Paris, once regarded as the gastronomical center of the world, is looking to a cadre of young chefs from a country derided for its love of processed cheese — gasp, the United States — to help raise the bar.
French chefs have been opening fine restaurants stateside for years, but up until about a decade ago, the opposite would have been almost unthinkable. Now, bright young things from New York, Chicago and Seattle are behind some of the City of Light's most-hyped, hardest-to-get-into establishments.
Chefs such as Spring's Daniel Rose, or Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian, the pair behind the Hidden Kitchen and the new Verjus, are bringing a fresh energy to Paris' somewhat rigid fine dining scene and infusing it with American eclecticism.
"Food in France has taken a lot of hits over the years ... and they were pretty slow to acknowledge that it was going downhill," said pastry chef-turned-writer David Lebovitz, one of a handful of American food bloggers who cover the Paris food scene.
"I think we're now on the cusp of a real renaissance here" — thanks in part, he said, to this nouvelle crop of American-born or trained restaurateurs.
It used to be that French-American culinary exchanges followed the model established by Julia Child in the era when: Americans came to France to study and then went home to impart their wisdom, or simply to cook. Child attended Paris' renowned Cordon Bleu culinary school in the 1940s, then returned to the U.S. to educate her compatriots on the art of French cuisine.
The new generation of American chefs here has dispensed with the going home part.
Rose, the 30-something behind Spring — Paris' hardest-to-come-by table, according to Le Figaro newspaper — moved here as a 19-year-old college student primarily, he says, out of laziness.
"I wanted to finish university in a place where I thought it would be really easy. And I thought, 'the American University of Paris — English is my first language, it's not everyone else's, I probably have a pretty good chance,'" said Rose. He said he went to cooking school for largely the same reason.
After a series of apprenticeships with top French chefs, he opened the first incarnation of Spring, a 16-seat restaurant where the centerpiece was an open kitchen where Rose held court as he prepared the food — single-handedly at first.
"Everybody in the world loves a French restaurant and my project was to try to discover what was essential about a French restaurant. ... And by paring it down to the essence, I was feeding (my clients) French food that they hadn't seen in a long time," said Rose in an interview in Spring's new 28-seat location, near the Louvre Museum. "It was a novelty. I was the American who opened the restaurant that all the French people wanted to open."
Rose has the reputation of being the French-est of Paris' American chefs, and the menu at Spring is unapologetically Gallic: There's no Franco-American fusion, none of the catering to special dietary needs that's become almost de rigueur in the U.S. — just a constantly changing medley of French classics made from top-notch, in-season products.
Taking the opposite tack is Marc Grossman, a New York filmmaker-turned-restaurateur who has set about Americanizing the way the French eat. In the land of the cote de boeuf, foie gras and escargot, Grossman founded two vegetarian eateries, Bob's Juice Bar and Bob's Kitchen.
"I think people are always looking for something different and in carnivorous Paris I guess you could say we're exotic," said Grossman, whose ever-changing menu of smoothies, meat-free burgers, and grain-packed muffins were the stuff of a minor culinary revolution when he first opened, in 2006. "From the beginning, the response has been enthusiastic, and our customers have been unusually regular."
Seattle natives Perkins and Adrian represent the middle path between Rose's unyielding Frenchness and Grossman's healthy California-style offerings.
At their new postage stamp-sized wine bar and just-opened upstairs restaurant, Verjus, the pair serves up food that charts an ideal course between French sophistication and American heartiness. The wine bar's menu of amuse-bouches includes buttermilk fried chicken, roasted clams, and s'mores made with high-end French chocolate.
Perkins and Adrian shot to culinary fame here in 2007, when they opened the Hidden Kitchen, the now-closed supper club the pair held twice a week in their central Paris pad. Though underground restaurants are not unheard-of elsewhere, the Hidden Kitchen was a novelty here, and even the French press lavished them with praise: Le Figaro's review called it "quite chic and clearly successful — it's fully booked for months."
The Anglo-Saxon influence is often palpable at top restaurants here, even when the chefs themselves are not Americans. Gregory Marchand, the Frenchman behind the aptly named Frenchie restaurant, cut his teeth in New York and London, where he worked for telegenic chef Jamie Oliver, before returning to France. Known for its market cooking, Frenchie competes with Spring for the top spot among Paris' contemporary tables.
Kansas-born, Paris-based food blogger Meg Zimbeck said she sees French chefs' newfound appreciation for America as part of a generational shift.
"There's a fear among the older generation that they're not getting as much credit as they are due," said Zimbeck, the founding editor of Paris by Mouth, a restaurant review website.
"The younger French chefs, they couldn't care less about that. They're traveling, they're bringing back new ingredients. They have shorter attention spans and they're not afraid of change," even if that change hails from the country long mocked as the birthplace of Velveeta and other processed cheese products.
Still, writer Lebovitz warns that Paris remains a challenging destination for young American cooks with big dreams.
"Paris has this huge mystique, it's like a magnet," said Lebovitz, "but a lot of times people come here with starry eyes and have absolutely no idea of what they're in for."
Lebovitz, a pastry chef by training who spent 12 years at Alice Waters' iconic Berkeley, Calif., eatery Chez Panisse and moved to Paris seven years ago, says reality can be jarring. Beyond the never-ending bureaucratic torture that is the quest for working papers or, worse still, authorization to open a restaurant, Lebovitz cited the maddening surprises of daily life here.
He described a recent surreal but pedestrian quest for plain white sugar: After searches in several local grocery stores turned up nothing, he resorted to crushing sugar cubes to finish his dessert recipe. "It's inexplicable, but these kind of things happen all the time in Paris," Lebovitz added with a resigned smile.
Still, for those who manage to overcome the obstacles, Paris is a huge prize.
"For anyone who likes to cook or eat, this place is simply a dream," said Lebovitz. "Actually, it's a dream for pretty much anyone."