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Feature Story

Essentially French

by Tara Q. Thomas
August 19, 2015

Duck à l’orange

Grenouilles, brandade, foie-gras mi-cuit et caibaillaud Atlantique avec beurre maître d’hôtel: If a diner has heard of these today, they’ve likely been reading Larousse Gastronomique or Le Guide Culinaire. Few contemporary chefs prepare them. And when they do, it is more likely in some old-school bastion of French cuisine, where they are served in hushed, sumptuous quarters that signal the prestige of the rarified cuisine. Ortolons, anyone?

Soufflé fromage Soufflé fromage
So it was a bit of a shock this past spring when Amadeus Broger opened a restaurant serving these very dishes in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The neighborhood, rapidly gentrifying, has never been a dining destination. L’Antagoniste’s closest neighbors are the Crown Fried Chicken across the street, and Ho Mei up the block, where the “family meals special” includes 16 pieces of chicken, large fries, a quart of fried rice, four cans of soda and three quarts of lemonade for $18.50. If price is the object, classic French cooking cannot compete. But even if the money is there, who needs frogs’ legs?

In fact, Broger says, “We have a lot of people from Louisiana around here. They say, frogs’ legs? We have those back home.”

“I always knew we were going to go back to this,” he tells me one summer afternoon at Le Philosophe, another restaurant he runs, also devoted to classic French dishes, in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood. “There are these cycles. You know, when the nouvelle cuisine movement started, because everything was too heavy?” he asks, referring to a trend popularized in the 1960s and 70s away from classic cuisine in favor of lighter preparations. “People were still missing those dishes. A nice little navarin, gigot, gratin d’auphinois; it’s amazing these things disappeared.”

Broger, who was born in Tibet but raised in Switzerland by his adoptive parents, didn’t expect to be a chef. His father hoped he’d study medicine, but Broger found he couldn’t sit still long enough to put in the study needed. “My mom was desperate; she said, ‘you like to cook, so let’s get you an apprenticeship.’” A little while later, his parents dropped him off at Le Montreux Palace, a five-star hotel on Lake Geneva opened in 1906. “A cooking apprenticeship is three years,” he says. “It was tough work, sixteen hours a day.” Pressed to explain what could have been great about working long hours for piddling wages, Broger gives an example. “When it was hunting season, the guys used to come with deer, rabbits, pheasants; we had to take the skin off, the feathers, let it hang, let it smell; I got this burned into me. For someone else, gamey. For me, this is delicious.”

“And if tastes are constantly being refined, these fundamentals must be continuously refined to satisfy them; to counteract the disastrous effects of the modern pace of living on people’s nerves, they must become even more exact and scientific.” —Auguste Escoffier, the “father of French cuisine” (b. 1846–d. 1935), in Le Guide Culinaire
For Broger, the attraction to classic French cuisine had little to do with the grandeur associated with it, and everything to do with the attention to detail. In the kitchens where he worked, a venison steak started with the animal arriving still warm from its run through the forest; the dirt that clung to the vegetables was still moist. The job was not to take the ingredient and transform it into something out of the ordinary, but to extract its essential greatness.

In this way, in fact, classic French cuisine isn’t so dated; it’s very au courant: fresh food, direct from the source, well prepared. And yet, Broger points out, classic French cuisine was built on even fresher ingredients than we are used to getting. “Truite au bleu—do you know this dish?” he asks. I’ve only read about it—about how, when the trout hits the hot court bouillon it turns blue, the thin layer of mucus that protects the scales reacting with the acid in the liquid. It’s one of Broger’s favorites, not for the show but for the flavor. “It tastes like a fresh trout,” Broger explains. “Just cooked in a little white wine, carrots, celery.” It’s so basic it sounds almost unremarkable—except, of course, for the fact that it’s rare to get to eat a fish so fresh. You could brunoise your way from here to France, but if you don’t have fresh-enough fish to make the dish, you can’t do it.

“It’s not that it’s overcomplicated,” Broger says. “It’s just time consuming.”

photo by Virginie Blachère, Images Singulaire.

This feature appears in the print edition of Fall 2015.
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