Q: What did the French literature major say after graduation?
A: You want frites with that?
Hey, it could happen. In fact, it might already be happening at Euro-style eateries around Kentuckiana, where the humble french fry has stepped out from behind the burger's shadow to claim its rightful place on the menu.
Bye-bye, fries. We've entered the age of pommes frites.
On the surface, “pommes frites” — pronounced “pom freets” — is simply another way to say french fries. But while “fries” is a generic term for deep-fried potatoes, covering everything from waffle-cuts to matchsticks, “frites” indicates a more traditional European approach — thick yet crispy, with bits of potato skin intact.
Frites can take longer to make than other kinds of fries, making them more expensive. That's apparent at O'Shea's Irish Pub on Baxter Avenue, where there's an up-charge to substitute frites for fries with your burger.
Frites also tend to be presented with a bit more flair, like at the Italian-inspired Caffe Classico, where they are served in a paper cone tucked into a pint glass.
But some of the difference is intangible. While fries are a staple of the drive-through window and the school cafeteria alike, an order of pommes frites can transport you, mentally, to a sidewalk cafe in Bruges.
At New Albany's Belgian brasserie-inspired, craft-beer haven Bank Street Brewhouse, chef Josh Lehman's luscious, dark-gold pommes frites are served in a white ceramic bowl perched atop a custom brushed-metal stand, orbited by a ring of shiny condiment containers filled with an array of colorful dipping sauces both exotic and unexpected, like green curry mayonnaise and lavender syrup.
It's a far cry from the cardboard caddies and red plastic baskets of our youth, but at Bank Street the differences between pommes frites and fries on the side go much deeper.
“I think it's the love, really,” Lehman said. “I think of ‘fries' as something pulled out of a freezer bag and thrown into a fryer, from some kind of processing plant.”
Not so with Lehman's frites, which undergo a multistage process that begins with the whole potato itself, selected, rinsed and hand-cut to a squared-off ¾-inch with the wall-mounted fry cutter in the kitchen — no bags of frozen crinkle-cuts in his kitchen. Then he rinses the raw fries to get rid of some of the starch, which results in a more even golden color. Then they're deep-fried in oil heated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, blotted with paper towels to remove excess grease, and fried again at 375 degrees to achieve the perfect crisp. The frites are then finished with fleur de sel, a French sea salt.
Sea salt, by the way, is No. 119 on the list of “Stuff White People Like,” writer Christian Lander's satirical blog that pokes fun at a particular brand of aspirational consumerism embraced by the more predictable members of the educated creative class.
According to Lander's blog, “When white people think about regular salt, all they can think about is sodium and poor health. When they think about sea salt, they think about France.”
Fries are salted; frites are garnished with fleur de sel, hand-harvested from tidal pools off the coast of France. This is where the meat-and-potatoes crowd and the “Year in Provence” types find common ground.
And that's how frites have caught on with casual diners, while fussier dishes like escargot might not.
Hitting the spot
Frites hit that sweet spot for the gastropub crowd, right between the aspirational desire to consume European cuisine and the good old-fashioned American need to eat fried foods with our hands. No matter how fancy they get, under all that truffle oil and duck fat, they're still slices of fried potato, that humble staple.
It's an easy sell for the less adventurous crowd, who might even find themselves ordering a croque madame instead of grilled cheese before long.
“I knew we were going to be doing something completely different for New Albany here, so I wanted to provide everyone who came in with something familiar,” said Lehman, whose resume also boasts a tenure as sous chef at the French bistro Le Relais. “Even if everything else (on the menu) seems kind of weird to you, you can get down with some french fries.”
Lehman, who loves the frites at Caffe Classico and the new Germantown eatery Hammerheads, likes to keep frying simple with vegetable oil, but even that is the result of a careful decision that weighed issues of taste against budget and health concerns.
“Flavor with pork or duck fat is outstanding — it doesn't even compare — but we'll only do it for special occasions. It's pretty expensive. And we don't do peanut oil because of the nut-allergy thing. I don't want to kill anybody,” he said.
Now that his potato process has been perfected, Lehman has turned his attention to the dipping sauces served with his frites. An array of inventive condiments isn't necessarily a traditional European approach, where basic mayonnaise still reigns supreme. It's a style popularized by Pommes Frites, a gourmet takeout frites joint in New York, which has proved a popular way to elevate an order of frites from side dish to main event.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than 50 diners showed up at Bank Street Brewhouse to nosh on free frites and vote on Lehman's new sauces.
