“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad,” remarked Jacques Chirac during a meeting in July 2005 with Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He was referring to the British. And it’s an old line, that about bad British food, and when spoken by a Frenchman, inheritor of the world’s greatest gastronomic tradition, difficult to dispute. Or is it? As Michael Steinberger, Slate’s longtime wine columnist, points out in his lively and informative new book Au Revoir to All That, “Coming in the summer of 2005, Chirac’s comment revealed him to be a man divorced from reality. Was he not aware that London was now a great food city? Just four months earlier, Gourmet magazine had declared London to be ‘the best place to eat in the world right now’ and devoted an entire issue to its gustatory pleasures.”
If you haven’t been tracking trends in the world of gastronomy this may come as a complete shock. The British cook better than the French? Since when? Actually, French culinary supremacy has been challenged if not eclipsed by Spain (where Ferran AdriÃ of El Bulli performs his magic), Japan (in 2007 Tokyo had 191 Michelin-starred restaurants to Paris’s 64) and yes, Britain, home of highly esteemed restaurants like Big Fat Duck. But if the decline of French culture and French influence in general, the globalization of haute cuisine and vinification, and the rise of the calorie-phobic religion of “healthy” eating have not escaped you, perhaps this was inevitable. And though some may find great irony in the reversal, a pinprick in the sun-blocking zeppelin of French hauteur, now hissing gas in garlicky billows, anyone who cares about French culture and French food in particular, should be alarmed.
Since the 1960s thousands of French cafés, bistros and brasseries have shut down, cheeses have gone extinct (even the iconic Camembert is threatened), the country’s wine industry has been staggering and per capita wine consumption among the French has dropped by 50 per cent and continues nosediving. All this while France has quietly become the second largest market in the world for McDonald´s, with more than a thousand restaurants and counting. It’s also the country’s largest private-sector employer. Something too ridicule to be true. That the French, grandchildren of Carême and Escoffier, are now scarfing Royales with cheese as voraciously as Americans do is hard to fathom. Except for Jerry Lewis, don’t they hate they Americans? No, apparently not.
So while the French are getting fatter than ever before with their newfound love of Le McDonald´s – in 2005 more than 40 per cent were rated overweight or obese, in stark contrast to the French Women Don’t Get Fat idea – it’s interesting, and maybe not surprising, that an American has taken up the cause of eloquently lamenting (and often sentimentalizing) the demise of a grand culinary tradition. Steinberger, who clearly loves France, the French and French cuisine, got the bug early, after a visit as a 13-year-old, when his parents treated him to lunch at a two-star restaurant in the MÃ¢con region. There he not only fell in love with the delicious food but also got caught up in the sumptuousness of the setting: “The tuxedoed staff, the thick white tablecloths, the monogrammed plates, the heavy silverware, the ornate ice buckets – it was the most elegant restaurant I’d ever seen.”
That France was the first nation of food seemed unquestionable to Steinberger then and, years later, even when the merde started really hitting the fan, anyone who suggested otherwise to him, “either was being willfully contrarian or was eating in the wrong places.” But when Ladurée, a sedate tea room on the rue Royale, a Paris institution, and a favourite of Steinberger´s – where he enjoyed a praline mille feuille he describes as “ethereal” – began showing signs of deterioration, he realized that whether or not France was still the first nation of food, it was definitely sliding. Concerned, he decided to investigate. And his conclusions are somewhat surprising.
Though there were other mitigating factors, Steinberger argues that politics carries much of the blame for the decline, in particular the Mitterrand regime which in the 1980s imposed a socialist agenda on France of increased spending, entitlements and regulation, which with the advent of globalization proved disastrous for French agricultural life – and cuisine and wine. Strict labour laws, bureaucratic red tape and a punishing value-added tax of 19.6 per cent on food, made it difficult to turn a profit running a restaurant. And running a fine restaurant, one that would merit a Michelin star (or two or three), with the added expense of the fripperies and luxury normally associated with fine French dining, became impossible without cutting corners.
As for the Michelin guide itself, it too played no small part in the fall, with its rigid, fossilized standards, and lack of transparency. It discouraged innovation and promoted an aesthetic attitude that amounted to a passé decadence. As Steinberger notes, celebrated chef Bocuse allegedly won his third star for beautifying his bathrooms. With three- and two-star restaurants locked in an endless kabuki with Michelin to retain and regain their stars, the eye has been taken off the most important element: the food. The decline of kitchen skills became more and more obvious (and defeating) as chefs fled from France in search of more profitable venues in America, Britain and Japan, the result not only a thinning of existing talent but a diminishment of mentors, enthusiasm and conviction for the next generation of chefs.
In addition to the inescapable cultural spillovers of globalization, an influx of immigrants into France has also put the old ideas and attitudes about haute cuisine and “French” gastronomy to the test. French kitchens, thus far reluctant to hire people of colour, even French-born ones (perhaps fearing the contamination of foreign spices and methods) will have no choice but to change their tune as staffing these eateries gets more and more difficult, and social pressures force inclusion.
Although things sound grim for the French, Steinberger doesn’t end the book on an entirely negative note, perhaps to be expected from a passionate Francophile. In his conclusion he recounts a recent trip to Paris where he purchased a praline mille feuille at Pierre “The Picasso of Pastry” Hermé’s shop. He found a bench in front of a church and, pigeons and passengers puttering around him, started gorging. “In that moment, sitting there on a bench in the middle of Paris and taking bite after blissful bite, I am just where I want to be: back in the France that I know and hope will endure.”
AU REVOIR TO ALL THAT
Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.