On a Friday afternoon, Le Coucou in New York is booked solid. The dining room is full of friends celebrating a birthday, coworkers on leisurely lunches, parents treating their college-age offspring to something superior to Kraft Easy Mac, and an enthralled couple leaning in so far across the table, there’s hardly room for the waiter to place their plates. The palpable buzz in the room is what Le Coucou’s chef, Daniel Rose, excitedly refers to as “action”—the feeling that there’s a soul to a restaurant.
The diners aren’t enjoying some trendy avocado toast, and there’s no Salt Bae wandering around to spill sodium into their laps. They’re eating fusty French food and loving it. And it’s not just them.
In cities large and small across the United States—and even in the suburbs—classic French is making a comeback. This isn’t your father’s French food; it’s your grandfather’s. New restaurants keep popping up showing that butter-laden sauces, pâtés en croûte, escargots, and all manner of old school preparations are fashionable again.
“A lot of chefs are trained in classic French, and we don’t want to see that style go away,” says Gavin Kaysen, who recently opened Bellecour in the Twin Cities. “It’s coming back strong. Ludo [Lefebvre] is doing it with Petit Trois in LA, and there’s Le Coucou in New York.”
A few years ago, so many restaurants cooking this anachronistic fare would have seemed odd. Le Coucou and Rose helped change that perception. “In France they say le vrai and à peu près: the real and the approximate. In life we’re striving to fill it with things that are real and avoid things that are approximate,” Rose says. French food had become approximate, a shell of its former self and devoid of the character that made it great in the first place. At Le Coucou, Rose has imbued it with life again.
He didn’t plan this when his foray into French cooking began. The Jewish kid from Chicago who moved to France as a young man has improbably become one of the great evangelists for the country’s classic cuisine. But before reviving it in the States, he had to spend nearly two decades in France—learning, experimenting, and cooking—to figure out what in life was approximate and what was real.
“I moved to France on a whim,” Rose says. “I found it intriguing.” But curiosity alone wasn’t enough for French immigration officials to let some American bum around the country indefinitely. In 1998, he enrolled at the American University of Paris to earn a degree in art history and philosophy. But really he was studying France, and he soon became obsessed with the culture. He found cuisine the ideal gateway drug for a Francophile: “You don’t have to speak the language to get into it, you can just go to restaurants.”
The more he learned, the more his fascination deepened. After graduation, Rose left Paris for Lyon to continue his food education, enrolling in culinary school. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef,” he says. “I just thought, ‘Well, this is a way of getting into France in a more profound way.’ It turned out to be quite true.”
The French approach to food—ample structure and endless indexing—suited his style of learning. “I couldn’t have become an Italian chef, because I’m a student. You go to Italy to hang out with a bunch of Italian grandmothers and spend 30 years trying to learn the same thing,” Rose says. “France is a very structured culture, so you can access it in very structured ways—by going to school, for example.”
The home of Daniel Boulud and Paul Bocuse, Lyon and its surrounds are legendary in French cooking and a magnet for young cooks. The city has long been considered the country’s culinary capital, but Rose arrived to find that was no longer the case. “It has a mythology. There’s a strong history and identity, but it’s a little museum-esque.” Yet for someone like him who was interested in learning the roots of French cooking and culture, Lyon was the place to be. Its rich history offered him the chance to learn the old ways in order to forge ahead with his own cooking.
At culinary school the traditions began to cohere, but not always in class. One day Rose saw a teacher making quenelles for himself. It was a profound moment for him. The instructor painstakingly crafted an airy dumpling by deboning a fish, mixing it with egg and cream, and poaching it before topping it with a crayfish sauce. “You take what’s essential from it,” says Rose, “the subtle taste of the river with pike, and you use technique to amplify that taste, then make a sauce with crayfish from the same place. A sense of terroir.” Years of tradition and refinement had created this classic, and Rose found himself as taken with the process of creating it as with the intended result.
“French cooking has cataloged and determined what is satisfying,” Rose says. “The point of all the effort—the cataloging of these recipes, the study of technique, the hierarchy of the kitchen—was a hedonistic attempt to create a pleasurable moment. It’s a handbook for a good time.” When the time came for him to open a restaurant, he decided that he would capture that essence and use food to facilitate what he regularly refers to as “life-affirming moments.”
