sidewalk tables where I would nurse a glass of red wine while watching the world pass by. Grumpy waiters would serve up succulent steaks, charred on the outside, rosy within, tender enough for a knife to slip through, paired with a pile of crisp frites to mop up all the
Once I got to Paris, I found out that plenty of cafes fulfilled different parts of my fantasy-some had historic charm oozing out of the coffee machine, others were modern with square plates and a list of overly sweet cocktails, still others had sun-drenched trerrasses where I could indulge in a citron presse on a summer afternoon. The cafe nearest to our apartment had rattan chairs and sidewalk tables; its owner, Amar, came from Tunisia, and I loved his couscous. But despite their differences, there were a few elements that tied all these cafes together: the coffee, the wine, and the steak.
The more meals I ate in Paris, the more I wanted to know: What makes the perfect steak frites? And how did it become the town’s favorite plat du jour?
The meal’s basic ingredients-beef, potatoes-don’t point back to Paris. Cattle are not traditionally raised in the surrounding area, and frites-or French fries-come, arguably, from Belgium. Per haps its popularity lies in the dearth of options on a typical cafe menu, so few choices that most French people know what they’re going to order before they even sit down. Or perhaps-as William Bernet, a former butcher and owner of the lauded Paris steak bistro Le Severo, told me-it’s because of the rush of city life. “A piece of seasoned meat, it cooks in an instant-and it’s fast to eat,” he said.
Steak was brought to France by occupying English forces, sometime after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Even the word comes from the other side of the Channel, derived from the Old Norse sreikjo, which means “to roast.” In fifteenth-century England, cooks dished up their meat sizzling, sprinkled with cinnamon, but by the time of Napoleon’s defeat it was eaten plain, without sauce. As is true today, steaks were originally cut from the sirloin, rump, or fillet-that is, the animal’s loin-though modern butchering techniques vary among countries and cultures. Talk to any butcher and he’ll convince you that his method produces the best, most bountiful and tender pieces of meat.
Steak is a relatively easy thing to prepare-season it, slap it into a hot pan, don’t overcook-but while talking to meat aficionados, I quickly learned about the skill and patience required for a superior version of the dish. When I arrived in Paris, a food-loving American friend sent me to the southern edge of the city to the fourteenth arrondissement, to visit William Bernet at Le Severo. Who better could explain the intricacies of a hunk of beef and a few fried potatoes?
Bernet is a thickset man with the observant eyes of an experienced waiter and professorial-style glasses that slide down his nose. He grew up in the Vosges, in northeastern France, where he trained as a butcher, eventually moving to Paris and working, among other places, at the famed Boucheries Nivernaises. In 2005 he opened Le Severo, a shoe box of a restaurant with a handful of dark wooden tables, a series of scrawled chalkboard menus covering the room’s longest wall, and a short zinc bar overlooking a kitchen big enough for one. Bernet fulfilled front-of-the-house duties-taking orders, delivering food, and recommending wine from the two hundred bottles on offer-while the cook presided over this tiny kitchen. I heard the fresh sizzle of meat hitting a hot saucepan, the crack and bubble of freshly cut Bintje potatoes twice bathed in hot oil, first an initial dip of 140°F and then a second one at 350°F.
Steak’s true magic, Bernet explained, happens before the meat ever hits the heat-it’s found in the aging process. He hangs whole cuts of well-marbled beef in a dry, chilled space for weeks, some times months, a process that concentrates the meat’s flavor and breaks down its connective tissues, resulting in richly beefy, butter tender fillets. In French, dry-aged meat is called rassis, a term that can also refer to stale bread or to a stick-in-the-mud.
Aside from a few first-course salads; side dishes of green beans, fries, or potato puree; and classic desserts like creme brulee, I spot ted only meat on the menu: beef or veal, served plain, without sauce. That’s it. “If you write about my restaurant,” Bernet said to me with a pleading note in his voice, “please say that I would prefer it if vegetarians came here as little as possible. I just don’t have anything to offer them.”
One flight down from the dining room was Bernet’s lair, a tiny, brightly lit basement workshop where he butchered sides of beef into individual portions like the bavette (skirt steak), faux-filet (strip steak), or entrecote (rib eye). In a corner of the room was a walk-in refrigerator, cooled to 35°F, where he hung his oversize cuts to dry and age. Inside, the racks of meat gleamed dully, like unpolished jewels, ruby red against a startlingly white layer of fat. Bernet held up two pieces of beef, one aged, one not. “Before it’s rassis it still smells like the slaughterhouse,” he said. I dutifully sniffed both pieces. They smelled exactly the same to me-a faint, raw, damp whiff of aging animal. Some of the older pieces of beef had developed a dark, furry mold on their surface, a crust that Bernet would trim off when portioning the meat for service. (When I asked if I could take a photo of the meat locker, he gave me a horrified look. “I would never allow a picture of this to be published!” he said. “It’s too unappetizing-no one would ever come to eat in my restaurant again.”)
