Alan Cheuse International Writers Center
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Interview with Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Sam Ashworth

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Sam Ashworth lives in Washington, DC and is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University. He is currently abroad in France, where he is researching the French culinary industry for an upcoming novel about a middle-aged American chef who learns his trade in France.

What have you been up to?

What I’ve been up to is I’ve been researching the way restaurant kitchens here in France function, not merely in relation to USA kitchens (our brigade system having been learned entirely from the French, then adapted), but also in relation to French kitchens of the past. To do this, I spent a week as working as a stagiaire (trainee) in a Michelin-starred restaurant in a town in Provence called Lourmarin. This meant working 14 hour days, performing numbingly repetitive and often hand-cramping tasks, ranging from cleaning out fresh squid to reaching into the mouths of sea bass to rip out the remaining guts to clearing out and scrubbing down the walk-in freezer to plucking the leaves off a case of cilantro bunches. Part of the goal was to understand how a stagiaire lives, which is important both to the book I’m writing and an article I’m currently working on. After a week, I began to spend less time working, and more time observing another kitchen and interviewing people. And in so doing, I’ve actually learned much more about what it is to be a chef, how the mind has to work during service, than I did while actually working.

At the same time I’ve been researching French cuisine and what the hell happened to it. I’ve been having interviews with chefs and winemakers, who thus far are of the unanimous opinion that the “French cuisine” we think we know, especially in America, is affirmatively dead, and not coming back. That is to say, the dishes and dogmas of the past, the hares slavering with molten foie gras and fishes suffocated in lakes of cream sauce, the obdurate reversion to sauce as the alpha and omega of flavor and conception of the customer as merely a vessel designed to humbly receive the chef’s genius—all of this is gone, or rapidly going. And in its place, something new is happening: a return to the old ways, not the ways of Escoffier and Bocuse, but something even older. Terroir. Hospitality. Adapting to the customer (unthinkable in this country a mere 15 years ago). Seasonality. Acknowledging that other nations also have their own cuisine, and their national mottos are not “we’re number two!” All of this is adding up to a culinary movement in spirit if not in name, and it’s worth paying closer attention to.

So now I’m on my way to Lyon, spiritual home of classical French cuisine (which is a thing so rigidly defined that in the 90s the French applied for—and got—UNESCO Heritage status for it), where I’m going to spend more time observing inside the kitchen of a pretty old-school restaurant. I’m also going to see if this sense of revolution, of something very cool going on, that I found in Provence still abides in Lyon, where the old ways were invented, and are least interested in changing. 

 

What do you want to learn by the end of your time abroad?

What I want to learn is basically the answer to the above—what killed French food, are reports of its death overrated, where it goes from here, and most of all, why a young American chef out to make his or her bones should still consider coming here as an apprentice. This has been one of the core questions, in part because of the major shift that has taken place in the US: it used to be, 20-60+ years ago, that if you wanted to be anything in the food world in America, you had to come to France to do what I’ve been doing, only for longer. France, and nowhere else. But now, the world is our oyster. Young would-be chefs are more likely to go to Arequipa or Copenhagen or Bangkok or Tokyo to stage than they are to go to Paris. There are a lot of reasons for this (not least of which is that Paris has a reputation for breaking cooks), but I’m wondering what the reasons are to come back to France.

 

What's the "strangest" thing you've eaten or made so far?

The strangest thing I’ve eaten is andouillette, Andouillette is basically pig bowel, chopped and pressed together with other unmentionable pig parts and mealy bits, encased in pork intestine or stomach and grilled in a pan. The skin crisps lightly, and the mealy bits add texture, but the bowel is the star.

True devotees of andouillette seek out versions of the sausage with the most well-balanced fecal odor. It is, acknowledgedly, an acquired taste.

It can be gross, but the fecal quotient on this one was below my olfactory threshold, at least, and it was very good. A little chewy.

The strangest thing I have made is not something I made so much as something I cleaned, and it was the case of fresh squid. My first squid took five full minutes for me to clean (there is a complex procedure, once head has been separated from tail, for flipping that tail inside-out over one’s thumb); one hundred and fifty seven (you’re darn right I counted) squid later I’d gotten it down to 30 seconds. I am—I’m entirely serious—prouder of this than I am of having graduated from college.

 

What do you think French cuisine represents on a global scale?

The “global scale” question is an interesting one, because historically the 300 years of “French cuisine is the finest on earth” has been characterized by an unapologetic ignorance of any earth that lay East, say, of the Indian ocean. The “global” influence of French food really depends on what side of Europe you’re standing on. Go east, to China and India, and you will get a respect for French refinement and wine (no self-respecting Chinese wealthy person would ever order Californian wine), but little interest in the food itself, which is seen as both heavy and underseasoned. Within any European nation with its own decent food culture (Spain/Italy/Portugal/Greece), to hell with the French; in the Northern countries where the food is historically monstrous (UK/Holland/Germany), it’s more appreciated.

And then there’s us. We’re the big ones. And we (at least those of us who live neither in the South nor the states lucky enough to be in the Mexican sphere of gastronomic influence) owe France goddamn everything. In 1945 wine in America was so rare that it was not served in even the swankiest restaurants. You could not find it in most liquor stores. One man (I think it’s Alexei LeChine but I have to look it up) basically changed that singlehandedly, and started importing French wine. Around the same time, Julia Child publishes Mastering the Art of French Cooking. MFK Fisher is writing dispatches from France, teaching Americans that food is something that could give pleasure, not merely energy. Everyone who reworked the way Americans (and here I mean specifically white Americans in industrial and midwestern areas) eat did so by channeling the spirit and technique of French cooking. Basically, there is no fine dining in America without France. Neither is there any slow food, or farm-to-table, or speciality ingredients. Without France we look like Holland or, I don’t know, Tibet. Culinary wasteland. Everything processed and nonperishable.

At the same time, though, our ferocious embrace of France led many chefs to do what I’ve described, and come here and apprentice. The effect on American cooking was immense, so much so that many French chefs began setting up shop in New York, and it became possible to learn French technique without ever having to go to France. Slowly, France’s influence declined. And that’s where they are now: they’re simply not running the show anymore. So this is the question they’re grappling with: now what? In France, it’s inseparable from politics, this question (I’ll spare you here, but it’s true that almost every interview I’ve had so far has at some point involved talking about Emmanuel Macron). They’ve lost so much power over the decades, and they feel that loss acutely. So what does French cuisine represent on a global scale? No one knows anymore, but they’re trying to figure it out.

 

How has your research impacted one (or more) of the main characters in your novel?

I haven’t actually been thinking about the characters that much. I’ve been more trying to process what I’ve seen and done, and because the character will basically be replicating what I’ve been doing, the connection’s pretty straightforward. But I would say that the most useful thing I’ve realized is that August (that’s the character) will come to understand his cooking philosophy in a deeply different way. He has had success in a frantic Queens turn-and-burn, but he doesn’t understand what it is to a) truly have technique and b) have a relationship with the products he’s cooking. He’s never had to fillet a whole fish before, because the fish has always arrived at the restaurant fully filleted; all he has to do is toss it in the pan. Nor has he ever eaten truly fresh vegetables before. So this is the thing that opens up a portal to a world he didn’t know existed—a world where he wants to live.

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