In 2006, after a few years of bouncing around Brittany, Paris, and even Guatemala, he opened Spring, a 16-seat restaurant in Paris with himself as the lone employee. Though open kitchens existed elsewhere, it was revolutionary in France when he literally tore down the wall separating himself from the dining room. He did it so he could see the tables and thus not need as many employees, but there was a fortunate side effect: It was easier for him to interact as he cooked and read people’s reactions, forging a stronger connection with the diners. He also served the same set menu to everyone at the same time to create a sense of shared experience—another feature that admittedly had a very practical raison d’être.
“There was a certain energy from serving everyone at the same time that got people excited,” Rose says. “The reason I did that was not because I thought it was spectacular. It wouldn’t have been possible to cook for all those people at different times, because I didn’t have the skills to do it.”
Not yet confident in his grasp of classic dishes, he served contemporary fare rooted in French traditions. If he offered a quenelle, he wouldn’t necessarily create the version he saw his teacher make; he’d change the sauce to something more modern. Eventually he added more employees, and the small operation found its groove. Curiosity grew for the energetic American devoted to French food. And despite some hiccups, the restaurant started booking up months in advance.
“The coolest thing anyone ever said when I opened Spring is that it’s a restaurant that resembles life. This has stuck with me ever since,” Rose says. “What is life? Sometimes it’s high, sometimes it’s low. Sometimes it’s love, sometimes it’s despair. Sometimes it’s intense, sometimes it’s boring as fuck.”
Spring ascended as Paris experienced a culinary identity crisis. The city’s grand restaurants were disappointing the populace. French fine dining lost its way, becoming overly complicated, fussy, and a little too obsessed with what a tire manufacturer turned restaurant guide deemed worthy. “I don’t think Michelin is an adequate barometer of anything that’s going on in the food world anymore,” Rose says. Chefs tried to satisfy Michelin’s definition of quality, and restaurants grew almost monastic—churches of food that sucked the life out of going out.
“The greatest French restaurants are formal, but so excellent at it they put you at ease. The point of the formality was to incite pleasure,” Rose says. “But then it became formality for formality’s sake, and they forgot about the pleasurable part.” In other words, the real had become approximate, and people looked elsewhere for more creative and lively fare.
Though Rose sometimes gets lumped in with the bistronomy movement in Paris, which cultivated a dining scene in which people flocked to bistros instead of the grander venues, his food was distinct from what the hip chefs in town served. Many of them had grown up in France and looked outward to Asia, Basque Country, and New Nordic cuisine. “Foodwise, he was representing more true French ideas,” says Jeremiah Stone, a U.S. chef who cooked in Paris in the early 2010s. “It resembled classic or fine dining, but with a more casual atmosphere.”
Rose’s style had detractors. “The French either loved him or hated him. He’s an American coming into Paris and embracing French cooking at its core, loving it more than some of the French do,” says Daniel Eddy, a former chef at Spring. While eating lunch elsewhere on a day off, Eddy witnessed a telling exchange between two restaurant gadflies. “They were gourmands—guys who spent their time eating in restaurants and discussing food. They were having a heated discussion about the state of French cuisine in Paris, and at one point one of the guys slams his fist on the table and he’s like, ‘The worst part about it is, the person who’s cooking the best French food right now is American!’ ”
The success of Spring led Rose to a bigger incarnation. He spent 2 years converting a skateboard shop near the Louvre into a new, larger establishment, which brought with it new pressures.
“I saw fits of rage when the quality wasn’t where it needed to be, and it drove him mad. I saw food fly in that kitchen,” Eddy says. “I can look back on it fondly now, but in the moment, I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ ”
“I was extremely intense,” Rose says. “It was like the universe was crumbling because of this one thing going wrong. I’d show people how to do things, and they didn’t do it right. It was so obvious to me and not as obvious to everyone else. That’s probably because I’d spent 5 years thinking about it.”
With age came mellowing. One day Eddy’s father visited, and though the cook had a long list of items to prep before service, Rose insisted the team break for lunch. “All of a sudden this bountiful meal was created. We were eating like royalty,” Eddy says. “My dad comes in to sit with us and our 30-minute meal turns into an hour and a half. Out comes a bottle of Champagne, then another bottle of wine. Daniel was very much like, ‘If we’re not having fun, what’s the point?’ You have to understand what generosity feels like if you want to be generous to others. And he is one of the most generous people I know.”
