The French Ingredient

Making a Life in Paris One Lesson at a Time; A Memoir

Hardcover

April 9, 2024 | ISBN 9780593500422

Ebook

April 9, 2024 | ISBN 9780593500439

About the Book

The inspiring and delicious memoir of an American woman who had the gall to open a cooking school in Paris—a true story of triumphing over French naysayers and falling in love with a city along the way

“An engaging, multilayered story of a woman navigating innumerable cultural differences to build a life in Paris and create her dream: to establish a French cooking school.”—David Lebovitz, author of My Paris Kitchen


When Jane Bertch was seventeen, her mother took her on a graduation trip to Paris. Thrilled to use her high school French, Jane found her halting attempts greeted with withering condescension by every waiter and shopkeeper she encountered. At the end of the trip, she vowed she would never return.

Yet a decade later she found herself back in Paris, transferred there by the American bank she worked for. She became fluent in the language and excelled in her new position. But she had a different dream: to start a cooking school for foreigners like her, who wanted to take a few classes in French cuisine in a friendly setting, then bring their new skills to their kitchens back home. Predictably, Jane faced the skeptical French—how dare an American banker start a cooking school in Paris?—as well as real-estate nightmares, and a long struggle to find and attract clients.

Thanks to Jane’s perseverance, La Cuisine Paris opened in 2009. Now the school is thriving, welcoming international visitors to come in and knead dough, whisk bechamel, whip meringue, and learn the care, precision, patience, and beauty involved in French cooking.

The French Ingredient
is the story of a young female entrepreneur building a life in a city and culture she grew to love. As she established her school, Jane learned how to charm, how to project confidence, and how to give it right back to rude waiters. Having finally made peace with the city she swore to never revisit, she now offers a love letter to France, and a master class in Parisian cooking—and living.
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Praise for The French Ingredient

“I love everything about this book. I love how Jane Bertch tells her story with sparkle and charm even when her prospects are daunting and dim. I love that the school she created from a dream grew to be cherished around the world. I love Jane’s spirit and can-do-ness and how she figured out the very tricky balance of being an American in Paris. And I love what she teaches us about facing challenges, holding on to what’s dear and sharing what’s learned. Like its author, The French Ingredient is funny, generous, witty, wise and whip smart.”—Dorie Greenspan, New York Times bestselling author of Baking with Dorie

“I loved following Jane around Paris as she built her dream business. I relished her excitements and frustrations as she absorbed her new life and balanced it with her commitments from home. Savvy, determined, resourceful Jane—her exhilarating story lures us all to take a big chance. Or at least to move to Paris.”—Frances Mayes, author of Women in Sunlight

“A rare Paris memoir that’s astute and boldly honest about how challenging it is to create a happy life in this beautiful city . . . It takes intelligence, charm, hard work, and gumption to prevail in Paris. Jane has all of these qualities, which is why the story of how she built a life and an internationally renowned cooking school in Paris is such a fascinating read.”—Alexander Lobrano, author of My Place at the Table

The French Ingredient differs from the bounty of books about living and working in Paris as an American. The reader discovers that the French are not all maddening and inflexible, but also imaginative, hard-working, and attentive to life’s pleasures, great and small. A captivating read.”—Thad Carhart, author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

“Seasoned with wisdom Jane learned along the way, The French Ingredient is the engaging, multilayered story of a woman persevering, overcoming obstacles in her search for happiness, and sharing the joys of French cuisine to people from around the world.”—David Lebovitz, author of My Paris Kitchen and Drinking French
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Excerpt

The French Ingredient

1

And Paris Laughed


| 2006 |

If you are at a café in Paris and would like lemon with your tea, you say, “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, puis-je avoir du citron avec mon thé?”

I knew this on my first visit to Paris in 1993, because I’d taken a little French, and I had a trusty guidebook with a translation section in the back. But I knew very little else.

I was almost eighteen years old, and my mother took me on a weeklong trip to Europe as a graduation gift: three days in London, three days in Paris. I’d never been out of the United States before, having spent most of my life comfortably ensconced in or near Chicago.

At the opulent Café de la Paix overlooking the Palais Garnier, Paris’s famed opera house, my mom and I decided to rest our feet and order some tea. The café is an institution, and was once frequented by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Émile Zola, and Marlene Dietrich. The two of us sat there trying to fit in, despite our white gym shoes practically illuminating our section of the restaurant. I requested the accompanying lemon in French, which I understood to be the respectful approach. I’ll never forget the look on the waiter’s face. I had certainly never seen a look like that in Illinois or Indiana. He narrowed his eyes and scrunched up his nose, as if I had suddenly emitted a foul odor. Pure disgust. “Pardon?” he said, his tone derisive, accusing.

I reddened, horrified and terribly embarrassed. I spent most of my three days in Paris feeling that same way. All I wanted to do at that age was blend in, feel accepted, but it seemed everything my mom or I said or did elicited a version of what I came to think of as the “smell look.” From trying to navigate the métro, to buying tickets at the Louvre, to ordering a meal in a restaurant, I had the keen sense that everyone was looking at us, and that every move we made was just . . . ​wrong.

After the trip, people asked what I thought. How did I feel about international travel? About London? I couldn’t even remember London. It was Paris that made an impression, and it was a traumatic one. What I thought was, I’m never, ever going back.

______

“How do you feel about Paris, Jane?” asked Tom, a manager I worked with.

