9780143125921_large_Mastering_the_Art_of_French_EatingFrom Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Ann Mah, 2014. Including a recipe for Bavette aux Échalotes (skirt steak with shallots).

When journalist Ann Mah’s husband is given a diplomatic assignment in Paris, Mah, a livelong foodie and Francophile, begins plotting gastronomic adventures à deux. Then her husband is called away to Iraq on a yearlong post—alone—turning Mah’s vision of a romantic sojourn in the City of Light upside down.

So, not unlike another diplomatic wife, Julia Child, Mah must find a life for herself in a new city. Journeying through Paris and the surrounding regions of France, Mah combats her loneliness by seeking out the epitome of French comfort food—cassoulet—and learning how the andouillette sausage is really made. She discovers the true stories behind the country’s signature regional dishes, exploring the history and taste of everything from boeuf Bourguignon to the crispiest of buckwheat crêpes. And somewhere between Paris and the south of France, she uncovers a few of life’s truths.

Mastering the Art of French Eating is interwoven with the lively characters Mah meets—from chefs to farmers to restaurateurs—and the traditional recipes she samples. Reading it will send you straight to the kitchen, or Paris—or both. Funny, intelligent, and deeply pleasurable, this is a story about love—of food, family, and France. (October, 2014; Penguin Books) (Purchase)

Interview: French Impressions: Ann Mah’s “Mastering the art of French Eating” on gastronomic adventures in France.

Paris / Steak Frites (part one)

(Part two) I’m not a voracious carnivore, but there’s something about being in Paris that makes me want to sink my teeth into a bloody piece of beef. Perhaps it’s the French paradox, the seductive theory that a diet rich in cheese, meat, and red wine actually lowers cholesterol. Perhaps it’s watching all those sexy French women purse their lipsticked mouths while slicing through a juicy chop.

Steak frites is a relatively easy thing to order if, like me, you’re still struggling to master those nasal French vowels. The words fly off the tongue, without any hidden surprises—unlike, say, asking the waiter about preservatives only to find out you’ve interrogated him on condoms. But, as I found out during one of my first meals in a classic Paris bistro, ordering a steak leads to more questions.

“Quel cuisson désirez-vous?” said  the waiter in an offhand way, like asking my date of birth or my hair color. He wore round glasses, a white  shirt with a black bow tie, and a long black apron that reached past his knees. It was difficult to discern who was older: him or the desiccated leg of ham hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room.

Thus far I had tricked the waiter into thinking I spoke French, but now, I realized, the jig was up. Medium, I thought, and tried a quick, desperate translation. “Uh… moyen?”

A look of weary disappointment crossed his face. But he’d been around enough American tourists to know what I meant. “À point,” he corrected  me.

Later I would memorize all my steak vocabulary—the hot sear and chilled interior of bleu, the rosy glow of  à point, the tough brown gnaw of bien cuit. I could learn how to enjoy a steak the French way—saignant—with a magenta center and juices that ran red. But at that moment I just repeated the words after him and washed them down with a gulp of wine.

I’ve wanted to live in Paris since I was six, when my family and I took a summer vacation to Europe. We went to London first, gray and proper, where we spent a week shivering into our teacups, even though it was mid-July, and I stared in terrified fascination at the Mohawked punks in Piccadilly Circus. Then we arrived in Paris, which was ablaze in a high-summer heat wave. It seemed alive, Paris, alive with warmth, and days that never ended, and beautiful people on the streets wearing beautiful clothes and speaking a beautiful, strange language. Every aspect of the city assailed my senses: the grand buildings in pale limestone, the parks teeming with half­ naked sunbathers, the taste of baguette dipped in chocolat chaud, the seesawing sound of the sirens, the imprint of wicker café chairs against my sticky thighs, the Coca-Cola poured from chilled glass bottles that turned tepid without ice cubes, the smell of fresh crois­sants and ripe cheese and human sweat. It was all so new and differ­ent from the only place I really knew, our home in the sterile suburbs of Southern California. I didn’t like everything, but it all gripped me, holding me in an embrace that I would come to know was Francophilia.

The trip has gone down in Mah family lore as the nadir (or zenith, depending on who you’re talking to) of my brother’s rebellious teenage years. He spent a lot of time plugged into his Walkman while my parents coped by drinking red wine. As our voyage  continued, they—my parents and brother—seemed to grow more and more matted and worn, more impatient to return home to their own routines and clothes and space. In contrast, I became more energetic as the days passed.