In 2014, as his stature and Spring’s waiting list were growing, Rose returned to New York to cook there for the first time. The night left an impression on Alex Baker, a young cook who assisted him at the event and is now the chef at Yves in Tribeca. “He was all over the place and running around, but organized and knew exactly what he was doing,” she says. When, in a pinch, he had to make a vegetarian dish, he set Baker to execute an idea he had right then that started with a vegetable stock. “He told me to put vegetables in water and simmer it. I go to the sink, thinking because we need it quickly, I’ll fill the pot with hot water,” Baker says. “And he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no. Use cold water.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He responded, ‘Because the cold water is more pure. It’s not going through the heated pipes and the hot water will taint the flavor of the vegetables.’ I’ll never forget that. He just came up with this beautiful stock and dish right on the fly, and it was just so natural for him.”
The New York event did little to convince Rose to leave Paris for the Big Apple. “It did the opposite,” he says; “I knew my time in France wasn’t over.” That feeling didn’t last. Not long after New York, he acknowledged that Spring’s tasting-menu format had started wearing on him. “I had told people for 10 years to come and have dinner, but they didn’t get to choose what to eat,” he says.
Eventually the idea of opening a restaurant in New York began to intrigue him. For one, “My wife always wanted to move to the States,” he says, and he was curious to see if his notion of French food could succeed in the city. But career restlessness alone didn’t make him leave. Sheer terror played a role as well. “Charlie Hebdo, when they killed the cartoonists, I remember thinking, ‘Oh good, I’m not that funny, so this is not a dangerous place to be.’ But then late that year, on Friday the 13th, the attacks,” Rose says. Bombers and shooters struck across Paris—outside the national soccer stadium, at cafés, and at the Bataclan theater. The attacks killed 130 and injured 413 more. It made him believe that life was too short to not take this new challenge. “We were locked down in the restaurant. After that I accelerated the process of leaving,” he says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is what I want to do, but life is meant to be lived. We’ve got to go.’ ”
Inside Le Coucou’s open kitchen, it’s easy to spot Rose, who stands in stark contrast to his brigade. While he’s dressed in black and gray, the remainder of the staff are resplendent in starched whites, some donning the old-school toques as if playing French chefs in a movie.
Unlike many chefs, Rose isn’t stationary at the pass, calling out tickets and organizing the chaos. He is the chaos. He darts around the U-shaped kitchen stations tasting sauces, seasoning, and offering guidance—spinning himself in circles as he tries to direct two stations at once.
This wasn’t supposed to work. For a decade, the classic French he’s serving at Le Coucou wasn’t exactly cool. The public was still sort of eating French, with some chefs applying French technique to the dishes of different cuisines and others refracting French dishes themselves in ways that confounded Rose.
“Dirty French gets it all wrong. It’s a provocative break from French tradition, but it’s just a misunderstanding,” Rose says about the popular New York restaurant from chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi that tweaks traditional French dishes with ingredients from other cultures. “It has nothing to do with the quality, it’s an intellectual problem. You have to have a deep understanding of the original thing before you go messing with it. My wife and I love their restaurant Carbone. They have a deep and fundamental understanding of Italian-American food,” he continues. “With Dirty French, there’s a lack of understanding of the pleasures of the original dish. The grilled lamb with potatoes cooked a certain way doesn’t get better with these Moroccan spices. Sure, it gets more remarkable, in that people will remark on it.”
Coming back to the States, Rose wasn’t going to mess with the original. He felt 18 years in France had given him the understanding of French cuisine and the tools needed to execute the classics and introduce them anew in a way he couldn’t in Paris. And he wanted to test his belief that French food and great French restaurants were engineered over a century to give people a good time.
Not everyone was so confident. His business partner, the successful restaurateur Stephen Starr, had ideas about the menu. “He told me ‘We’ve got to have something like this, and this, and where’s the salad?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ People told me, ‘It won’t work, it’s too subtle. It’s not punchy enough. Critics are going to panic.’ I kept saying things like, ‘I’ve served worse food to better critics.’ ”
He got his way with the menu, and the critics came down on his side. The reviews embraced his vision of old-school French. And when the Oscars of the restaurant world—the James Beard Awards—came around, Le Coucou took home the prize for the country’s best new restaurant. Such high-profile success gives others who love the cuisine—and, more importantly, investors—the confidence to create French restaurants again.
Right now, French is in the best phase in the common arc of a food trend, where a committed collection of talented chefs like Gavin Kaysen, Dominique Crenn, and Jamie Malone have devoted themselves to a cuisine with their full heart and soul behind it. Soon will come the copycats with the technical ability but not quite the emotional investment in the food, and their version will be good but not special. Then will come the bad versions, where it’s people trying to make French because it’s cool. Diners will eat enough bad quenelles that they’ll be bored with French food all over again. “When that happens,” Rose says, “the only thing I can be sure of is that I’ll be on to something else.” It won’t be an approximation.