Today, under the constraints of time and profit, the practice of aging beef in France is disappearing. A well-aged slice of beef has lost at least 30 percent of its original volume in evaporation a considerable amount if your product is sold by weight. It’s next to impossible to find a Parisian butcher or steak bistro offering boeuf rassis, Bernet told me. He checked the refrigerator’s meat, rewrapping some pieces in muslin, turning others, handling them as if he were an artist and these hunks of flesh his oeuvres. He showed me a cote de boeuf, a prized cut that sells in the restaurant for eighty euros for two people, turning it from one side to the other. “It takes at least thirty days-minimum-to age a cote de boeuf properly,” he said. “If only I could double that. Sixty days … now, that would be exceptional,” he added dreamily. I ate steak the very first week we moved to Paris, before we even had a chance to unpack a box of kitchenware. Calvin and I hopped on the metro and headed across town to the twentieth arrondissement, to the cafe that he thinks of as his own-as a loyal customer, a friend, and a former neighbor. Le Mistral was the place he used to frequent when he was studying in Paris. We’d come for the steak and red wine, of course, but we’d also come to see our friend Alain, who, along with his brother Didier, owns Le Mistral.
Twenty years ago, when Calvin was an exchange student living in Belleville, he’d wandered into the cafe, armed only with basic French. He met one of the brothers, serving behind the counter, and, after a few days of morning coffee and evening beer the three became friends. Didier and Alain helped Calvin find a job and an apartment. They invited him on visits to Aveyron, their region of France. They offered him hot meals in exchange for writing out the daily specials on the chalkboard menu. And their daily conversations-on politics, history, and the Doobie Brothers-left Calvin speaking fluent, almost unaccented French. Despite the constraints of time and distance, the three never lost touch.
They owed their friendship partly to Le Mistral itself, a neighborhood institution opened by Didier and Alain’s father in 1954. It sits on the corner outside metro Pyrenees, a grande dame of the neighborhood with a welcoming golden glow. Inside, there’s the smell-a mix of fresh coffee and toasting cheese, a hint of damp from the cellar below-and the noise-the bustle of voices, the call of the servers ordering un caft allonge or un quart de Yin rouge. There are round columns covered in tiny rectangles of mirrored tile, red pleather banquettes, wall sconces emitting warm light, checkered paper place mats, blackboard menus propped up on chairs, the requisite zinc bar.
On that late-summer evening, we stood at the counter drinking red wine produced by the brothers at a cooperative in Aveyron and chatted with Alain as he constructed elaborate salads. The twenti eth, with its shop signs in a mix of Arabic, Vietnamese, and Chinese, felt very different from the hushed polish of the Left Bank, not a gleaming tourist attraction but a quarrier populaire, a working-class neighborhood. Next to us two young men stirred sugar into their coffee while chatting in a combination of Arabic and French. Across the bar an older man sipped a magenta-colored drink from a long, cool glass. “C’est un monaco,” said Alain, following my gaze-beer with a splash of grenadine syrup, he explained. A woman with white hair and a dark green waxed raincoat, whom Calvin recognized from 1988, moved a lone stool to a secluded corner of the bar to sip a demi of beer and read the newspaper.
The last time I’d seen Alain, three years earlier, my French had been limited to a vocabulary of about ten words. But I had just finished a French-immersion program at Middlebury College in Vermont-seven weeks of grammar exercises, drama classes, poetry recitals, and essays on the Nouvelle Vague. I had lived in a dorm with college freshmen fifteen years my junior, written letters to a fictional pen pal named Innocence, and memorized lines for a play that would be forever embedded in my subconscious. It had been an experience worthy of a book itself, one that had quite liter ally turned my hair white, and aside from the shared bathrooms and cafeteria grub, I’d loved every second.
During my Chinese American childhood, studying French had been discouraged. My mother had never shaken her terror and dislike for her cruel, half-French stepmother, and as a result she had dissuaded me from learning French; though she didn’t exactly declare the language verboten, she definitely disapproved of it. “Why would you want to learn French?” she asked me when I started high school. “No one speaks French.” And so I took Spanish, and in college I switched to the language she considered truly useful, Mandarin. At age twenty I spent a summer on that same verdant Vermont campus in a nine-week Chinese-immersion program, gazing jealously at the French students as they smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while I stuffed another five hundred Chinese characters into my brain.
