Backstory: Pass the pâté, hold the pickiness
The 'stinkier the better' culinary philosophy of French chefs' kids means fuss-free dinnertime.
ENCINITAS, CALIF. — Alexandra Vignau, a talkative girl with shiny brown hair and dark eyes, is a pretty typical third-grader. Like her girlfriends in San Diego, she's in love with horses, singer Shania Twain, and the color pink.
Seated in a tan booth at Savory, the casual restaurant her parents own, one Saturday noon, Alexandra sips a Sprite spiked with a maraschino cherry. "Shirley Temples. Love 'em!" she announces.
But because her chef father Pascal Vignau is originally from France, Alexandra is into a few things that her friends aren't. Like eating mussels, duck confit, skate wing, and blue cheese.
"My motto is the stinkier the better," she says, smiling. "That's not my fault. Papa's the one who taught me that."
She and her brother, Sebastien, age 7, are waiting for their lunch: sub sandwiches stuffed with prosciutto, boiled country ham, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, and an arugula spread.
Sebastien squirms in his seat, glancing over his shoulder at the kitchen door. He's quieter than Alexandra, but loudly wonders why his lunch is taking so long. A bit more particular than his sister, Sebastien is having a sub sandwich too, sans the green stuff. He's more of a meat, potatoes, and chocolate eater.
Some of his new discoveries include pastrami (which he describes as kind of like ham, kind of like salami), calamari with lemon, and kiwi.
"I like to eat kiwis, which is a fruit," Sebastien explains. "It's green inside, but on the outside it's kind of brownish and hairy."
Eating habits and preferences can bepassed from parent to child. While many American children live for Goldfish Crackers, mac and cheese from a box, and McDonald's hamburgers, the children of French chefs – and others, who are served a wide variety of foods – are often blessed with more adventurous appetites.
"It's because you're exposed to different foods," Chef Vignau says. "I think it's important to have the kids exposed to as many different foods [as possible] so they can pick and choose later on in life and know the difference between good and bad food.''
Alexandra tried pâté de foie gras during a family Christmas feast in France last year, but she only likes it occasionally. And she discovered skate wing while visiting another French chef's family. "It's a delicious, melt-in-your-mouth fish," she says.
Alexandra was about 3 when her parents discovered to their delight that she was an adventurous eater. On a layover at an airport near Paris, the family had a buffet lunch that included shrimp served with the heads on. Vignau decided to show his daughter how to grasp the shrimp in one hand, gently pull off the head with the other, and suck the juices out.
"She took all the shrimp she had and was slurping it up," he recalls proudly.
Perhaps the appetite for certain foods isn't just about exposure. A 2006 study published online by the Journal of Physiology and Behavior found that children's preferences for meat and fish appear to be genetic, but their fondness for vegetables is nurtured at home. The study of 200 sets of twins, done by scientists at Cancer Research UK in London, suggests that when parents are enthusiastic about vegetables their kids are, too.
Jean-Michel Diot, owner of Restaurant Tapenade, a breezily elegant French spot in La Jolla, north of San Diego, puts it more simply: "If the parents eat well, the kids eat well. If the parents eat junk food, the kids will eat junk food."
When Mr. Diot and his wife, Sylvie – both natives of France – moved to San Diego nine years ago, the only vegetables their daughters ate regularly without a fight were potatoes and carrots. But now, after several years of constant exposure to the same foods their parents enjoy, Ines, 10, and Carla, 12, have warmed to international cuisine such as merguez, a spicy African lamb sausage, and country pork pâté. They make pizza each week from scratch. Working on the island in the middle of their modern kitchen, Ines says they are coming up with better combinations of toppings. Carla reaches into the stainless steel refrigerator, and pulls out a selection of imported cheeses they use to make pizza: Cantal, which has a tangy taste; Petite Basque, a sheeps' milk cheese; and St. André, a rich, melty cheese similar to brie.
The way the Diots feed their girls is a modified version of how their parents raised them. There's one meal for the family, and if you don't want to eat it, tant pis. Diot's maman wouldn't dream of making pancakes or croque-monsieur for a finicky child. "Food is part of our culture in France," says Mr. Diot. "We sat at the same table, eating the same food, not a children's menu."
Diot says he usually prepares Sunday dinner. On a recent evening it's a three-course affair with steamed halibut, clams, and mussels and a large platter laden with a rainbow of spring vegetables: red radishes, fava beans, yellow summer squash, and green and white asparagus.
"The thing that's important is to try things," Mrs. Diot says. "If they come to the table with the preconceived idea 'I don't like it,' we say, 'how do you know you don't like it if you won't try it?' "
Mr. Diot says they don't force their girls to eat anything, but the rules of the table are firm: "We're only eating what we have on the table," he says. "If you don't like it, you can go to your room."
Now that the girls are older, they've learned that many new foods are surprisingly good. Carla says she used to hate garlic, but now adores it. At first Ines refused to eat pasta with black pepper and cream sauce, but loves it now. She's also fond of sweet shrimp sushi, lamb, and spicy sausage.
"When I was in fourth grade I tried to be a vegetarian but I couldn't," says Ines, who was very sensitive about animals for a few months. "I missed steak and chicken and lamb and mussels."
Raising a good eater à la française is also about what's not in the house. The Diots don't buy sodas or snacks like Doritos. Candy comes only twice a year, on Christmas and Easter.
Many families in France raise their kids the same way, but Mr. Diot says things are changing there, too. "The first place they tried McDonald's was in France with their aunt," he says. Did they like it? "Of course. They are kids."
While these parents celebrate having such sophisticated kids, raising a child with expansive tastes can have some costly consequences. Alexandra and Sebastien's mom, Catherine Vignau, says she recently took the kids to a seafood restaurant with friends.
"Alexandra wanted the filet and half lobster tail for $59.99," Ms. Vignau says. "I went, 'um, not tonight, honey.' "