What French Onion Soup Taught Me About Eating Well

A good reminder that the humblest of things can bring so much joy.

A good reminder that the humblest of things can bring so much joy.

As I prepare to make French Onion Soup today, I thought I’d share, once again, the story of how this soup became my New Year’s Day tradition.

In the winter of 1988/89, I lived and worked in Oxford, England, so we skipped over to Paris for the week around New Year’s Eve. At the breakfast room in our budget hotel—the long-gone Hotel de Nevers on the Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée—we met another young American couple, from Alaska, and we decided to spend New Year’s Eve together.

That evening, we took off across town to the Restaurant Chartier, an inexpensive Grand-Boulevard Brasserie; however, when we got there, the Alaskans noticed that the restaurant did not take credit cards. While we had cash, the other couple did not, and they were leaving the next morning. (This was in the days before cash machines on every corner.)

So there we were on New Year’s Eve, left out in the cold and getting turned away from restaurant after restaurant. We were hungry, desperate, and cranky when we finally wandered into a high-end place that had some available tables. Clearly, if we were going to eat, we were going to have to shell out some major francs.

We were not prepared for the cost of the meal, which, of course, turned out to be both exorbitant and mediocre (likely the reason the restaurant had tables to spare). I remember silently thinking that we should have simply treated the Alaskans to a good, solid meal at Chartier; it would have been half the cost of the under-enjoyed overpriced meal we each ended up buying for ourselves.

The next morning, the Alaskans slipped a note under our door, leaving us their address and bidding us farewell; they left well before breakfast and we never saw or heard from them again. Sometimes I wonder if they remember that New Year’s Eve the way we do: As a missed opportunity for something truly memorable. After all, we had been in Paris on New Year’s Eve.

Wherever we end up on New Year’s Day, we always have French Onion Soup. Here we are in New York City on New Year’s Day 2011.

The next day, looking for a meal that might help us get back on budget, we drifted into a little café near our hotel on the Left Bank and ordered Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée, the classic French onion soup, for our meal. While I cannot remember what was on the menu of the fancy dinner we ate the night before, I’ll always remember how fortifying, satisfying, and warming this soup tasted, and how gladdening it was to know that you could get so much joy out of something so humble.

I now enjoy it almost every New Year’s Day to celebrate the life-affirming truth that dining well doesn’t have to mean dining expensively—a lesson I’ve learned again and again in France, and which I try to bring to to this blog.

French Onion Soup Photo by Startcooking-kathy-amandine via Flickr.

Here’s my recipe, by the way, straight from The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day.


Serves 4 as a light main course.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for bread
11/2 pounds onions, sliced into thin half-moons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cups beef broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 slices French bread, toasted
1 garlic clove, halved
1 cup shredded Comté, Gruyère, or Emmental cheese (about 4 ounces)

1. In a large Dutch oven, melt the butter in the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until softened but not brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are slithery, tender, and just starting to take on a lightly golden-brown hue in places, about 40 minutes.

2. Stir in the flour with a wire whisk; cook and stir for 1 minute. Slowly stir in the broth, then the wine. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and simmer the soup for 15 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

3. Preheat the broiler.

4. Rub one side of each slice of toasted French bread with the garlic halves (then discard the garlic); brush that side of the bread with some olive oil. Place the bread slices, oiled sides up, on a baking sheet. Divide the cheese among the slices. Watching carefully, broil 3 to 4 inches from the heat until the cheese is bubbly and light brown in spots, about 3 minutes.

5. Divide the soup among four shallow bowls; top each with a cheese-topped bread slice and serve.

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13 comments to What French Onion Soup Taught Me About Eating Well

  • Chap

    I can feel the disappointment and regret you felt at the forgettable haute cuisine and the missed opportunity to host your new friends at a restaurant more to everyone’s pleasure. Your recipe, a tribute to reconciliation. Wonderful story!

    How is it that it serves four both as a hearty and light portions?

    • Wini

      Thanks, Chap. I can see why that was confusing. If you serve it as a first course, it’s going to be a very hearty and filling way to start a meal. If you serve it as a main course, it’s rather light, as main courses go….But to avoid confusion, I edited.

      Yes–I so often wish we had just treated the Alaskans to a nice dinner. It would have been so much more meaningful!

  • Linda

    On my first trip to Europe we made a brief foray into France and ended up stopping for lunch at what I considered to be the equivalent of a Holiday Inn. Not holding much hope for anything too tasty I ordered something safe, French Onion Soup. OMG! I thought, if this is what you get at a place like this what must real French food be. I was determined to find out some day and Chez Bonne Femme has been a tremendous resource!

  • Nancy LoBalbo

    Your recipe for onion soup ( from the Bonne Femme Cookbook) has become a staple at our house! Hearty, delicious, simple … We love it!

  • Wini, I pinned this. I need to make my own beef broth/stock before I can make this. Most cans/boxes have soy in them, a no-no for me. I also pinned the restaurant just in case I get to skip over to Paris some day. 🙂

    Wishing you a Happy New Year.

  • What a great tradition – I love the thought of making something so positive out of a negative! We, too, had a disappointing New Years Eve in Paris – this year – (but we’ve had several stellar ones, so can’t complain!). Made it to the Eiffel Tower in time for the midnight countdown, but there were NO fireworks – just the usual hourly twinkle! The thousands crowding the streets were as disappointed as we were. And what really made it a negative was that we could NOT get home…. bridges closed to cross back to our left bank apt (we were at Trocadero to watch), one metro after the other “closed for security”, although the metro was running all night. We walked for miles, finally found an open metro, which then did not stop at “our” stop, again due to security, walked home from that stop and made it to bed at 3 am. Then would you believe we had to get up at 6 for our train to Amsterdam! We’re getting too old for this…
    But now the sun’s shining in Amsterdam and we’re ready to make the best of this New Year – and wish the best to you!

    • Wini

      Anne–what a story, but thank heavens for Amsterdam!

      One of my all-time favorite traveling companions was a Quebecois guy named Richard. Whenever anything went wrong (along the lines of your Eiffel Tower fiasco!), he would shrug his shoulders and say, “C’est ça, voyager.” Roughly: That’s the perils of traveling.

      Richard taught me to shrug disappointments off, because for every thing that went wrong, around the corner, there would be something that went stunningly right…like Amsterdam in the sun!

      Enjoy–and Happy New Year to you, too.

  • What a wonderful story and a favorite recipe. I’m making the soup tomorrow with my leftover beef gravy from our Christmas feast. It will be magical! Thanks for sharing your recipe and your lovely story.

    • Wini

      OMG! I have never thought of making soup from gravy….what a great idea. And why not? I make stock from demiglace all the time…..

      Cheers to you, Jennie.

  • I love this story. And yes to soup from gravy. You can whisk in leftover mashed potatoes too as a nice thickener.

  • K. Bell

    I read this first thing this morning, and have been thinking about making it all day … and now it’s on its way! I’m sorry about your regrets but love the story and what that experience did for you. I also love that you’ve kept the tradition as a reminder. Thank you for sharing and wishing you a very happy new year!

  • Wini

    Thank you, K. And happy New Year to you as well.

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