Food and culture writer Lindsey Tramuta is a Paris transplant of 10 years, and the author of The New Paris, a superb guide to getting the most from a city that has evolved rapidly over the past decade. I studied abroad in Paris 10 years ago, and flipping through the pages of this meticulously researched and beautifully photographed book, I found that I barely recognized the town. Things I’d hunted for that were perfectly commonplace in Los Angeles, like hoppy beer and kimchi, were nowhere to be found. Now, they’re right at home in bistros and supermarkets alike, alongside gluten-free baguettes and cold-pressed green juice. Where was the booming burger and food truck scene in 2007?
In her book, Tramuta chronicles the journey of a city set in its proscribed ways to an urban center reflecting all that is new, hip, hot and delicious in the world.
“I definitely wanted to make sure I was choosing the right people and examples to reflect what the change was and how that was related to changing the city,” says Tramuta, back in the U.S. for her book tour. I had a mile-high stack of questions, so we dove right in.
One word I’ve heard a lot recently with regards to the new French cuisine is “bistronomy.” What does that word mean to you?
Bistronomy really started a long time ago with Yves Camdeborde, who had done all the very fine dining cooking and had worked in high-end restaurant kitchens, but felt like he was hemmed in by culinary authorities. Also, food was very expensive. Even when I moved there 10 years ago, you were either eating pretty mediocre stuff on the low end or having to spend at least €50 (about $63) to have a passable meal. The term wasn’t coined until the early 2000s, but it essentially elevated bistro cooking in a casual way. So we’re taking out the tablecloth, we’re taking out all the fluff. It’s just market-driven, very good-quality products, not necessarily super-expensive products either.
Back to more humble ingredients?
Yes, a lot of “forgotten vegetables,” like Jerusalem artichokes. Root vegetables started coming back because they’re affordable. They had fallen out of favor because they were associated with wartime, but now you have all kinds of affordable produce sold at the market. The style of bistronomy is quite gastronomic in its ambitions, and laid-back in ambiance. There’s no stuffiness involved. Most times the servers are wearing Converse sneakers and jeans, but there’s a lot of talent and technique in the actual plating and the preparations. In the end, it’s the best value of what you can get in Paris because maybe you won’t get oysters and lobsters, but you’ll get the really beautiful fish, really good chicken, steak with different kinds of produce pairings. There’s still room for creativity. Bistronomy really filled this gaping hole in the dining scene.
Tell me a little bit about food truck culture in Paris. What are the main differences between Paris and a food truck haven like New York, Portland or L.A.?
I would say that the food truck in Paris serves as a stepping-stone to having brick-and-mortar restaurants. I assume it’s easier to have a roving food truck, but all of them end up having specific locations where they’re allowed to park. What happened in Paris was that you had Kristin Frederick who had Le Camion Qui Fume back in 2011, which was unprecedented. She was trying to alert people of her whereabouts, serving burgers that were starting to appeal among the French dining audience. I think it was novel in itself. But she ran into a lot of barriers, administratively speaking, and found that it’s never going to be that kind of spontaneous operation that she envisioned where she could say, “One week I’m here, the next week I’m there.” So she developed these two fixed locations, both of which she still has today.
What that did, though, was create something like 200 small food business start-ups wanting to do a truck operation. The city was swarmed with applications following her getting up and running. They actually put her on hold for awhile because they were like, “We are overwhelmed. We can’t process all of these.” Ultimately though, the business model in Paris is tough. You really need scale, multiple trucks and a huge team to make it work. So in the case of Kristin, the end goal was always to have a restaurant because that’s where she was really going to make a viable living, long-term. She still has the two trucks. I think others went a similar path, they started with a truck and now have restaurants. Where you still see trucks is business districts like La Défense, which has huge corporations and not necessarily a whole lot of dining options. There’s a slew of trucks there.
That’s what that’s for.
Exactly. Otherwise you would have street food-type markets that are coming up. There’s one called Le Food Market, which is every other Thursday on Belleville. The truck is sort of a metaphor for getting people to take seriously a cuisine that’s more comfort food. You don’t have to be at a table and don’t need to have proper table service. I think the truck was a symbol for what came later, which was a whole smattering of casual dining and eateries. Korean barbecue, Korean bao buns, Mexican food. At this point it’s growing constantly, and I think the truck was the catalyst to get that moving.
The French bureaucracy system is…I can’t even imagine what it would take to get a food truck up and moving.
Right. So you need someone like Kristin who can persevere through that. She was a very good champion for that style of eating. So the truck is maybe less visible, but it’s definitely a symbol.
So speaking of things that have taken over, I want to talk about French tacos. These ones, O’Tacos, specifically.
