French food was the envy of the world – before it became trapped by its own history. Can a new school of traditionalists revive its glories?
In 2006, after years reporting in the Middle East, I moved to Paris. It was an accidental choice, the serendipity of a sublet through a friend of a friend. It was meant to be temporary; at the time I was just looking for somewhere to hole up and finish a book. My friends all said: “Oh Paris, how lovely! You must be eating well.” They were surprised to hear me complain that Parisian menus were dull and repetitive. “Paté followed by nothing but entrecôte, entrecôte, entrecôte. Occasionally roast lamb, duck breast. No vegetables to speak of,” I told them. “It’s a tyranny of meat-in-brown-sauce.” As the rest of the world had begun to (re)discover their own cuisines and innovate, the French restaurant seemed to be stagnating in a pool of congealing demi-glace.
Elsewhere, places such as Balthazar in New York and the Wolseley in London seemed to be doing the French restaurant better than the French. In France, the old guard of critics and restaurateurs remained convinced that French cuisine was still the best in the world and a point of national pride. The bistros cleaved to the traditional red-and-white checked table cloths and chalked-up menus even as they were microwaving pre-prepared boeuf bourguignon in the back. In 2010, when the French restaurant meal was added to Unesco’s list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”, it felt as if the French restaurant had become a museum piece, and a parody of itself.
The perceived excellence of their cuisine and restaurants has long represented a vital part of French national identity. It was too easy to ascribe this decline to a certain national conservatism, complacency and parochialism – facile Anglo-Saxon taunts. The real story is more complicated. The restaurant business always has been subject to changes in society and economic circumstances. Food – what we eat and how we go out to eat it – is constantly evolving, according to trend and time.
I left France for four years between 2010 and 2014. When I returned to Paris, things had changed. Australians had established Italian coffee bars and you could finally get a decent cappuccino. New cocktail bars had appeared and trendy cafes were making mojitos with real lime juice. Le Hamburger was all the rage. Parisians had embraced Asian food in a big way – ramen counters proliferated, a cover article last year for Le Monde Magazine’s gastronomy special was entitled L’Asie Majeure, which can be roughly translated as “the Asian wave”. Even the white-haired doge of French chefs, the great Alain Ducasse, admitted that his ideal lunch was cold soba noodles. New flavours and a new informality to dining were taking hold, but at the same time, more than 200 years of restaurant culture is a formidable and loved institution. The question is how to manage tradition: what to keep and what to update?
For my parents’ generation, and for 100 years before them, it was axiomatic that French food was the best in the world. In 1948, aged 13, my father was taken by his uncle to lunch at La Pyramide, a restaurant in the south-eastern town of Vienne. It was an experience that changed his life. Dad had grown up at boarding school in the Highlands during wartime privation and rationing: powdered egg, burnt toast, chilblains. The effect of his encounter with the cuisine of Fernand Point, France’s most celebrated chef at the time, was profound. He had no idea that food could taste like that. Bresse chicken scented with tarragon and creamy potatoes dauphinoise seemed to melt on his tongue. He was impressed by the theatre of the service, the chocolate abundance of dessert trolley and the sommelier’s embossed silver tastevin worn around his neck as proudly the gorget of a Napoleonic marshal (Dad was always a great fan of Napoleon).
My father’s life, and happily for me, the lives of his children, too, were shaped by that meal. We grew up cross-channel ferrying to Michelin-starred destinations, eating frogs’ legs with our fingers, tasting wine we were too young to drink, learning the etiquettes of napkins-in-laps and fish forks. By the time he was six, my little brother liked to order six snails to start and then a dozen for the main course.
Such culinary epiphanies as my father’s were not uncommon in the 20th century. The biographies of great chefs and Francophile memoirs – Hemingway, AJ Liebling, Julia Child – are full of them. A dozen oysters and a bottle of Chablis seemed to banish the successive miseries of the first world war, the Great Depression and the second world war. A generous plate of cassoulet or blanquette de veau was counterfoil to the industrialised conveniences of late 20th-century consumerism: supermarkets, packets of crisps, cans of soup. In Britain and America, it seemed as if we had lost our links to the land and its bounty. France was different.
