REVIEW: The French Ingredient: Making a Life in Paris, One Lesson at a Time by Jane Bertch

Reviewed by Layla Khoury-Hanold

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cover of the french ingredient by jane bertch, various colorful illustrations of french or cooking items, like bread, croissant and bowl of flourIf you’ve ever wondered what life would look like if you were follow your instincts to do something drastic, like say, quit your job or move to a new country, The French Ingredient: Making a Life in Paris, One Lesson at a Time (Ballantine Books; April 2024) is a testimony for the magic that ensues when you’re willing to embrace the unknown for all its possibilities, instead of its uncertainties.

Although there are plenty of uncertainties that ensue as Jane Bertch navigates life in Paris as an American expat, a place that, after visiting as a teenager, she vowed never to return to again. Bertch moves to Paris as part of a promotion she earned as a banker with two decades experience working in Europe. But nothing could have prepared her for the impulse she had to quit her comfortable job and start La Cuisine Paris, an English-speaking cooking school. Besides navigating a new language, Bertch must learn the intricate French social customs that apply to both personal and professional endeavors.

This delicate dance is best illustrated in chapter 5 “Seduction for Dummies,” which manifests seemingly everywhere, from the local produce markets to the copy machine at the office. Bertch’s keen sense of observation serves her well, as she melds her new-found seduction techniques with her own brand of charm to win over her building’s concierge. But getting the school up and running is only one in a series of challenges; Bertch must also weather the ups and downs of running a business during the Paris terrorist attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic that thwarted the tourism industry.

Bertch also took a risk writing this memoir; she describes herself as a private person, but, as with the idea to start a cooking school, the notion of writing a book was one that she couldn’t ignore once it surfaced, a conviction that was cemented by the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (which she credits in her acknowledgements). Debut author or not, Bertch’s voice shines on the page with candid humor, particularly as she juxtaposes the French and American ways of doing things and the inevitable language mix-ups (see: the Thanksgiving turkey scene). She deftly weaves in backstory to illustrate her Midwest beginnings, where her appreciation for food took root in her grandmother’s kitchen and at her table, where Sunday suppers were a permanent fixture. Bertch herself is not a cook, but as she illustrates in chapter 7, “We All Speak Food,” gathering in the kitchen and at the table is a universal language that can bridge cultures. Like a modern-day Julia Child, Bertch follows her vision, believing that cooking classes can be “hands-on, warm, and welcoming,” which was antithetical to the rarefied ethos of French cooking schools that once admitted only a select few.

Each chapter of The French Ingredient ends with a “French Astuce,” a series of tips that reveal Bertch’s hard-won wisdom as an American expat living in Paris, many of which Francophiles as well as foodies will appreciate. In the latter vein, my favorite is “How to shop at a Fromagerie,” which details how to shop at a French cheese shop and put together a cheese plate. I can imagine hosting a book club and putting together a seasonal assortment with a crusty baguette and all the accompaniments—preserves, dried fruits, olives, and yes, butter if you have Roquefort or a similarly strong blue cheese.

The French Ingredient will appeal to Francophiles, expats, and food-lovers, and anyone seeking an uplifting tale peppered with wit and suffused with warmth.

Meet the Contributor

Headshot of Layla Khoury HanoldLayla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist who has written for Food52, Food Network, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. She is currently working on her debut memoir. Follow her on Instagram @words_with_layla or on Twitter/X @words_withlayla.

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