SPECIAL ISSUE / THE FRENCH IN L.A.
A picnic with Alain
In honor of Bastille Day, Alain Giraud, L.A.'s top French chef, prepares a Provençal lunch made for our great outdoors.
A picnic Alain Giraud-style features a buffet table filled with produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. (Anacleto Rapping / LAT)
A Mercedes SUV pulls up at road's end next to an open field framed by lazy sycamores and California live oaks. Out jumps Alain Giraud, L.A.'s leading French chef (and until recently the chef at Bastide), followed by his wife, Catherine. They start unloading, lifting tables, coolers, ice buckets, cartons of plates and silverware over the fence. Baskets of food, piles of table linens, throw pillows, bunches of sunflowers and lavender. Hats, more tables, long baguettes, more baskets of food and a couple of big canvas folding chairs.
"Pour les grand-mères!" says Catherine — for the grandmothers! "We never travel light." No, indeed — at least not when they picnic. For picnicking is something like a religion to the Giraud family.
Not surprisingly, 45-year-old Alain Giraud has very particular ideas about the way a picnic should be. The food must be set up on tables, as a buffet, and then to eat it, you must sit on blankets on the grass. "It's a hybrid," he says, "a picnic-buffet. It's to be outside and be in a place where the kids can run and play and bring the dog." In the Girauds' case, that would be Olivia, a bouncy English sheepdog. If it weren't for the headband keeping Giraud's thick, shaggy, prematurely silver hair out of his eyes, they'd look suspiciously similar.
And the food? "The essence of the picnic is to be simple," Giraud philosophizes. "I think a good cheese is important. Good sandwich, and voilà. Good company, a good day, a good river." Well, eighty-six the river. "You're outside, you're cool, you're having some food and boom — where's the foie gras?"
In the end, it's that "where's the foie gras?" moment that trumps simplicity.
Giraud has put together this particular picnic in honor of Bastille Day, the 14th of July. If it seems he has gone over the top with his six-course menu, believe it or not, to him this is simple. Each component is brilliant picnic food. Marinated Cavaillon melon balls served in their rind. A sandwich that's like a niçoise salad in a roll and that actually improves by sitting overnight. Tomato-glazed veal paupiettes that are marvelous served cold. A tart that's gorgeous yet sturdy enough to transport.
Preparations started the morning before, when Giraud shopped for food at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, filling his baskets with baby fennel, artichokes, radishes, melons, zucchini, tomatoes, goat cheese from Redwood Farm.
As the rest of the family finishes lunch in the garden of the Girauds' Pico-Fairfax area home — a 1920s Spanish house — Giraud goes to work in the kitchen. He's wearing baggy shorts; his feet are bare.
Catherine comes inside, a worried look on her face, holding a plastic container.
"Alain, I thought this was potato purée," she says in French, "and I put it in the microwave."
Alain's eyes widen, and he looks as though he might explode. "My frangipane!" he cries, taking it and peering inside. "How long did you zap it?"
"I don't know — not too long."
He had prepared it the night before so he'd have it ready to use in the fig tart. After a stream of invective to which Catherine seems immune, Alain calms down. "No problem," he says, "I'll do it again." Catherine slinks back outside. Alain continues examining the frangipane. Finally, he shrugs and turns his attention to the holiday at hand.
In France, he tells me, Bastille Day is not exactly a picnic op. "They just wheel a bar into the square," he says. "Every village has a portable bar. And they start drinking. It's not related to food. Zero. Nothing."
OK, what happened on Bastille Day? "They attacked the Bastille. And they cut a lot of heads. So I thought alouettes sans tête. It's a traditional Provençal dish, but it's also a visual joke: veal paupiettes stuffed with sausage and mushrooms; they look a bit like small birds, but without heads.
"When I was a kid, I was all the time intrigued," he explains. "Is it a bird? It doesn't have a head?" Though he's never made the dish before, it occurred to him that it would be a fun thing to serve on Bastille Day. "It's simmered in vin blanc," he says, "but we'll use Champagne. And tomato. And of course we'll have to taste the Champagne."
But first, he prepares the melons, which he bought from Weiser Family Farms, best-known for its fingerling potatoes. The Cavaillons, which are treasured in France for their sweet, cantaloupe-colored flesh, are each about the size of a grapefruit, and perfectly ripe; at $1 apiece, they're also a bargain.
Traditionally they're served cut in half, the depression filled with either Port or some version of Muscat, a sweet white aperitif or dessert wine. Giraud uses a melon baller to scoop out the flesh, then he marinates the balls in Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois — pouring from a bottle he carried from France on his last visit. He then replaces the balls back in the melons. "Basically," says Giraud, "that's how you have alcohol at the picnic." For the kids, he sprinkles the melon balls only with sugar. He wraps them in plastic film and stashes them in the fridge.