Back then, the best restaurants were French, and recipes were prepared according to the instructions of the great 19th-century French chefs Auguste Escoffier and Marie-Antoine Carême, and described even on English menus in italicised French: à la – chasseur, bordelaise, armoricaine. French was the epitome of what food – a chicken or a piece of beef chuck or a carrot – could aspire to be. “Oh, in France you can’t eat a bad meal!” I remember my mother saying in my childhood. It was a common remark in the era. “Even in the routiers [truck stops],” my mother declared, “the frites are fresh and the saucisson delicious.”
Fernand Point famously held that in order to master a dish you must cook it 100 times. He was as fastidious as he was fat. “Look at the chef,” he advised. “If he is thin, you will probably dine poorly.” His cuisine married the two strands of French restaurant cuisine: tradition and terroir; Paris and the provinces. On the paternal side, the 19th-century tradition of feeding rich people richly: Carême’s pièce de résistance confections, spun-sugar towers, soufflées and vol-au-vents and Escoffier’s artful flatteries marketed for a new age of celebrity; Tournedos Rossini, named after the famous composer; Peach Melba, after Nellie Melba the celebrated opera singer; strawberries à la Sarah Bernhardt (with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet). From the female side, Point took inspiration from generations of mothers, the cuisine familiale of peasants who lived and cooked close to the land, slowly braising one-pot dishes in the hearth: daube de boeuf, cassoulet, pot-au-feu, coq au vin.
In many ways, Point’s food represents the apex of classical French cuisine. Earthy yet refined, it relied on impeccable ingredients. The recipes in his cookbook, Ma Gastronomie, are almost absurdly simple. Very little is added to the main ingredient; a knob of butter, a ladle of stock, a handful of morels or a few tarragon leaves. Perhaps Point’s most enduring legacy is the idea that great cooking is about elevating the essential taste of each individual ingredient. But it is also a sticking point.
I remember having an argument with my French boyfriend because I suggested marinating the chicken for dinner in yoghurt and cumin. Boyfriend threw up his arms in alarm. “But isn’t the point to taste the chicken?” Furious and foreign, I replied: “No! It’s just the opposite! Cooking is about messing with the chicken! Cooking is about adding flavour!” Here was the rub between French culinary conservatism and the way we in Britain and America have magpied ingredients from all over the world and made national favourites out of hybrid curries and Tex-Mex.
For more than 200 years, France was the centre of culinary endeavour – the place where chefs aspired to train and where restaurateurs looked for inspiration – but this was changing. At the turn of the millennium, when Ferran and Albert Adrià at El Bulli in Spain were inventing molecular gastronomy by spherifying melon juice, France’s great chef du jour, Joël Robuchon, was perfecting mashed potatoes. There is no doubt that Robuchon’s purée is probably the most extraordinary mouthful of potato you will swallow, but my own La Pyramide moment came at El Bulli in 2004 when I ate through the Adrià brothers’ imagination. I still remember every dish: an egg yolk encased in a transparent ravioli; a perfect rectangle of silver sardine with a black dot of fish guts reduced to essential umami. It changed not only the way I thought about food, but the way I thought about life. (Why follow rules? What are boundaries? What delicious joy to think beyond such constraints!) In 1997 Adam Gopnik wrote a watershed article in the New Yorker, echoing what people had been whispering for a while: “Is there a crisis in French cooking?” Indeed, when I first arrived in Paris nine years later, there seemed to be. What had happened?
The restaurant is a modern invention and, crucially, a French one. Of course, there have always been inns and taverns where travellers could get a bite. But the atmosphere tended to be male, the fare rough and ready, the tables shared. The word “restaurant” originally referred to a restorative, a pick-me-up, a fortifier. In the 18th century, as Paris grew, butchers began to sell bouillons, nourishing broths made from offcuts of meat, to workers and tradesmen. These early soup stalls became known as restaurants; a 1786 decree allowed “caterers and restaurateurs [those who make fortifying soups]” to serve the public on site. You could now sit down at a table to partake of your soup instead of having to take it away.
