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French Cooking In The Back Room

Aug 17, 2007
If you're serious about learning how to cook French food, ask the experts. Go into kitchens, bakeries and any other professional food spots and ask the cooks what they're up to. This is called back room cooking and it's one of the most effective ways to get advice on how to cook like a chef.

When I recently stepped into our local grocer's shop, in the Rue Dauphine, I instantly smelt something delicious being cooked in the kitchen, in the back room. Knowing the grocer and his wife to be natives of Auvergne, I asked if they were preparing a "plat du pays."

"Yes," they said, with contented smiles, "and it's a Foie de Veau a l'Auvergnate." I had heard of this dish before and was, naturally, curious to know how it was cooked. A day or two later, I obtained the detailed recipe for it, in addition to an intriguing vegetable dish, Chou Rouge aux Marrons.

This inspired me to set out in search of other recipes from the back-room cooks of the Latin Quarter. I next went round the corner, to the Rue de Seine, to see my friends from whom I regularly buy their freshly made pasta (spaghetti, macaroni, tagliatelli, canelloni, ravioli, etc.). They are a very friendly couple from Antibes. La patronne loves cooking and enjoys talking about it on every occasion with her enchanting accent of the Midi. From her, I managed to obtain the "home" recipes for Tagliatelli a l'Antiboise and the Tomates du Midi.

One Sunday, when we were expecting friends in for lunch, I went to the Marche Saint-Germain to buy some turbot for my filet de turbot a Undienne dish. But Louise, the buxom, good-humored fish vendor from Marseilles, had no turbot that day and I saw nothing on her usually very well stocked stall that could replace the dish I had intended to serve.

"Take a look at those mackerel," she said. "They're superb and so fresh. They're line-caught, not net-fished."

When Louise saw me retreat from the idea of offering our guests mackerel, she then divulged her own and ever-so-easy way of preparing Maquereaux en Papillote. We tried it out, with great success. Among other recipes that Louise has since given me are her Oeufs Farcis au Thon.

Francois, our butcher, wasn't quite so co-operative, at first, when I asked him to give me a few original ideas for preparing different cuts of meat.

"The fact is," he said, "I get tired at looking at all this meat that I have to cut up and sell day in day out. Fortunately, my wife realizes this and she has recently been experimenting in our little back-room kitchen in dishes other than meat. A day or two ago she cooked an excellent Gibelotte de Lapin. I'll ask her to give you the details; also for the Escalopes de Lapin."

Nothing daunted, I next asked the proprietress of one of my favorite cafes - Le Lutetia, on the Quai de Bourbon - where light luncheons are served, what she could contribute by way of recipes for simple desserts. Her answer was to explain how easy it is to prepare bananes flambees and the amusing Martinique egg dish.

And that is the way it goes in France today, world center of gastronomy. If you express a genuine interest in cooking, you can collect a mine of exciting and entertaining gastronomic information with which you can experiment in your own kitchen.
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