Even though the term has existed since 1946 – according to Le Dictionnaire historique de la langue française – the amuse-bouche was popularized in the 1960s and 70s French nouvelle cuisine movement. In the late 1990s, the amuse-bouche made a stellar comeback (rivaling that of Robert Downey Jr.’s in film), and now you’ll find them in almost every upscale restaurant on both sides of the Atlantic. (I ate the one shown here recently in Annecy, at La Ciboulette.)
In French restaurants, the professional term is simply “amuse” – but only in the back of the house (or kitchen). Just as Parisians only have time to kiss people once on each cheek – in the rest of France, it’s twice – restaurant workers don’t have time to say amuse-bouche – they just call out as they’re whizzing through the kitchen, “Where are the amuses for table 6?”
The pre-starter bite used to be known as the amuse-gueule, and in some restaurants it still is. But the word gueule is a little too familiar for a fine-dining environment. It basically refers to an animal’s mouth, or muzzle. I used to hear the word all the time when I taught culinary arts to teenage boys from the rougher parts of Paris, who’d use the phrase “Ta gueule!” to shut up one of their classmates. (It only occasionally worked.)
You might also hear that colorful phrase in Mathieu Kassovitz’s movie La haine. Shortly after the movie was released in 1995, I was teaching college-level French to American students, and we watched the movie together. One student approached me after the screening, and I asked him if he liked it. He screwed up his face in indecision, answering, “I’m not sure… I guess it was a little too…. too thought-provoking or something.” God forbid we provoke thought in a French class!
So gueule isn’t appropriate language for fine restaurants, but if you go to them regularly, you’re probably a fine gueule, or a gourmet. If you partake in a side-splitting laugh, in French we’d say se fendre la gueule. And someone who makes a funny face? Faire une drôle de gueule. Which is precisely the face the guy from my class was making after watching La haine.
The chef’s greeting
But back to the amuses: officially, an amuse-bouche is a bite-size hors d’oeuvre – I’ll be coming back to the hors d’oeuvre’s long history in a future post – served before the starter or appetizer. It’s not on the menu, so the chef decides what’s in it. The amuse prepares you for the meal to come because it allows you to sample the chef’s personal aesthetic, like an introduction to the rest, or the chef’s greeting.
The advantages of the amuse-bouche for a restaurateur are clear: since they’re offered for free, they help promote customer loyalty – we all feel special when we get a gift from the chef! For the chef, the amuse is a way to show off fresh ingredients from the market that may be sold in small quantities, or on the other hand, to use up small quantities of ingredients s/he might already have on hand.
Mastering the art of the amuse
But if you want to make amuses-bouche at home, how can you master this art? Here are a few advantages and tips.
1) Amuses-bouche are great for expressing creativity and setting up a sense of luxury, without the price tag. They’re like a little sketch pad, in the words of journalist Andy Battaglia. Amuses don’t cost much, so if you’re considering cooking with an expensive ingredient like foie gras or truffles, amuses are perfect for testing your techniques on a small scale.
2) Do you know why the kitchen staff likes amuses? They’re time savers. Chefs prepare amuses-bouche in advance and use them strategically to keep diners happy while they’re preparing the starters/appetizers. You can do the same at home if you make them ahead.
3) Amuses are an excellent way to introduce unusual foods to guests (think sweetbreads or sea urchin).
4) So many “palettes” are available: crackers, toast points, shot glasses or other small cups or glasses, egg cups, Chinese-style spoons, or skewers. How about the foods themselves? In summer, you can use vegetables cut into cylinders and hollowed out into cup shapes (like zucchini) or a single fingerling potato half, to “hold” other foods. In cooler seasons, puff pastry works well wrapped around boudin blanc, for example, or the traditional bacon-wrapped…anything!
5) Looking for specific ideas? Underneath my Cool as a cucumber recipe below, you’ll find links for all sorts of inspiration. Happy amusing!