There’s one in my neighborhood. A friend of mine just posted a photo on Instagram of the restaurant’s façade and was like “Please, no.” But this is a totally new phenomenon.
It looks like a burrito! It doesn’t look like a taco.
No, no it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s going to last. They say “O’Tacos is such a hit in France that there are over 100 locations.” This has taken on such a new heights in the last 10 days since I’ve been back in America.
“Extra-extra large…with the biggest measuring the length of a child’s arm.”
Disgusting. Even when the burger started getting popular, you had a lot of copycats. People wanted what they thought was an easy business model or an easy sell. “Oh, people are starting to get interested in Mexican food. I’m going to do this thing that I have no expertise in.” And clearly they’ve messed up the recipe. That is kind of common and those places will go out of business. I’ve seen it happen before. They’re just trendsurfing.
Trendsurfing sounds like a new French trend in itself.
I think that’s the problem. One of the themes that pops up is that the French are not naturally into taking risks. So, if they see something that works, they’re going to pursue that rather than going out on a limb and saying, “I’m this French young chef, I’m going to start doing Japanese noodles” or whatever. They just need to see that this is a confirmed concept. Clearly they’re like, “Oh, Mexican food is a thing now.” Who knows where they’re getting their inspiration. Maybe it is Taco Bell. [laughs] But I think you see the same exact thing in America with French food, French pastry. I think it’s just the nature of wanting to jump on a trend and not having the skill or the resources to back it up.
Or the sourcing.
I think a lot of it gets imported from Mexico. There are a couple of Mexican chefs who do taquerias and they’re importing Mexican cheese, but they’re also making their tortillas and chips themselves. But a place like O’Tacos is not, they’re just calling it all in. And, wow, that photo. That’s disturbing. [laughs]
It seems like the healthy eating trend that has hit many American cities has hit Paris as well. Did the healthy craze ever really leave or was it something different to begin with?
If it began as a lifestyle trend, it’s now a way to show that you’re hip and care about yourself, so, very much superficial. I think there’s actually a genuine interest in some of these movements. Whether it’s the benefits of cold-pressed juices or whatever it is, I just think there’s more awareness of what we’re consuming in general. I think the French especially are not okay with realizing that they’ve been taken advantage of or they’ve been hoodwinked by big business. So if they know that I’m eating or drinking this and it’s literally just vegetables, they can get behind that because what’s more important to them is knowing where their food is coming from. I think they had room to learn the certain benefits of foods like whole grains.
Lunch is also taught in school as a class. Those kids learn about nutrition, where food comes from, what’s in season right now because it’s always been such a priority of the French government to provide their children with a very sound education that negates the need to figure it out later in their lives.
But, that being said, I see more and more young, young kids in Starbucks eating all sorts of junk and going to fast food places. While I think you’re 100% right, that also just means that from a young age, more French people have a better and more balanced and healthy approach to food because they know it, even if they reject it. I do think that food industry has had crises in the last handful of years — what’s really in the meatballs? What’s really in this? That thing I was drinking is actually really horrible for me! Even in the neo-bistro movement, people feel reassured because they know their meats are coming from a local butcher and the provenance is all very transparent. Do they sometimes take it too far and think gluten-free equals healthy? Yes, for sure. There’s an element of trend involved and hype.
Which I imagine is how American Southern-style barbecue sunk its claws into Paris. What does it have in common with traditional French food? Or is it that it’s something completely different that it holds the appeal?
Barbecue as a style of cooking is not French at all. The ties in that sense are not there. However, they’re a meat-loving culture. There’s Thomas [Abramowicz] who did The Beast, which is the only excellent barbecue spot in Paris. But there are others that have popped up.
It’s easy to do poorly.
But Thomas has truly trained with the best possible mentors, like Aaron Franklin. Once I got to know him, I learned he’s not a guy who does anything halfway. He went to the source to be trained, really schooled by the best of them. His point was that the French love meat, so there’s no reason why this shouldn’t work. He had a three-ton smoker made in Texas and shipped over — and he’s French, which I think was even more appealing to the French audience. Had it been solely an American operation, they would’ve been like, “Great, another American coming over and trying to sell us something.” But he has a great story. Of all the people in this book, I think I was the most blown away by his drive more than anyone else’s. What he does to try to make it more French is every Tuesday he does these special nights where they’ll do hachis parmentier with smoked duck or a pot-au-feu or boeuf bourguignon with meats that were in the smoker.
Does smoking play into traditional French cuisine?
Not to my knowledge, but they do like grilled meats. We also don’t have the cuts of meat that he’s getting, either, like brisket. He tried to source the meats as locally as possible, but French farmers and butchers simply do not know what brisket is and don’t have any experience using it.
