May 8 2012 10:48 PM

Marine Room chef talks about the legacy of Julia, Escoffier and seasonal eating

frenchfood
Bernard Guillas, a proponent of the simple roast chicken

Mad Men fans may still have the 1960s ditty “Zou Bisou Bisou” running through their heads. But it wasn’t just bits of frothy French music that captivated America in the 1960s. The boisterous Julia Child did kitchens everywhere a favor and made classic French techniques and menus accessible to American eaters.

But if the States were going French in the 1960s, what were our Gallic pals doing? And what of their influence are we still seeing in our American kitchens today?

I asked Marine Room executive chef Bernard Guillas, himself a native of Brittany-by-way-of-Jersey (the island of), and the answer, it seems, lies in the slow-food movement that’s now becoming the norm in American eateries, rather than the exception.

Classic French cuisine in the ’60s carried on the traditions of hallowed chef Auguste Escoffier, with reductions, roasting and enough cream and butter to drown Pepé Le Pew. Much of these techniques and tastes came to us via Child: think Boeuf Bourgignon or soufflés. But the cuisine was also about what was seasonal and fresh, what was growing in the garden or swimming in the sea. Sound familiar?

Anyone with merely an eyelash pointed in the direction of the culinary world these days knows that it’s all about seasonal, local, organic and the like. Not only is it environmentally more beneficial; it just tastes better.

Said Guillas, “If you want the real flavor profile of an ingredient, they have to be organic or natural.”

Ask him for a classic ’60s dish, and without missing a beat, he says a simple roast chicken. Roasted with whatever is fresh from the garden at the time, and served with a simple green salad and crusty bread, it’s a quintessential seasonal meal you’d find on any French table then and now. I’m picturing a summertime dinner with a roast bird, served warm, not hot, with juicy heirloom tomatoes and a cold, crisp white wine. I’ve found this honest, basic bird to be deceptively tricky for restaurants to do well. Guillas said it has to start with the best bird—look for jidori chickens on the menu.

When I asked him whom he thinks does it well around town, he advises people to head to Farmhouse Café and keep your eye on the menu for Coq Au Vin or roast chicken.

Comfort food was also the order of the day—another trend that’s returned in full force. Just try finding a restaurant these days without its own outrageous twist on macaroni and cheese.

Guillas sees these things as cyclical. “It seems to me that… the only difference that there is today is we have technology; we can do dishes with much ease.” Better cooking tools, more even-heating pans and the like make techniques like sous vide or even braising quicker and more efficient.

The other difference, Guillas said, is taking the classic techniques and the classic dishes and making them modern. A tarte tatin, traditionally made with apples or pears, might be brightened up for summer with peaches, plums or any stone fruit. Duck confit is updated with ginger and lemongrass in lieu of juniper and thyme.

Guillas also says to look for crepes, as French a dish as you’ll find, and one that’s popping up more and more, not only as individual menu items, but in all-crepe joints like the breezy Orange Blossom Café in Solana Beach. (Grab a lemon and sugar crepe with fresh raspberries for a unique treat to take down to the water.)

And it turns out, in some ways, Americans are even out-Frenching the French, particularly when it comes to one of their most signature courses. 

“I’m going to get in hot water with Frenchmen,” Guillas said, “but I do not have one French cheese on the menu at The Marine Room.”

American cheesemakers are that good, he said. Julia Child would be proud. 

Write to jennym@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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