Review: Midwest Gumption Is Jane Bertch’s Pivotal Component in The French Ingredient

No mise en place necessary for Jane Bertch. The born and raised Chicagoan turned Parisian details how she went from her meat and potatoes Midwest upbringing, working toward a career in finance, and landed herself a dream job in Paris as banker. Then she decided to leave it all behind and start a cooking school. Voila. Even though it may sound like one of those dreams-really-do-come-true stories where everything falls simply into the dreamer's lap, Bertch would instantly correct your thinking. She does so over and over again throughout The French Ingredient (Ballantine Books). Her American-in-Paris memoir details the creation of her French cooking school, La Cuisine, now in business for over a decade.

Bertch wasn’t a chef. She enjoyed food and had fond food memories like most of us. Still, she hadn’t envisioned a career in the culinary industry—let alone teaching travelers and locals the art of French cooking. But after profound losses in her personal life one New Year’s Eve, she sat with friends who tossed the question around that if there were no inhibitors or expectations, what would you do with your life? Bertch’s answer: run a cooking school. Month after month after that conversation, the idea stuck. Bertch turned the obsession into action and quit her job to go full
force into the face of the unknown in a country and city that still sometimes felt like a mystery.

Throughout the book, Bertch repeatedly reminds the reader that she is not privy to a trust fund. She entered France without knowing a single person and barely understood the language. Yet she couldn't shake this single idea. Bertch encourages her reader to not wait for a chair to be pulled but to find one's own seat at the table. And if one isn’t there, to make their own seat—even to build your own chair if need be. She met the right people, created connections, and struck a balance between her American nature to go get it and get it now, and her learned Parisian style of slowly creating something beautiful and meaningful.

Author Jane Bertch
Photo credit Katie Donnelly

And that combo, the oftentimes dualistic nature of the two cultures, is what makes Jane Bertch’s perspective rise to the occasion. Bertch has spent more than two decades living and working in Europe and opened La Cuisine in 2009. While she very much still finds herself an American, she also has adapted and shifted to let in much of France's joie de vivre. If a Francophile is alive in you, Bertch shares more than anecdotes to get you started. French astuces, small lessons in etiquette and culture to feel more naturally French, appear after several chapters. With a large amount of humor and even more self-awareness, Bertch is unafraid to tell the stories where she has gotten it wrong (hint, a fanny is not a derrière across the pond).

Bertch’s anecdotes are filled with the unavoidable stereotypes we place upon people from other cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, or career paths. But with each impulse to place someone in a box, Bertch reminds us, and herself, that we are greater than our supposed sum. The frat boys who baked the best croissants, the powerhouse disheveled French executive, the track-suited woman who shared a love of cheese. No matter the character, each one found a way to shatter the persona they'd beenplaced in, like a spoon cracking a crème brûlée.

Bertch maintains an impressively positive outlook. In the face of terrorist attacks, a global pandemic, volcanic eruptions and the smallest of worries being financial ruin and humiliating failure, Bertch’s wine glass remained half full, always. Her biggest admitted defeat was sweatpants, which to the French is quite the loss. But to Bertch was simply another nod to her being true to her roots of working hard and coming home to an elastic waistband.

Despite our differences across the globe, Bertch continually found unity through food, cooking, and disaster. She won’t teach you to be French, and she won’t tell you it was easy. However, what you will grasp from her memoir is that staying still is what makes one sink. Writing the memoir itself was a new step for Bertch. A step she is always willing to take when it means moving forward and trying something new to avoid being stagnant. She knew all along that the only way this whole new way of life was ever going to work was by coming together.

The French Ingredient: Making a Life in Paris One Lesson at a Time is available through most book stores and the publisher's website.

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Caroline Huftalen

Caroline L. Huftalen received her MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design, making her running tab of degrees people find frivolous: 2. Her work can be found on Buskingattheseams.com, SurvivorsProject.org, Windy City Reviews, and other publications. She lives in Chicago and is working on her first novel.