“I want  to learn French,” I proclaimed. It felt like my destiny. After all, hadn’t my parents given me a French name, Ann Marie? They responded with wan enthusiasm, dampened even further by the sticky oppression of our hotel room. We’d had a long week of sightseeing, my parents juggling the manic highs of their nursery­ rhyme-chanting young daughter with the manic lows of their adolescent son. My mother  considered French impractical, a  pastel bonbon of a language, the linguistic equivalent of empty calories, unlike her native tongue, the  useful, fibrous Mandarin Chinese. If you have any experience at all with Chinese mothers, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I ended up studying Mandarin.

By the time I made another trip to Paris, twenty-two years had passed. The second visit was with my husband, Calvin, who had lived there for a few years during and after college. He showed me two sides of the city—his old haunts in Belleville, a scruffy neighborhood in the twentieth arrondissement, contrasted by the sweeping grandeur of Haussmann’s boulevards. Unlike so many childhood memories revisited, Paris didn’t disappoint. The city was on its best behavior during that vacation, all bright, clear June skies, a profusion of flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens, and unusually patient waiters who refrained from speaking English when I tried to order in French. They say you’re  supposed to be in love in Paris, and I was, headily—with my husband, with the beautiful city, with the slim flutes of Champagne we drank while gazing at the rushing fountain on place Saint-Sulpice.

Is Paris addictive? Maybe. After that trip I abandoned all other holiday dreams. Every penny saved, every vacation week earned, was earmarked for France. We visited in the winter to shiver under covered skies that never brightened; we went in the summer to bask in the sizzle of light that stretched until eleven o’clock at night. And each time I left, I craved more. More crusty  baguettes split length­ wise and spread with butter and jam. More wrought-iron balconies adorned with window-box geraniums. More Art Nouveau  metro stations, more walks along the Seine, more surprise glimpses of Notre Dame caught from the bus.

When I wasn’t in Paris, I sometimes dreamed of living there, of making a home in one of the ornate stone buildings that give the city such elegant propriety. What would it be like, I wondered, to be­ come part of a neighborhood, to be greeted at the café with a hand­ shake, to have the woman at the boulangerie prepare my baguette without asking, to commute home by crossing the Seine? I wanted to know bus routes, to have secret shortcuts, to greet neighbors with a murmured “Bonjour.” Most of all I wanted to watch the seasons change in the market, to consume and contribute to my own small patch of French terroir, to participate—if only for a short window of time—in the small, prosaic, unbroken traditions of French cuisine. I wanted to buy a galette des rois on Epiphany and chocolate bells on Easter and foie gras at Christmas. I wanted those traditions to be mine, however temporarily, even though I knew that was a dream both impractical and abstract. We had American passports, not European ones. How could we navigate France’s notoriously Sisyphean bureaucracy? How would we support ourselves without working papers? How on earth would we ever convince one of its wooden-faced civil servants to allow us to stay?

There was one possibility but I didn’t believe it would ever happen. Calvin’s career as a diplomat meant we moved often between overseas assignments—he’d already served in Turkmenistan, New York, Beijing, and D.C. Why not Paris? And yet it seemed far-fetched to hope for such a plum assignment, even though Calvin spoke fluent French and followed French politics as avidly as he did the National League baseball standings. The American embassy in Paris was one of the most desired posts in the world, often considered a reward after hard­ship tours in places like Africa or Haiti, or unaccompanied stints in war zones. But now the unbelievable had happened.

We were in rural Pennsylvania, on our way to visit  Calvin’s grandparents in State College, when we stopped for gas at a rest stop, Calvin checked his e-mail, and we discovered the good news. Later, in our motel room, I didn’t sleep the whole night, my mind dancing with images of picnic lunches in the Luxembourg Gardens, and casual glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, and late-night ice cream cones licked while crossing the Seine. It seemed impossible to believe—too good to be true—that we would live in  Paris, together, each with our own work that we loved. The frustration I’d felt over the challenges of trailing-spousehood—lack of a steady job, lack of a steady home, distance from friends and family, loss of independence and identity—melted away with the promise of three years in Paris. Some lucky confluence of fate and aligning stars had brought us to the City of Light. Or, for me, the City of Dreams.