My mother, I’m forced at gunpoint to admit, was right about studying Chinese. When I moved to Beijing with my husband al most ten years after that summer of Mandarin immersion, my rusty language skills proved very useful indeed. But she had underestimated the most important factor in language study:love. I respected Chinese, but I didn’t love it. I loved French, and it fueled me to memorize extra vocabulary, to read Georges Simenon novels before bed, to practice phonetics exercises over and over again. It had been a dream come true to immerse myself in the language of diplomacy, of romance and poetry. Now I was eager to show off my progress.
«Tout le monde Ya bien? Christine? Les enfonts? Didier?” I asked, exchanging cheek kisses with Alain.
«Ya,a Ya. Toutle monde Ya bien, ouais.” He tore up some redleaf lettuce and scattered a handful of canned corn on top.
The conversation continued as I described our new apartment, the weekend we’d spent on a dairy farm in northern Vermont, and asked about his kids’ favorite subjects at school. Alain chatted away without even a flicker of acknowledgment at my improved language skills. I started to wonder if he’d even noticed that I was speaking French.
Finally Calvin, who had been watching me struggle to contain my frustration, broke in. “Hasn’t Ann’s French improved?”
Alain grinned, a smile that spread across his wide features. “C’est pas mal!”
Pas mal? Not bad? At the time I didn’t know that those luke warm words were actually a great compliment for the French, who seem reluctant ever to express too much enthusiasm.
“Tu as Yraiment fait des progres!” Alain added kindly, perhaps sensing my disappointment.
“Oh, non … je fais des efforts, c’est tout.” I tried to be modest, but I couldn’t stop beaming from ear to ear. After so many years of longing to speak French, I could actually communicate! I was participating in a conversation with a real live French person! I felt like breaking into song.
Alain launched into a long anecdote about one of the cafe’s former clients … an American musician? a drummer? a member of the Doobie Brothers? who he ran into at the airport? I have to ad mit, I was lost from the first sentence. It was a feeling I remembered from living in Beijing, of trying to stay afloat in a foreign language, clutching desperately at familiar words as they drifted by, hoping they could save me from drowning. I’d managed to pick up quite a bit of French in a short period of time, helped along by many En glish cognates. But as I watched Calvin absorb every nuance of Alain’s story without a flicker of effort, I quietly despaired of achieving complete fluency. Would I ever be able to interview someone for an article, recount a story, or even tell a joke?
Eventually we made our way to the back of the cafe, past the teeny kitchen, really a small box just big enough for the lone chef, to a dining room converted from an old garage after Calvin’s student days. Murals adorned the walls, bucolic scenes of Aveyron. Though Didier and Alain were both born in Paris, they consider this isolated region in south-central France their pays, their native land.
Over fifty-five years ago, Didier and Alain’s father, Monsieur Alex, gathered his savings and moved from Aveyron to Paris to seek his fortune. Part entrepreneur, part charbonnier, or coal seller, he hoped to open a neighborhood cafe that would offer drinks and simple meals and also sell coal. Thus Le Mistral was born. Though the idea of a combination coal shop and cafe seems rather eccentric from a modern perspective, at the time it was quite common. In fact, there is even a French word-bougnar-that is defined as a coal seller-turned-cafe owner from Aveyron. Today many Parisian cafes honor this tradition with names like Le Petit Bougnat, L’Aveyronnais, or Le Charbon.
Cafes have existed in Paris since 1686, when an Italian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened Le Procope on the rue des Fosses Saint-Germain on the Left Bank. The self-proclaimed “old est cafe in the world” still stands in the same spot, though the street has been renamed rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. Inside, the scarlet dining room is lined with portraits of its former patrons, including French artists and revolutionaries like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Na poleon (whose three-cornered hat hangs in the entry). Today the sprawling cafe has become a tourist hub serving some dubious looking meals. But if you stop by in the hush of late afternoon, you can sit at a corner table, sip coffee, and imagine the debates launched within these red walls, the impassioned speeches, the laughter and rebellion.
Over the centuries, as the popularity of coffee waxed and waned, cafes evolved from informal social clubs to centers of political de bate to the smoke-filled lairs of artists, writers, and musicians. But the Parisian institutions we know today-with their tiny cups of coffee and balloon glasses of wine-weren’t firmly established until the nineteenth century, when the Aveyronnais began to migrate to Paris from their mountainous region.
