This week’s article features Susan Herrmann Loomis of On Rue Tatin cooking school in France. Susan moved to France from the U.S. more than twenty years ago and currently teaches the art of French cooking in Paris and in Normandy. She has also authored multiple cookbooks and regularly writes food articles for major publications. There’s a lot happening in the culinary world around the globe at the moment so we wanted to get Susan’s thoughts on food trends and happenings in France in particular. Susan will also be leading a special cooking class for French Affaires in Dallas, Texas, in November on ‘The Art of French Cooking.’ Here are some excerpts from our foodie conversation:

When did you know you wanted to go deeper into French cooking and cuisine?

I knew it the minute I got off the train in Normandy and was welcomed by the French family I had come to stay with. What I remember was the mother and father, the kids, their beautiful Normandy home. We sat down to a simple French meal and when we got to the camembert cheese, I was in heaven. It was everything you imagine about French food and more. To this day, a real, authentic, fragrant camembert from Normandy with fresh French bread sends me over the moon.

Where did you get your culinary training?

I received my grand diplôme from La Varenne cooking school in Paris. Once I’d done that, I wanted to stay longer in France so I took a variety of jobs. Things really clicked when I landed the position as Patricia Wells’ assistant. She was in the process of writing the first edition of The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris and needed help with the research for it. This was the first book in English about everything food-related in Paris. We worked all day long seven days a week – we would check out everything culinary from shops to bakeries to restaurants from morning until night. And then we’d stay up into the wee hours planning our ‘food itinerary’ for the next day. I got to see up close and personally the richness and depth of French cuisine. It was really a dream job. And just recently, Patricia has put out the iPhone version of The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. I did the chocolate and pastry sections for it which were a blast.

What is the best French meal you’ve ever had?

Of course, that is so hard to say. But if I think about it, the best meal experience I had was in the Dordogne in southwest France. I was in the region doing some work at a friend’s goose farm – it was late and had been a long day. We started with fresh foie gras that had come right out of the goose. Then, they roasted goose carcasses with salt and pepper on the spit over the fire. They served these with pommes salardaises which is potatoes roasted with garlic, goose fat and parsley. To finish, we had a prune tart with the special prunes from the region. It’s pastry with prune purée and cream on top. In France, to eat a meal that is completely from the region when you’re in the region is just about the best food experience on the planet.

What would you serve for the perfect French meal?

I would serve chilled oysters to start along with a white Bordeaux Entre Deux Mers wine. Then, it would have to be something luxurious but easy like a magret de canard (duck breast) with orange syrup. Of course, a big red wine from Languedoc or Gaillac is excellent with the duck. After the main course, I would have a green salad with vinaigrette along with cheese such as roquefort. And we’d finish everything off with a fruit tart in season. For example, when apples are at their prime, it’s hard to go wrong with an apple tarte tatin.

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What are three trends you see in the French culinary world right now?

The first one is the trend toward ‘small plates.’ In some French restaurants, it’s no longer the standard first course, main course and then dessert. The tough economics out there are making people – both restauranteurs and diners – more flexible. Diners might not want the full multi-course show when they go out to eat. Simplicity is in. And then too, restaurants need to make a living so they are turning tables more often than they used to. It’s not a bad thing to go into a French restaurant nowadays at 7:30pm and then be finished around 9:30pm, and then another group will come in and take the table. A good example is the restaurant Semilla on the Left Bank – Meilleur Ouvrier de France chef Eric Trochon creates amazing small dishes for the way we live now.

The second trend I am seeing is the focus on ‘home cooking’ or ‘grandmother’s cooking’ by young up-and-coming chefs. It’s in part a reaction against the Michlelin star rating system and anything too fancy. Again, economics might be part of it – with a more casual restaurant, the overhead is lower. The restaurant Jeu de quilles in the 14th arrondissement is a great example. It is focused on meat dishes and wonderfully enough, is located right next to the best butcher in Paris.

And the third tendance, as the French say, is a movement towards going ‘local.’ Of course, the French have always demanded locally grown products and things full of their natural flavor. But this is taking that concept even further. Some people are now fanatic about the ‘terroir parisien’ and only using ingredients produced in Paris / the Ile de France (the Paris region) itself. This seems a bit gimmicky to me and will probably run its course, but it’s definitely on the foodie scene in the city.

What is your favorite cookbook from the ones you have written?

It would have to be Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin. It’s a lovely book I return to again and again. The good food, the photos and the layout are all elegant yet simple and personal. It’s also full of wonderful tips that make cooking a pleasure.

Cooking at home on rue tatin

If you weren’t running your cooking school and doing your food writing, what would you be doing?

That’s a great question. I’d probably have a little table d’hôte (a French version of a bed and breakfast) somewhere. I love people, and I love hosting them. I’ve thought about having a restaurant and this would be a wonderful way to prepare authentic French meals for guests and create a warm and convivial experience for them. At a table d’hôte, it’s a fixed menu so the chef can focus on that perfect combination of dishes and things in season. More and more, I am finding that visitors to France want this authentic and deep experience of the country, and this is a perfect way to offer it to them.

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Enjoying Susan’s hospitality after a cooking class & market visit in Paris

In conclusion, it is fascinating to see how cuisine evolves, even in the well-established culinary context of France. Susan is there on the ground in Paris and Normandy and participates in both the ‘city’ and ‘country’ food scenes every day. She will share her extensive gourmet knowledge and expertise with ‘The Art of French Cooking’ workshop in Dallas from November 14 to 16, 2012. It will be three full days of cooking, tasting, learning, techniques, dining and of course, lots of inside food stories and anecdotes from France. Not least of all, Susan’s warmth and passion make getting one’s hands on French cooking all the more fun.

The French cooking workshop is a wonderful culinary opportunity for serious as well as beginning cooks. It’s also a perfect girls’ get-together experience or mother-daughter adventure or a wonderful Christmas gift. For those who can’t get away for all three days, it is possible to ’share the class’ with friends; please contact us at info.french@frenchaffaires.com to arrange this option. And for those who live outside of Dallas and are considering making ‘The Art of French Cooking’ a destination trip, French Affaires is happy to work with you on accommodations and logistics. Click here for more information and to register.

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French Affaires has organized several cooking classes with Susan in Paris and Normandy over the years as part of our personal trips to France. Here are some photos of great cooking in progress at the Paris cooking school:

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For more on Susan’s culinary story and the 15th century convent she renovated in Normandy, be sure to check out her delightful memoir On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town. It is available at various booksellers and at www.amazon.com.

On Rue Tatin