Talking with strangers can teach you things. About what you eat, and how you eat it.
This week, for example, after speaking with Georges Perrier, chef and owner of Philadelphia's highly acclaimed Le Bec-Fin restaurant, I developed a new appreciation for hazelnut oil.
Perrier uses hazelnut oil as a finishing touch in his mashed potatoes. He also uses the oil to make the "jus" -- the French equivalent of gravy that accompanies his roasted veal loin.
Both dishes are part of the meal Perrier will prepare tonight at Baltimore's Brass Elephant, along with the restaurant's chef Randy Stahl, for the Great Chef's Dinner, a sold-out, $150-per-plate fund-raiser for the Child Abuse Prevention Center.
Perrier, a native of Lyon, France, is widely recognized as one of the best French chefs in America. For the past 22 years his Le Bec-Fin restaurant, the name means the good taste, has consistently won praise from the critics and five-star ratings. I ate in his intimate and expensive downtown Philadelphia restaurant five years ago and still have fond memories of the meal. I had sole so delicate, so flavorful it was unlike any fish I have eaten since.
I got Perrier on the phone early one morning as he was testing a recipe. After going over his Baltimore menu -- asparagus with morel mushrooms, a crab cake with shrimp and mustard sauce, the loin of veal made somewhat like his mother used to, and a nougat glace for dessert -- he talked about his philosophy of eating.
He does not, he said, rely on cream to carry his dishes. "Cream," he said, "is the easy way out." Instead he builds on the central flavor of a food, often using ingredients, like the hazelnut oil, to give them a melody of tastes. "I am playing with flavors. . . . It should be like a symphony . . . one, two, three, four, five flavors."
Not being someone who normally thinks of his supper as a symphony, I found his perspective refreshing.
I was also interested in the chef's eating habits. The chef, who is 48 years old, said he eats a small breakfast of bread and coffee. "For lunch I eat maybe some grilled fish. For dinner I eat some soup." Perrier said he has not adjusted to the common American practice of eating the largest meal of the day in the evening. Nor does he care for the mainstay of the American lunch. "The sandwich, I do not like."
A few days later I picked up a few more cross-cultural insights, when I spoke to another group of strangers, four young Frenchmen who are working in an American restaurant.
They gave me a short-hand definition of the difference between American and French tastes. In America, they said, ketchup is on virtually every restaurant table. In France, the ever- present condiment is mustard.
As I sat with Stephane Landmann, 18, Gilles Goeller, 18, Stephane Gronlet, 24, and Jean-Jacques Estiot, 20, I peppered them with questions about the way we Americans eat. The men are in a trainee exchange program that allows them to visit the United States for 18 months and work as apprentices for Edmond E. Foltzenlogel, chef at Washington's Le Caprice, and a former culinary school instructor in France.
The men live in an apartment near the small Georgetown restaurant, learn how to prepare American dishes -- "The soft crab, oh very nice," -- and absorb American culture and return home. As part of that absorption process, the Frenchmen took a day trip to Baltimore last Monday. Accompanied by Chef Foltzenlogel and Leslie T. Blakey, the co-owner of the Washington restaurant, the men visited the National Aquarium and ate lunch at Foster's Oyster Bar. I wanted to know how they liked American oysters. With Blakey translating, the Frenchmen said that the oysters were fine, but they were surprised by the "ketchup" or cocktail sauce that usually is served with the mollusks. In France, they said, oysters are served with lemon and shallots.
One of their favorite American dishes, they said, was barbecued pork. There is, they said with a shake of their heads, nothing like it in France. One fellow liked American chili, another fajitas, the Tex-Mex dish of seasoned beef in a tortilla, and one was crazy about American cookies, which are much bigger, he reported, than the delicate cookies of France.
Some of our eating habits are curious to them: Our fondness for ice cubes, our aversion to eating chicken that is pink at the bone, our heavy use of "substitutes -- light sugar for the sugar, light beer for the beer."
And one more thing. While the Frenchmen don't care for the taste of Jell-O, they do enjoy watching it jiggle.
Some things, it seems are the same, no matter whether you grew up with ketchup or mustard on the table.