Jean Joho is the chef/owner of French restaurants in Chicago, Boston and Las Vegas, ranging from the casual Brasserie Jo to classic cuisine at the Eiffel Tower to modern French fine dining at Everest. He spoke with us about the state of French food in America.
On how French food in America has changed in the last 30 years:
Food in America has changed a lot since I came here in 1985. When I moved here, I couldn’t find a good croissant in Chicago; it was impossible. They were all made from frozen dough. There was one person who did a café au lait. Now, you can find them everywhere.
The key things for me are the ingredients. When I came to America, everything was imported from Europe, even though the U.S. has so many resources. I wanted to use only American products, as a way to be different from other French chefs, and to grow as a chef. I wanted to improve by cooking with the ingredients I could find. So I had to find someone to grow shallots for me. There was one person shipping green beans. One person growing Bibb lettuce. Now, you can get everything. There are only three things I import: black truffles, white truffles and wild game like grouse and pheasant. I think it’s better to work with what you have. It’s always less expensive and a better product.
On featuring American cheese in French restaurants:
When I started serving American cheese, there were three artisan cheesemakers in America. I used to work with Judy Schad and Laura Chenel to experiment with goat cheese; they would try something new and send it to me. There was only one artisan maker of blue cheese in America. Everybody else used imported cheese. I didn’t have the same selection, but what I had was very good. But that changed; by the mid-’90s, I switched to just serving Midwestern cheeses, and work with farmers in Michigan and Wisconsin. Everybody said American cheeses don’t taste like French, but it’s a good product. It’s like when you have a California Cabernet; it’s different from a Bordeaux, but it is still very good. It can compete with Bordeaux.
On French food’s place in the culinary world:
The basics of cooking are French, no matter what you do. Even in Italy, a lot of the basics in cooking are French. We know how to cook the right way—the temperature, the timing. The right way to roast a chicken, how to braise something. You can change your food, but you can’t take the techniques away.
On the importance of food in French culture:
French people respect food, and dining is a big part of their life. You sit at the table and have a conversation; you have good food, good wine, good company.
I remember when I was first in America, I saw this guy eating while driving his car. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so sad. This person doesn’t have a house to eat in; they have to eat in the car.’ But I realized that people here eat when they can. This is so un-French. We sit for three meals; we do not snack. It reflects the basics—how you live, how you eat. You have to have respect for what you’re doing.