Butchery is so funny like that. Wherever you go in the world, they take the animal apart in a different way and that contrbiibutes to—
Right, the taste and how fatty is the animal, what they’re being fed. [The Beast’s] pork and poultry all comes from France, but the brisket is from the U.S. There’s another cut that I know he does that he gets from Australia. It’s not a great green footprint, but he’s trying to use the best possible meats for the type of cooking he’s doing.
How do the French feel about American barbecue sauce? That seems to be a flavor that’s not in French cuisine at all.
It’s funny because even in regular burger joints, they offer barbecue sauce and some of them they’ll make their own.
Yeah, there’s a place called Blend where they do their own. They call it Blend Sauce and it has a barbecue-ish flavor. They say it’s not strictly a barbecue sauce. You rarely see a bottle of barbecue sauce in these places, they’ll usually make it themselves so you don’t get the added sugar. The French don’t naturally have a palate for spice but I think they’re coming around. They didn’t know what kimchi was for a long time.
I remember having to take a half-hour subway ride across town to the one Asian market I knew had it in these puny little two-cup jars.
Exactly, you had to get to the ethnic areas to buy it. Now, you’ve got Pierre Sang who uses it in his cooking. He’s awesome. What’s interesting is when he first started, he was like, “Yes! I’m going to incorporate all of Korean flavors into what I’m doing.” Then he had a lot of regulars who were like, “You know what, maybe tone it down just a little.” He had to listen, because they weren’t ready for that. Now, I think there’s more of an awareness and accessibility to these types of flavors. I think barbecue, in a way, has a very strong and powerful taste, and I think it’s not as much a problem anymore as it first was accompanying burgers. It was like “Whoa, what is this? Can we just have mustard?”
Speaking of trends as well, do you find that restaurants and bakeries that are either entirely gluten-free or offer a gluten-free menu cater more to locals or tourists?
I don’t think it’s for tourists. I think it’s a boon for tourists because there are enough coming from America that don’t want to eat gluten or can’t. I think the reality is that it probably began more as a lifestyle thing. Like, what was the one thing we haven’t explored, this gluten-free thing.
It goes against everything the French know.
I know. It still only represents less than one percent of the population, people who are really intolerant to gluten. Now I feel like, I even have friends who are like, “I’m not really intolerant to gluten, however I feel better or I have this whatever ailment and it’s improved since I’ve stopped eating gluten.” So I think there’s a lot of that I think and doctors are aware of this request or this dialogue. I get the sense that, in the case of one of them, Helmut Newcake, it started because the pastry chef herself had Celiac disease and was like, “I can’t eat any sweets. This is ridiculous. I’m just going to create it myself.” I think there’s almost always a personal tie. Same thing with Noglu, the owner, she herself is not a chef but she has Celiac disease, so she can’t have gluten. It came from a personal desire.
And I think that’s for both the local population who thinks — it’s a three-pronged thing — people who think it’s healthier to eat without gluten, those who feel better and those who genuinely can’t have gluten. But if you have Celiac disease, you can’t really eat in that establishment to begin with. They’re just catering to the trend or hype around gluten-free eating in general. But I wouldn’t say they’re targeting tourists specifically.
It’s a $15 billion industry in the States.
That’s insane. But you do see it in major supermarkets here, both the organic markets and the Monoprix. You now have a pretty robust section of an entire aisle in a supermarket that’s full of gluten-free products, whether it’s pastas, cookies or packaged breads.
I remember the American food section at the Monoprix and it was marshmallow fluff, peanut butter, maple syrup and instant blueberry muffin mix. I think I have a photo of it on my Motorola RAZR.
The first word that almost came out of my mouth when you said that was “marshmallow.”
Why, though? I don’t know anybody who just eats them! Is that what they think of us, that we’re just a bunch of marshmallow-eating savages?
I just wonder if there’s a catalogue of products that these stores are presented with that are like, “If you’d like to beef up your American aisle, these are the products we have to offer.” Like, why? Who told you that?
I couldn’t find chocolate chips anywhere in the entire country. I wanted to make cookies for my class, and I just couldn’t pull it off.
Of all things, maybe import Tollhouse. But you don’t even need to make them yourself anymore. It’s sort of ludicrous. And it hasn’t really changed much, especially since the Bon Marché did their annual themed, month-long, not a capsule but like a pop-up almost store and a couple years ago it was Brooklyn.
They use Brooklyn as an adjective right?
They do. What’s crazy is that aside from the vintage beanie hats and whatever, I go over to the food emporium and in the patisserie, they were selling, of all of the things under the “Brooklyn” shelf, Reese’s Puffs cereal.
It just does not make sense.