Before I moved to Paris, back when I was an American who fantasized about living there, I had an image of the perfect café. It had mirrored columns and a zinc bar, rattan chairs and sidewalk tables where I would nurse a glass of red wine while watching the world pass by. Grumpy waiters would serve up succulent steaks, charred on the outside, rosy within, tender enough for a knife to slip through, paired with a pile of crisp frites to mop up all the juices.

Once I got to Paris, I found out that plenty of cafés fulfilled different parts of my fantasy—some had historic charm oozing out of the coffee machine, others were modern with square plates and a list of overly sweet cocktails, still others had sun-drenched terrasses where I could indulge in a citron pressé on a summer afternoon. The café nearest to our apartment had rattan chairs and sidewalk tables; its owner, Amar, came from Tunisia, and I loved his couscous. But despite their differences, there were a few elements that tied all these cafés together: the coffee, the wine, and the steak.

The more meals I ate in Paris, the more I wanted to know: What makes the perfect steak frites? And how did it become the town’s favorite plat du jour?

The meal’s basic ingredients—beef, potatoes—don’t point back to Paris. Cattle are not traditionally raised in the surrounding area, and frites—or French fries—come, arguably, from Belgium. Perhaps its popularity lies in the dearth of options on a typical café menu, so few choices that most French people know what they’re going to order before they even sit down. Or perhaps—as William Bernet, a former butcher and owner of the lauded Paris steak bistro Le Severo, told me—it’s because of the rush of city life. “A piece of seasoned meat, it cooks in an instant—and it’s fast to eat,” he said.

Steak was brought to France by occupying English forces, sometime after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Even the word comes from the other side of the Channel, derived from  the Old Norse steikjo, which means “to roast.” In fifteenth-century England, cooks dished up their meat sizzling, sprinkled with cinnamon, but by the time of Napoleon’s defeat it was eaten plain, without sauce. As is true today, steaks were originally cut from the sirloin, rump, or fillet—that is, the animal’s loin—though modern butchering techniques vary among countries and cultures. Talk to any butcher and he’ll convince  you that his method produces the best, most bountiful and tender pieces of meat.

Steak is a relatively easy thing to prepare—season it, slap it into a hot pan, don’t overcook—but while talking to meat aficionados, I quickly learned about the skill and patience required for a superior version of the dish. When I arrived in Paris, a food-loving American friend sent me to the southern edge of the city to the fourteenth arrondissement, to visit William Bernet at Le Severo. Who better could explain the intricacies of a hunk of beef and a few fried potatoes?

Bernet is a thickset man with the observant eyes of an experi­enced waiter and professorial-style glasses that slide down his nose. He grew up in the Vosges, in northeastern France, where he trained as a butcher, eventually moving to Paris and working, among other places, at the famed Boucheries Nivernaises. In 2005 he opened Le Severo, a shoe box of a restaurant with a handful of dark wooden tables, a series of scrawled chalkboard menus covering the room’s longest wall, and a short zinc bar overlooking a kitchen big enough for one. Bernet fulfilled front-of-the-house duties—taking orders, delivering  food, and recommending wine from the two hundred bottles on offer—while the cook presided over this tiny kitchen. I heard the fresh sizzle of meat hitting a hot saucepan, the crack and bubble of freshly cut Bintje potatoes twice bathed in hot oil, first an initial dip of 140°F and then a second one at 350°F.

Steak’s true magic, Bernet explained, happens before the meat ever hits the heat—it’s found in the aging process. He hangs whole cuts of well-marbled beef in a dry, chilled space for weeks, some­ times months, a process that concentrates the meat’s flavor and breaks down its connective tissues, resulting in richly beefy, butter­ tender fillets. In French, dry-aged meat is called rassis, a term that can also refer to stale bread or to a stick-in-the-mud.

Aside from a few first-course salads; side dishes of green beans, fries, or potato puree; and classic desserts like crème brûlée, I spot­ted only meat on the menu: beef or veal, served plain, without sauce. That’s it. “If you write about my restaurant,” Bernet said to me with a pleading note in his voice, “please say that I would prefer it if veg­etarians came here as little as possible. I just don’t have anything to offer them.”