Poverty brought them to the capital, and in the beginning, like most immigrants, they worked menial jobs, delivering hot water and hauling buckets of coal to private homes. This gave way to coal shops, warm places where regular customers could indulge in a glass of wine while placing an order for delivery, which eventually turned into cafes. By the end of the twentieth century, the region of Aveyron was synonymous with a Parisian cafe empire that at one point numbered over six thousand and included some of the most storied establishments in Paris history: Brasserie Lipp, La Coupole, Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore. At 320,000 strong, the Aveyron nais form the largest French community in Paris-greater even than the population of Aveyron itself. These days, despite improved roads and rail service, the region remains known as la France pro fonde, a remote and rough part of the country that still leans on Paris for survival.
“What’s the signature meal of Paris?” I asked Alain one evening. Calvin and I had joined him for dinner at a cafe in Mont martre, a cozy neighborhood place with yellow walls owned by a friend of Alain and Didier’s-yet another Aveyronnais-named Jean-Louis.
The sandwich, he said without hesitation. He called it le cassecrotlte, an old-fashioned term meaning “snack” or “fast lunch.” “My mother used to make piles of them for the cafe.”
Every morning Madame Odette would slice an armload of baguettes lengthwise and fill them with butter and ham, or sticky slices of Camembert, or pate and cornichons. She’d stack the sandwiches like logs in a woodpile and sell them throughout the day to ouYriers, workmen or factory hands, who formed the base of Le Mistral’s cli entele. “In the 1950s,” Alain said, “most cafes were pure limonade” they sold only beverages and lacked kitchens and, often, refrigerators. OuYriers transported meals from home in a gamelle, or lunch box, and cafes reheated the food over simple camp stoves. (These were also the days when every cup of coffee was accompanied by a shot of li quor, no matter the hour. Alain’s father once told him, “If someone asks for a coffee without the booze, that means the guy is sick.”)
“Do you still make a stack of sandwiches every morning at Le Mistral?” I asked.
“Oh, non.It’s rare to eat a sandwich at a cafe these days.”
Alain took a sip of wine. “There used to be a lot of factories in Paris, especially in our neighborhood, but they’re closed now,” he said. “Replaced by offices. And bureaucrats like a hot meal more than ouYriers. Customers kept asking for a plat du jour”-a hot lunch-”and cafes needed something quick to eat and easy to pre pare. Et Yoila, le sreakfrires est arriYel It’s in the same spirit as the sandwich.” He paused. “Except it’s hot.”
In the nineteenth arrondissement, in the northeast reaches of the city, sits a large swath of green: Le Pare de la Villette. I had come here in search of Paris’s carnivorous roots. For over a hundred years, from 1864 to 1970, La Villette was known as the “Cite du Sang,” the bloody center of the French wholesale-meat industry. In the 1980s an urban-renewal project turned the area into a postmod ern park, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi. But as I wandered through the verdant space, I tried to catch a whiff of its gruesome origins as a cattle market and abattoir. A pack of young boys passed me on their kick scooters racing toward a futuristic playground.
In its heyday La Villette was like another country, a sprawling complex with more than twelve thousand employees speaking a spe cial slang and operating under a complex secret code of warring families, fierce loyalties, honor, and alliances. Cattle farmers and merchants from all over France brought beasts here to be sold and slaughtered. CheYillards, wholesale butchers who killed the animals, bargained with retail shopkeepers who traveled there to stock their boutiques, transacting business over glasses of wine in the cafe or heavy, meaty lunches in neighborhood restaurants.
At the southern edge of the park, I found a relic of the era: a grande dame of Parisian steak bistros, Au Boeuf Couronne, which opened in 1865. Stepping through the restaurant’s revolving wooden doors, I tried to imagine the dining room as it was a century ago, when men wore hats and La Villette diners used to provide their own meat for the chef to cook. White tablecoths covered the tables, Art Deco light fixtures suffused the room with a golden glow, and old photographs lined the walls-a child with a steer, men clad in long black smocks-memories of La Villette washed clean and sweet. I watched black-and-white-clad waiters deliver steaks to din ers who leaned toward each other, speaking in hushed voices. Could this bustling bistro, which has specialized in beefy business lunches for almost 150 years, be the cradle of steak frites?
These days Au Boeuf Couronne is part of the restaurant group Gerard Joulie, a vast chain of bistros that is in fact owned by an Aveyronnais. But I found the menu old-fashioned, with things like marrow bones, different cuts of steak, frites, and the occasional piece of salmon. I ate my lunch while skimming the restaurant section of Le Figaroscope, occasionally setting down my fork to turn the newsprint pages. My knife sliced through my paYi-so named be cause it resembles a cobblestone-to release a pool of rosy juices. The fries were hand-cut, hot enough to sting my fingers, a glass of red wine was cheaper than bottled water, a pile of nondescript steamed green beans turned oddly addictive when dipped into the tarragon-scented bearnaise sauce. Ipursed my mouth and sawed at my steak, took a bite and chewed, put down my fork to circle an ad dress in a restaurant review. I felt almost Parisian.
