If the words foie gras, pommes frites and bouillabaisse roll off the average American’s tongue, it is in large part due to two chefs and personalities that have shaped the American culinary scene more than any other: Jacques Pepin and Julia Child.

Pepin and Child are unquestionably the Jagger and Richards of the American palate. They skillfully executed and championed the French style of cooking that shaped the second half of the gastronomic 20th century. As a result, French cuisine — more than any other — was the standard bearer for menus and culinary schools alike. Starting as “la grand cuisine,” expanding into the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s, we now have the bistro, its cousin the brasserie and their well-dressed fashionista aunt, haute cuisine, at the top of the heap.

As our country rounded the corner of Europe’s second great war, leisure became lifestyle and a burgeoning middle class took hold, French cuisine captivated our palettes and our best talents. The French edict “faites simple” or “keep it simple” grabbed Americans’ aesthetic sense and appetites, with a premium on ingredients executed simply. Chefs and critics alike have noted for decades, “French cuisine is the most elegant comfort food one can find.”

This “Wisconsin Foodie” episode is full of exceptional meetings. The kind you tell people about years later. The kind people travel and invest in just to have.

We began with a private invitation-only lunch in the Bacchus skylight room as Master Chef Jacques Pepin was hosted by some 30 of Wisconsin’s finest chefs. Pepin’s recipe for veal roast with shitake mushrooms in a tarragon cream from his latest cookbook was prepared. The balance of the flavors was perfectly-poised, the hometown favorite Strauss veal tender, with the tarragon crème augmenting the dish more like a good perfume finishes off a perfect dress, and the shitakes acting as the punctuation for a well put remark.

Our own French cooking treasure and recent James Beard award-winner Adam Siegel expertly prepared the lunch. Also, I had one of those great insider foodie moments when I heard Pepin remark that the aspic at lunch was perfect. When I relayed this back to the sous-chef, he first broke into what could only be described as a massive smile, then turned his tightly closed eyes toward heaven and whispered “yes.”

Exceptional lunch number two came at the coveted kitchen table at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro with namesake Joe Bartolotta. Siegel again cooked for us, which was amazing and then some.

But as a foodie, to be able to share a meal and have a wide-open conversation about the how, why and where Joe came from and what approach he takes to the art of the restaurant, was a true honor. Joe is perfect combination of convivial, warm and specific about his passions. To have given so much to the cuisine culture for our state, added so many opportunities for burgeoning and well-vetted foodies, all in tandem with a two-star Michelin-trained brother; he struck the perfect balance that day at lunch.

The history of Wisconsin’s distinctive hold on French cuisine of course flows through Madame Kuony, her honorary kitchen in the Milwaukee Public Market and her many devoted students and restaurant guests. In that spirit, we would have been remiss to not begin the episode from what is now one of our state’s best French resources, Lake Park Bistro.

Most often when we shoot, near the end of the day, I don’t want to leave because I am enjoying it all too much — the chefs, the farmers and the foodies. Being around people who do what they do simply because they love it — and would not know what else they would do if given the opportunity — has is owns reward of a very poignant kind. After for this episode, I could stay French forever.

Kyle Cherek

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