One flight down from the dining room was Bernet’s lair, a tiny, brightly lit basement workshop where he butchered sides of beef into individual portions like the bavette (skirt steak), faux-filet (strip steak), or entrecôte (rib eye). In a corner of the room was a walk-in refrigerator, cooled to 35°F, where he hung his oversize cuts to dry and age. Inside, the racks of meat gleamed dully, like unpolished jewels, ruby red against a startlingly white layer of fat. Bernet held up two pieces of beef, one aged, one not. “Before it’s rassis it still smells like the slaughterhouse,” he said. I dutifully sniffed both pieces. They smelled exactly the same to me—a faint, raw, damp whiff of aging animal. Some of the older pieces of beef had developed a dark, furry mold on their surface, a crust that Bernet would trim off when portioning the meat for service. (When I asked if I could take a photo of the meat locker, he gave me a horrified look. “I would never allow a picture of this to be published!” he said. “It’s too unappetizing—no one would ever come to eat in my restaurant again.”)

Today, under the constraints of time and profit, the practice of aging beef in France is disappearing. A well-aged slice of beef has lost at least 30 percent of its original volume in evaporation—a considerable amount if your product is sold by weight. It’s next to impossible to find a Parisian butcher or steak bistro offering boeuf rassis, Bernet told me. He checked the refrigerator’s meat, rewrapping some pieces in muslin, turning others, handling them as if he were an artist and these hunks of flesh his oeuvres. He showed me a côte de boeuf, a prized cut that sells in the restaurant for eighty euros for two people, turning it from one side to the other. “It takes at least thirty days—minimum—to age a côte de boeuf properly,” he said. “If only I could double that. Sixty days… now, that would be exceptional,” he added dreamily.

I ate steak the very first week we moved to Paris, before we even had a chance to unpack a box of kitchenware. Calvin and I hopped on the metro and headed across town to the twentieth arrondissement, to the café that he thinks of as his own—as a loyal customer, a friend, and a former neighbor. Le Mistral was the place he used to frequent when he was studying in Paris. We’d come for the steak and red wine, of course, but we’d also come to see our friend Alain, who, along with his brother Didier, owns Le Mistral.

Twenty years ago, when Calvin was an exchange student living in Belleville, he’d  wandered into the café, armed only with basic French. He met one of the brothers, serving behind the counter, and, after a few days of morning coffee and evening beer the three became friends. Didier and Alain helped Calvin find a job and an apartment. They invited  him on visits to Aveyron, their region of France. They offered him hot meals in exchange for writing out the daily specials on the chalkboard menu. And their daily conversations—on politics, history, and the Doobie  Brothers—left Calvin speaking  fluent, almost unaccented French. Despite the constraints of time and distance, the three never lost touch.

They owed their friendship partly to Le Mistral itself, a neighborhood institution opened by Didier and Alain’s father in 1954. It sits on the corner outside métro Pyrénées, a grande dame of the neighborhood with a welcoming golden glow. Inside, there’s the smell—a mix of fresh coffee and toasting cheese, a hint of damp from the cellar below—and the noise—the bustle of voices, the call of the servers ordering un café allongé or un quart de vin rouge. There are round columns covered in tiny rectangles of mirrored tile, red pleather banquettes, wall sconces emitting warm light, checkered paper place mats, blackboard menus propped up on chairs, the requisite zinc bar.

Visit: Ann Mah’s “Mastering the Art of French Eating” on steak frites, the signature meal in Paris (excerpt) part two.

PRAISE FOR Mastering the Art of French Eating

“In a tour de force through French cuisine, Ann Mah crisscrossed France, learning about all my favorite foods. Her personal culinary tale will have you packing your bags.” —David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris and My Paris Kitchen

“Ann Mah goes straight to the essential in this lively, mouthwatering book as she explores the foundations of French Cuisine. Bravo!” —Susan Herrmann Loomis, author of On Rue Tatin

Bavette aux Échalotes (skirt steak with shallots)

This is my interpretation of a set of loose instructions given to me by William Bernet. At his restaurant, Le Severo, most of the meat ar­rives at your table sauce-free. The bavette aux échalotes (skirt steak with shallots) is one of the few exceptions. Like many classic bistro dishes, this one relies on the quality of its ingredients. Bernet would encourage  you to use aged meat.