This decree coincided with the construction of the Palais Royale, with its elegant arcades designed to house shops and ateliers (and, inevitably, brothels, in one of which, some have said, a young Lt Bonaparte lost his virginity) in the style of an Eastern bazaar. This new shopping mall necessitated a food court for peckish Parisians, and many of the early restaurants were located in and around it. Le Grand Vefour still occupies the same corner where there has been a restaurant since 1784. It is possibly the most beautiful restaurant in the world. Its walls are painted with nymphs and garlands in the style of Louis XVI remembering a Roman villa, and tables bear small plaques naming former patrons: Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre.
The French revolution swept the old order away. The guilds had carved up food into jealously guarded specialities – only charcutiers could cure sausage, only boulangers baked bread; a rôtissiseur could roast meats but was not permitted to bake a stew in an oven – but now they were broken up. Paris roiled with politics and plots, hungry pamphleteers and provincials; restaurants sprang up everywhere to feed them. And the food changed, too. The elaborate banquets of the ancien regime, in which whole animals were stuffed and dressed and placed all at the same time on the table, were replaced by dishes that were served by waiters from a platter – in the Russian style. The new restaurants embodied the changed times: a menu of choice, individual portions served to anyone who could pay. Democracy on a plate.
Almost as soon as they had invented the restaurant, the French invented the restaurant scene. The first restaurant critic, Grimod de la Reynière, wrote reviews in his gazette, the Gourmet’s Almanac. By the time Napoleon had been defeated for the first time, in 1814, the almanac listed more than 300 restaurants in Paris. The lexicon of cuisine soon followed. Marie-Antoine Carême was the first celebrity chef, who cooked for kings and emperors, and wrote the code of French cooking, categorising the five great mother sauces (béchamel, espagnole, velouté, hollandaise and tomato) from which all others were derived. Later, Escoffier organised the restaurant kitchen into the strict hierarchy that still prevails today, from the commis chefs at the bottom, to the chefs de parties who oversee the different stations of meat or fish or cold starter, to the sous chef and the chef de cuisine. Meanwhile, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer who coined the term gastronome, had made the intellectual leap: enjoying food was not just a pleasurable distraction, he argued, but a civilising art of existential import. As he once wrote: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.”
All the grammar and idiom of what we know and understand as “a restaurant” was developed by the French in the 19th century. The menu, the progression of canapés and hors d’oeuvres followed by entrée, plat and dessert, the accompanying march of aperitif, wine, coffee, digestif. The way a Maître D (Maître d’hôtel, or master of the house) welcomes guests, the formality of the waiters wearing traditional black tie. There was a specific pomp and performance to a restaurant, that was different to a diner or a pub or a taverna. In time, it would come to connote a sophistication that became seen as the special preserve of the French – and, for us rude mechanical Anglo-Saxons, the height of our aspirations.
Through the 19th century, the restaurant flourished and evolved. The bistro was a cheerful neighbourhood place, often run by a husband and wife. Brasseries were brewery eateries brought to Paris by Alsatian refugees from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, serving choucroute and draught beer. Bouillons were popular, working-class cafeterias that served cheap food in vast dining rooms that could seat hundreds at a time.
There were dozens of bouillons in Paris between 1850-1950. Several were chains – the first restaurant groups, perhaps even the first fast-food joints — reaping economies of scale by sourcing in bulk and flipping tables as fast as a revolving door. By the time I got to Paris there was only one left, Chartier, in a forgotten corner of the ninth arrondissement. I used to go there often for the everyday classics: oeuf dur mayonnaise, carottes rapées, poulet-frites, tête de veau. It had nicotine-coloured walls and the chattery humidity of a winter lunchtime crowd, and I liked to imagine it was the kind of place where Orwell had washed dishes when he was down and out.
During the Belle Époque, between the Franco-Prussian War and the next German invasion of France in 1914, Paris was the capital of the world. It embodied the breakneck speed and excitement of the times: cinema, Pasteur, the Eiffel Tower, aeroplanes, telephones, motor cars, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, Proust, Rimbaud, Diaghilev, art nouveau, haute couture and towering hats. Paris in the Belle Époque was zenith of style and taste; can there have ever been a better place and time in history to have enjoyed yourself? The French, as we all do, lament its passing. More than 100 years later, sometimes, as I would glance at a menu rich with foie gras, cream and beef, I would think they were consoling themselves by continuing to eat it.