“I think that's American madness. We want to dip fried food in a lot of stuff,” Lehman said with a laugh. “I like to switch mine up a bit — it keeps people interested.”
That attention to detail captures the interest of thoughtful diners like Louisville food blogger Ashlee Clark, who writes about her experiences at AshleeEats.com. Clark, whose favorite local spuds are Cafe Lou Lou's Cajun waffle-cut fries, looks for signs that a human has made deliberate decisions about the preparation and finishing of the fry when making her menu choices. The more creative, the better.
When Clark sees “frites” instead of “fries” on a menu, she thinks two things: “This place might be kind of expensive” and “I bet I'm in for some delicious fries.”
“Fries are becoming more of a centerpiece than just a side dish,” Clark said. “Something as basic as a fried starch can be a wonderful blank slate for some of the area's best cooks.”
The artisanal approach
So it's no coincidence that frites are found in establishments dedicated to an artisanal approach to everyday food and drink. Across the country, simple pleasures — beer, coffee, tacos — that had previously been diluted for the mass market are being reclaimed through a focused, handmade approach.
And chefs and diners alike continue to embrace the trend of fancied-up street food. Eating authentic frites can feel sophisticated but not pretentious, an attitude toward food popularized by gourmands like Anthony Bourdain, the noted chef and host of the Travel Channel's intrepid foodie odyssey, “No Reservations.”
When Lori Beck and Tyler Trotter opened Holy Grale in an old Highlands church, they decided to offer street-food-inspired bar snacks alongside their import and craft-beer drafts. And because no niche is without its expert, Holy Grale has a secret weapon: a Canadian.
Evan Bullan met Beck and Trotter, who are best known for running the Louisville Beer Store, when he installed their draft-beer system. Bullan grew up in a small Ontario tourist town and had been cooking traditional hand-cut frites for his parents' fry shack since he was knee-high to a deep fryer.
For Holy Grale, it was a match made in heaven.
“Because Lori and Tyler are really dedicated to going with the Belgian theme, they were looking for a really thick-cut fry, golden and crispy,” Bullan said. “What we do here is essential to making a good french fry. We use the right potato and double-cook. That's something my dad taught me. I never thought of it as something fancy.”
Bullan isn't a trained chef. He's not even one of the main cooks in the kitchen, though he has done his time in his family's restaurant and working in food service during his college years. But he understands the mysteries of the deep fryer and has thought more about the starch and water content of various types of potato than the average Joe. In some ways, leading the frites program at Holy Grale is the job he was born to do.
“I know my one thing really well. I've worked in kitchens so I can keep up, but from the get-go, this is what I understand. It's the one thing I was trained and raised to do,” he said.
While Bullan recognizes that the hand-cut, artisan method isn't always the most economical way to feed a hungry crowd, his passion for quality keeps him experimenting with different potatoes and frying fats to create the perfect order of frites.
“I worked at a lot of crappy bars … where you just took the fries out of the freezer and dumped them into the deep fryer. I think most people assume that's what french fries are like, but it doesn't have to be that way. Like with any food, you can take the time to make it better.”
And like any Canadian frites expert worth his fleur de sel, Bullan also knows his way around a plate of poutine, a dish of french fries, brown gravy and cheese curds that has become synonymous with Canadian street food. If Americans are now willing to forgo ketchup in favor of dipping their frites in curry sauce or stone-ground mustard, it's not such a stretch to think they might enjoy them topped with gravy and melted cheese too.
“Poutine is distinctly Canadian,” he said. “You can't really go wrong with cheese, gravy and french fries.”
Poutine has started to appear around town at the Blue Dog Bakery's tapas nights and, surprisingly enough, on the KFC Yum! Center concessions menu. Holy Grale's version puts a twist on the standard thin, brown sauce by smothering the frites in a thick chorizo gravy, and the melted cheese topping changes regularly.
“Like with the craft-beer movement, the idea is to spend a few extra dollars and get something that a person created, not a machine,” Bullan said. “It's … that do-it-yourself, kind of punk, grass-roots approach.”
But in our mass-produced culture, what a human hand first makes, a machine will eventually replicate.
Proof that the trend has come full circle can be found at, of all places, the drive-through window. In November, the fast-food chain Wendy's replaced its old fries with a new “natural-cut” fry, made from skin-on russet potatoes and sprinkled with sea salt. Can fries be the new frites?
“I don't consider a difference between fries and frites,” Bullan said. “You won't hear me say frites, and I speak French. It's a quality difference. It's about the effort you put into it.”
Reporter Erin Keane can be reached at (502) 582-4629.