Serves 2

For the steak

– 1 skirt steak,  9 to 10 ounces, patted dry
– Salt and pepper to taste
– 1 tablespoon  mild-tasting oil such as sunflower or grape seed

For the sauce

– 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
– 4 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
– 1 ½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
– 1 sprig fresh thyme
– ½ cup chicken or beef stock or water

Preparing the steak

Trim the steak of excess fat and season with salt and pepper. Place the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Test the heat of the pan by touching a wooden spoon to the  oil—if the oil is hot, it will lightly sizzle. Place the steak in the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, until the underside is well seared and browned. Turn the steak and cook the second  side for 40 to 50 seconds, or until medium rare. (Skirt steak is a thin cut, and the meat cooks very quickly.) Transfer to a plate, cover loosely with a tent of foil, and keep warm while you make the sauce.

Making the sauce

In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter with the meat drippings. Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the red  wine vinegar, thyme, and stock (or water), and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover and cook until the shallots have softened and the liquid has almost disappeared. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter and add any juices re­leased from the meat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, add­ing a few drops of vinegar if needed.

Slice the steaks against the grain into thin strips. Serve with the shallots spooned on top, accompanied by mashed potatoes or steamed green beans.

Ann Mah au photo_credit Katia Grimmer-Laversanne_1.29.13Ann Mah is a food and travel writer and author of a food memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating (Viking Penguin) and a novel, Kitchen Chinese (HarperCollins). Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, South China Morning Post, Fodor’s guides, and other publications. Born in Orange County, California, Ann began her career in book publishing after graduating from UCLA. In 2005, she was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship to study in Bologna, Italy. She currently divides her time between Paris—where she has lived since 2008—and New York City. Visit: (Website) (Facebook) (Twitter)


Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love (2014 Paperback; 2013 Hardcover)

Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family, and Finding Yourself  (2010)

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post Patricia Wells’ “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” on Restaurants, Bistros, and Brasseries (excerpt). Patricia Wells, author of the award-winning Bistro Cooking, and for more than two decades the restaurant critic for The International Herald Tribune, takes readers, travelers and diners to the best restaurants, bistros, cafés, patisseries, charcuteries, and boulangeries that the City of Light has to offer. Including Willi’s Wine Bar’s Bittersweet Chocolate Terrine—the irresistible chocolate dessert that is one of Patricia’s Paris favorites.

Alexander Lobrano’s “Hungry for France” – My appetite for France (excerpt). Hungry for France: Adventures for the Cook & Food Lover by acclaimed food writer and Paris-based author Alexander Lobrano. Every food lover’s ultimate dream is to tour the countryside of France, stopping off at luxurious inns with world-class restaurants and sampling fresh produce and regional specialties from local markets. Hungry for France offers just that with Lobrano sharing his thirty-plus years of exploring every corner of this gastronomically rich country with readers. Including a recipe for Layered Ratatouille Gratin. 

Whistle Stop Coffees: Flore der Agopian on Cafés in Train Stations in Paris.When I walk inside a train station in Paris,” writes Parisianne Flore, I always feel like I’m taking a journey back in time; an out-of-reality experience immortalized in countless French and American films: Nikita, Les Poupées Russes, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, and Ocean’s Twelve, to name a few.” Flore writes about Gare Montparnasse, Gare de Lyon and Gar du Nord and the cafés and restaurants you will find there—from the famous Le Train Bleu and Terminus Nord to Paul, the boulangerie café founded in the late 19th century, and now a worldwide success.

Hotspots and Hot Chocolate: Student Cafés in Paris by Parisian Flore der Agopian. The Left Bank has always been “the place to be” for intellectuals, artists and students. By strolling through the famous Latin Quarter, which attracts many students from the whole of France, you can feel the lively, bustling atmosphere created by the presence of the famous universities, such as La Sorbonne. Follow Flore as she visits the seven most famous student cafés in Paris.

Café Culture in Paris, by Parisienne Flore der Agopian. The café, writes Flore, is a pleasurable way of sitting unbothered for hours on end with a book, with friends, or jut watching all sorts of people coming and going. Le Café de Flore, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Paris, where you can meet or observe its famous clientele among the Parisians, tourists and waiters dressed in their black and white uniforms as if they were still in the 1920s. To Flore, Café de Flore is almost mythical, legendary—a real institution. 

Text copyright ©2014 Ann Mah. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.