That is the most oddly specific…I mean that stuff rocks, that’s not what we’re contesting.
But it has no business being there. I’m still like…
We still don’t quite get each other yet.
No, we don’t.
Well on the flip side, France’s craft beer scene is really happening. I was delighted to find so much real estate dedicated to it in your book. Is there a certain population that’s particularly into it? I’m thinking a larger guy with a big beard and a tattoo sleeve.
From everything that I’ve seen, it’s a totally normal set of people. And by “normal” I mean they’re not overly qualified as hipsters, lumberjacks or geeks. It’s a very open community. The one guy who sort of looks like he might be a beer drinker owns La Cave à Bulles. His name is Simon, and he’s got this long beard and he wears rock T-shirts. When I was like, “I want to talk to you, but I’ve got to say I haven’t really found a beer that I can really drink.” And he was like, “It’s a bitterness thing.” So he started me on a course that was acceptable to my newbie tastes. I was also able to speak to the guys behind Deck & Donohue, who are really warm and welcoming to new beer drinkers. One of them is French and one actually grew up in Philly, where I’m from. He brings this more established craft beer culture as a guy who was home-brewing with the French side, which adds more of the technique involved and the process.
It sounds like the French are treating American craft brewing like French pastry arts.
Totally. If you think about the American beer culture and the pride that’s involved in homebrewing and the craft involved and then you take the French history of craftsmanship in general, especially in the food and beverage arts, they go very well together. I think that people for a long time thought you certainly wouldn’t have a beer at a restaurant.
Say you’re at a French restaurant that is serving craft beer. What traditional French bistro cuisine pairs with a very hop-forward American IPA?
If the chef is putting that on the menu, they’re the best person to say, like “I just chose this beer, which dish do you recommend?”
So they are on the menu to be paired with?
In some cases. There are some actual beer-pairing restaurants. Even Alain Ducasse, for example, put his young beverage director in charge of selecting what goes on his menus. None of the big conglomerates. He’s got Deck & Donohue and he’s got Gallia, which is a revival beer. That’s nice to see. If they’re going to offer any kind of beer, it’s going to be a craft beer. La Fontaine de Belleville, which is both the quintessential corner café that does very good coffee and snacks, only has Deck & Donohue and Outland, who’s a gypsy brewer who just opened his own bar. Two of the craft beer movers and shakers are the ones on tap at La Fontaine. In their eyes, that goes as well with an assortment of veggies, charcuterie and cheese as it does with a croque monsieur. I think the idea’s also just to give people something better. Whatever they’re going to pair with is fine, it’s just starting slowly. The consumer is still used to crummy beer. There are bottle shops now, so there are places you can go if you want to bring something home or if you just want to learn. They’re all really knowledgeable.
Beer really isn’t something that French people really drink with food.
Right, so right now it’s about changing habits. And maybe it won’t, maybe it’s too soon to become a thing. But we’re now entering the fourth year of Paris Beer Week and at the end of June, we have the first Le Mondial de la Bière.
Are breweries coming from outside of France too?
All the marketing I’ve seen has been in French, so I’d be surprised if it was geared more internationally. However, they are going to have not just French beers. They’re going to have English, Scottish and American beers, too. It’s going to get more attention as a viable, really quality product. Hopefully we’re just seeing the beginning. If we look at the way cocktails and natural wine have just exploded, I think beer is still plugging along.
How do Parisian chef tattoos compare to American ones?
[laughs] To be honest, I think they’re all the same. You’re seeing them more and more.
Is it becoming part of a sub-culture like here?
I don’t know if it’s part of their culture, but I would say is you have more opportunity to see them. First, a lot of these kitchens are open — you can see everybody, but also, they’re not wearing the long-sleeved chef’s outfits, so you see their arms, you see their legs. I think especially in the bistronomy section or the street food, you’re more likely to have piercings or wild hair or tattoos. I still associate heavy sleeve tattoos with the Pacific Northwest or New York. I don’t think we’re there yet. But Nico [Alary] from Holybelly, every time I see him, he’s got a new tattoo, including the one that says “Stay Hungry,” and he has a croissant on his arm.
Let’s do some useful French translation: Craft beer.
“Cocktails de l’ère Prohibition,” but they don’t really refer to it that way. They might call it “cocktails vintage.”
Hipster, exactly the same.
Chou kale local
Tendance or hype
What’s one relatively new French food phrase that you hear a lot that our users can use on their next trip to Paris?
I think the one thing that’s become a parody of itself is “which of the three butchers did you get this meat from?” It’s always these star butchers. Or do you work with (whomever?) It’d make them seem like they had enough knowledge. So I’d say, Est-que vous travaillez avec ______?