I was approaching thirty, and my sixth year working for an international bank’s HR department, in London. While during my teenaged trip, London had been completely eclipsed, ten years later I loved the city. I had a charmingly typical English “garden flat.” I’d made great friends. Even though the British have a reputation for being standoffish and aloof to newcomers, I’d managed to hit the jackpot in the friendship game—doubtless because my colleagues and I were all single and of the same age. I had also learned the nuances of living with the English, like how they never tell you if something is really wrong, because they don’t want to trouble you, and how they consistently undersell their expertise. “Oh my, Jane, I know a little calculus, but I’m hardly Alan Turing.” Never mind that they have a PhD in mathematics.

My time in London had even led me to appreciate Paris . . . ​or at least, to tolerate it. I occasionally went on weekend jaunts there with my girlfriends, to shop and dine and enjoy an evening or two at Bar Fly, a once well-known bar just between the Champs-Élysées and the Four Seasons George V hotel. I was starting to see the city’s appeal. Each time we’d go, I’d return to London with a full suitcase and an even fuller belly of great food.

“What do you mean, how do I feel about Paris?” I asked. “To visit? Or, like, as a general principle?”

Tom laughed. He knew that I’d been skulking around for other job opportunities at the company, and that I had a keen interest in understanding the client-facing business side. Tom wasn’t, strictly speaking, my manager, but he had become a bit of a mentor and was trying to help me find a new role. “There’s a job opportunity for a banker,” he said. “It will require a big sacrifice. You’d need to take—and pass—financial analyst training. You’d be demoted from VP to associate. And you’d need to pack your bags, because the job is in Paris. How would you feel about moving there?”

What a question. I thought almost immediately of my grandmother back in Chicago. I knew what she’d say, because it’s what she had said when I moved to London. “Why on earth do you want to be so far from your family? Can’t you get a job here?” Under her breath, she’d mutter, “You used to have that good job at the museum.” For the millionth time, I would remind her that while I loved being a gift store cashier at the Museum of Science and Industry, it wasn’t the career I had imagined for myself.

My grandma had never traveled outside the United States, even for a vacation, and had no wish to. She loomed large in my life because she had helped to raise me. My mom was a working, single parent, living on the South Side of Chicago. It was tough for her to balance everything, so when I was five I moved in with my grandmother so I could go to the school near her house—right in front of it, in fact. It was a Montessori school, and for one particular reason a much better choice than the schools in Chicago: my grandma worked there as what they called a “foster grandparent”—a helper in the classrooms with younger kids. She knew each and every teacher, and she was on a first-name basis with the principal. You can’t get closer than that to meeting me after the bell. My mom, meanwhile, called me every day and saw me every weekend.

To say we were a close family is an understatement, and that was entirely because of my grandma. Her sisters all lived nearby, her eldest son lived within a mile, the other just a forty-five-minute drive away. She spoke to my mom every day and had all of us over for dinner every Sunday. We would sit down over whatever she threw together for the meal, usually with a cobbler of some sort for dessert, and become even more enmeshed in one another’s business than we had been when we walked in the door. Once, when I was still in preschool, I complained about how all the other kids got to eat the school lunch but there hadn’t been any left for me that day. I’m sure it was a misunderstanding that had grown outsized in my four-year-old brain. But I still remember the way everyone got in on the drama, and my mom and both of her brothers ended up going to the preschool together to demand change.

My grandma was just as protective. She never wanted to let me go to sleepovers at friends’ houses, because what if they didn’t feed me enough? What if they didn’t take care of me as well as she did? For most of my childhood, I was the only kid, the only representative of my generation. Growing up an only child with my grandmother, most of my “friends” were in their seventies. I didn’t mind, I was content to paint the older women’s nails and experiment with their hairdos. Whether I wanted the attention of all of these zealous adults or not, I got it.

Even knowing how absolutely lucky I was, when I reached adolescence, I felt suffocated. Yes, family was important, but did it have to be everything? Did we have to be so involved in one another’s lives? Couldn’t we give each other, you know, space?

I became obsessed with the TV show The Facts of Life, about a group of girls who lived together while attending boarding school. I wanted to be Jo, one of the group’s protagonists—tough, smart, and independent all in one. If I had Jo’s moxie, nothing could stop me. Jo’s grandmother didn’t make her be home for dinner every single night; Jo drove a motorcycle! Jo had a boyfriend who her parents probably didn’t even know about. I was ten when I started asking about boarding schools, and by the time I was twelve, had convinced my mom and grandma that it was the best way for me to get a good education. My grandma may have been overprotective, but she also valued discipline, and agreed that Culver Academy, a military school two hours away in Indiana, would give me plenty of it. Fortunately for me, she had never seen The Facts of Life, so she didn’t know all the trouble those girls got into at school.

Though the highly respected school included girls, we were just a small percentage of the student body, which was characterized by kids who were either uber wealthy or significantly troubled—or sometimes both. The Facts of Life it was not. The academics were rigorous and our waking hours highly regimented. When it was study time, we studied. When it was lights out, the lights went out. By the time I graduated, I had a good group of friends, excellent self-discipline that would see me through college, and a desire to fly even farther away from the nest.

My mom understood this desire; she’d joined the air force because she wanted to see the world. And yet she’d ended up back in Chicago out of loyalty to her family, that sacrificial duty instilled in her by my grandmother. I have always felt that I am the opposite of my accommodating, self-sacrificing mother. (Of course, all of her greatest sacrifices are for, and about, me.) She always used to say, “I give you roots and wings.” But when I think about it, my grandmother gave me roots, my mother gave me wings.

About the Author

Jane Bertch
Jane Bertch has spent more than two decades living and working in Europe. In 2009, she started La Cuisine Paris, which has become the largest nonprofessional culinary school in France. She holds a BA in English, an MA in labor and industrial relations from the University of Illinois, and an executive MA from the French business school INSEAD. The French Ingredient is her first book. More by Jane Bertch
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