About five years ago, Alain and Didier decided to take an early retirement. They left Le Mistral in the hands of a cousin and moved down to Aveyron. Though only in their forties, after more than twenty years behind the counter they were ready for a quiet life among the cows. Alain wanted to raise his kids, and Didier began a series of construction projects, renovating old farmhouses. They both bought a few hectares of vineyard and started cultivating grapes, joining a wine cooperative in the local village.
But back in Paris things weren’t going well. Business at the café had dropped off, who knew why? Maybe the cousin in charge was too much of an introvert. Maybe it was the new smoking ban, which outlawed cigarettes in cafes, restaurants, and offices. Whatever the case, something had to be done. Didier and Alain returned to Le Mistral, commuting between Paris and Aveyron, swapping shifts that each lasted a couple of weeks.
That first night at Le Mistral I watched Alain behind the counter, smiling, shaking hands, and greeting customers eager to welcome him back after his long absence. «oui, je suis reYenu!” Alain said as a mustached man pumped his arm up and down. He joked with a family as they settled their bill, poured another beer for the white-haired woman at the end of the counter, passing it to her along with a greeting from Didier: “He’s down in Aveyron, but he’ll be up in a couple of weeks.” Alain didn’t know everyone, but everyone seemed to recognize him. He was like a friend or an older brother, the unofficial mayor of the corner. And that’s when it hit me. Didier and Alain, they were fixtures of the community. Le Mistral had been in the neighborhood for over half a century, a family institution. People hadn’t stopped coming because the cousin was shy or because they couldn’t smoke at the bar. They’d missed the brothers.
Calvin and I slid into a booth, an intimate corner table where we could linger over our meal. The waiter brought us a picher of red wine, and we clinked glasses and grinned at each other. Calvin’s crooked smile made my heart skip a beat. When the food arrived, I cut straight into the center of my steak, revealing a juicy, dark pink interior, the meat tasting of salt and brawn, of the grassy Aveyronnais plain. In an oval side dish sat an oversize pile of frites, glistening a little from the fryer. They weren’t hand-cut, and they had almost certainly been frozen-Le Mistral has no pretensions of a four-star kitchen-but I relished the mix of crispy and salty, the crunch that gave way to a tender, mealy center. As Calvin and I ate and chatted, I could see my reflection in the mirror behind him: flushed cheeks, bright eyes, a smile that wouldn’t leave my lips. I was intoxicated, and my drug was Paris.
Alain pulled up a wooden chair and joined us at our table as we finished our meal. Calvin poured him a glass of wine, and the two of them settled in to talk about the old days-the trip they took to Aveyron when it rained every day for two weeks, the unforgettable bottle of 1947 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that Alain’s parents had poured at lunch one summer afternoon, the time Didier took a road trip to Holland and lost his parked car in a maze of city streets. They talked about Monsieur Alex, who had passed away a few years ago, new nieces recently born, old friends from the cafe.
After five years of marriage, I thought I’d met most of my hus band’s friends. But listening to Calvin and Alain chat, I was struck by the depth of this new cast of characters, all with poetic French names like Gilbert, Marie-Helene, Michel, Agnes. For me France was new territory-albeit one that operated under an Old World code of politesse-and I still struggled to remember if a greeting should consist of two or three cheek kisses, or whether I needed to maintain eye contact while raising a toast. My husband, I realized now, already understood France with a fluency that went beyond language. At least I could rely on him for translation.
After dinner we stepped out of the cafe and paused at an intersection to peer around the corner of a building. “Look down there.” Calvin pointed, and I gasped. From the top of Belleville, the city descended before us, the buildings receding in size. Far in the dis tance, I spied the Eiffel Tower, as small as a toy and twinkling madly. We flattened ourselves against the side of a building, away from the other pedestrians on rue de Belleville, and watched as the tower sparkled against the orange glow of the city lights.
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” Oscar Wilde once said. I’d managed to get there a little earlier, and I still couldn’t quite believe my luck. The future felt as glittery as the Eiffel Tower, brilliant with anticipation. Calvin’s hand reached out to touch my arm. “Are you ready to go?” he asked, and I nodded.
Later I would realize the difference between us. Calvin had, in a way, come home. But I was on the brink of an exciting new adventure.
From Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Ann Mah, 2014.