Have the French Become Less Food Conscious?

Written by admin on June 6, 2009 – 11:55 am -

A newly released book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France by Michael Steinberger believes that chefs in other countries are taking center stage in the arena of cuisine. The American journalist and wine expert’s premise is that food in France is no longer what it used to be and it’s on a spiraling permanent decline. Can it be reversed before it’s too late? From personal experience, I think he may have a valid point but refuse to believe French food won’t continue to a contender for some of the best in the world.

How well I remember a trip throughout France in May 1968. It was an eating orgy where the itinerary was planned with a Michelin Red Guide in one hand and a map in the other. We drove 3,000 kilometers in the new car we’d picked up in Germany that would be shipped to the US. What we saved on the price of the car paid for our vacation. Plus we were getting 10 French francs to the dollar which was probably the best currency exchange rate-timing ever. In retrospect, rather than simply eating, why didn’t we buy property?

What an indelible impression that trip made. We drove from town to town to eat and to absorb the culture. We underestimated how long the driving would take on the two lane roads and how we would be forced to forego many of the sites that were highlighted in our green Michelin Guide. In reality, we were in France to eat and drove seven hours to eat at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant on the outskirts of Lyon. In spite of curtailing the urge to have our faces fall into our plates (and they kept coming), the meal was so memorable I still remember the menu.

It was a personal turning point when food and wine became an integral part of my life. I took cooking classes and spent hours with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Thank goodness there was a French Market in Washington, DC, where you could buy special cuts of beef, incredible produce and pay double what you’d have to in the supermarket up the street.

It used to be hard to get a bad meal in France but you can now. There’s no longer the same pride in cuisine as there was less than 25 years ago.  The glory, grandeur, starched white table clothes with food being served by waiters, who consider their work a profession and one of which to be proud, is on the wane.

Paris’s former New Yorker correspondent Adam Gopnik published an article in 1997 suggesting that French food had become “rigid, sentimental, dull and incredibly expensive.” Gopnik said, the “muse of cooking had moved on to New York, San Francisco, Sydney and London. In these cities, the restaurants exude a dynamism that was increasingly hard to find in Paris.”

In addition, the French were cooking less at home than ever before, and pre-packaged and processed food had made enormous inroads into daily life. The French still eat out a lot, but they don’t have the same type of disposable income.

In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and now it has fewer than 40,000. Many of them were replaced by fast-food chains and McDonald’s where’s there’s high turnover and big profits. There are more than 1,000 McDonald’s and the chain has become France’s largest private-sector employer. And even though many people swore that McDonald’s would never succeed, France is the second most profitable market for it worldwide.

French vintners are also feeling the pain from increased global competition and perhaps more important, the French are currently drinking 50% of the wine they did in the 1960’s.

This isn’t to imply that you can’t get wonderful food in France. Stellar chefs such as Christian Constant trained some of the people, who have become Paris’s best chefs, when he headed to the kitchen at the Crillon Hotel, and can take credit for inaugurating a less expensive but more innovative type of cuisine found at many three-star restaurants. Sadly, some of them may have been floating on their past reputations and all of them are incredibly expensive.

Many of Constant’s disciples have gone on to create small restaurants with wonderful food but without lavish décor and ostentatious surroundings. Pascal Barbot, who struck out and opened L’Astrance was awarded a third Michelin star in 2007, when he was only 34. Barbot is the most revered of the group of young stars. And let’s hope the French government enables small restaurateurs to realize a profit during this difficult economy via taxation. 

Some feel the French have become complacent about their gastronomic heritage. I refuse to believe that and am optimistic this has been a temporary aberration plus people worldwide have become increasingly interested in good food and are more discerning than when France had a hold on gourmet cuisine.


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