But by the time Lost Generation were carousing in its past glories in the 1920s, Paris was already living as a romanticised version of itself. AJ Liebling, later to become a war reporter covering D-Day and a famous New Yorker essayist, fell in love with French restaurants in his early 20s, even as plenty of older gourmets were lamenting that their heyday was over.
For a long time after the second world war, no one noticed the decline of the French restaurant, partly because there was little competition. The British were boiling their vegetables to grey, and battering and frying everything else; the Americans were gelatinising salads and defrosting dinner. Chinese and Indian restaurants were still widely seen as cheap options (and still emulated the French with tablecloths and origami napkins), sushi was raw fish, and hardly anyone had been on holiday to Thailand or Morocco yet.
In the 70s my parents – like other foodies at the time – planned whole trips around the puffed asterisk recommendations of the Michelin Guide. Le Guide Michelin was first published in 1900 to encourage the early motorists to visit restaurants in the provinces, and soon became the grand arbiter of French cuisine. Obscure, definitive, conjuring an image of a lonely, corpulent inspector able to swallow whole goose livers in one gulp, Michelin had the power of a king to award stars and turn around the fortunes of a restaurant.
But it also became a leviathan that focused on one kind of restaurant – those with formal dining rooms, white tablecloths and serried ranks of waiters. By the 90s, people had begun to complain that Michelin was hidebound and tended to favour its favourites. Fernand Point died in 1955, but Michelin continued to award La Pyramide three stars out of respect to his widow, who continued to run the restaurant, for more than 30 years until her death in 1986.
By then, restaurant economics had become brutal. Even grand chefs were buckling under the expense of laundering their damask tablecloths to snowy Michelin standards. As Thatcher and Reagan were liberalising their economies, French president François Mitterrand promised “a break with capitalism”. He raised the minimum wage, allotted French workers a fifth week of paid vacation, lowered the retirement age to 60, and cut the work week to 39 hours (it was later to reduced again to 35).
The bill was piled on to sky-high VAT – 19.5% for restaurants – and high social-security taxes. Michelin stars became increasingly expensive to maintain. In 1996, Pierre Gagnaire’s three-star restaurant went bankrupt. In 2003 the chef Bernard Loiseau, in debt and losing customers, shot himself after hearing rumours that he was going to lose his third Michelin star. In the average French restaurant, in the everyday bistros, the situation was dire. Restaurant owners complained that it had become exorbitantly expensive to hire workers and almost impossible to fire them.
The crisis grew. In 2010, a documentary exposé on French TV channel Canal Plus broadcast undercover footage from inside the giant warehouse of an industrial caterer showing restaurateurs piling frozen ready meals into giant shopping carts. By one estimation, 70% of restaurants were using pre-prepared or frozen ingredients or sauces. It was clear that restaurants could no longer afford to employ people to peel potatoes, chop carrots, mince garlic, pick through parsley and all the other time-consuming jobs at the bottom of the food chain. Much easier to just buy the pre-prepped version and reheat it.
What I had noticed as gravied blandness had become a national scandal. The government intervened to save the French restaurant. In 2009, they reduced VAT (it went down to 5.5%, and is now at 10%) and a few years later introduced a new labelling system for restaurants, fait maison, made in-house, to indicate that dishes were freshly prepared. However, there were so many exemptions allowed – vegetables, except for potatoes, could be bought frozen, ready-peeled and chopped – that the designation was a pretty useless marker of quality.
Conservation can breed conservatism. Over the decades, French cuisine has been increasingly codified. The system of appellation d’origine contrôlée, a governmental designation that creates legal labelling criteria for the provenance and quality of food products, was introduced in 1935 and now encompasses over 300 wines, 46 cheeses, and foods such as Puy lentils and Corsican honey. The famous Bresse chicken, with its tricolore colouring of blue feet, white feathers and red cockscomb, must be raised with a minimum of 10 sq metres of pasture per bird, finished and fattened on grain for two weeks and then killed at minimum age of four months and a minimum weight of 1.2kg, before it can be certified with a special metal ring around its dead leg stamped with the name of the producer.
At the same time, France has developed exacting professional qualifications for its chefs, patissiers, bakers, butchers, charcutiers, chocolatiers. The CAP diploma (certificat d’aptitude professionnelle, which also covers plumbers, electricians, hairdressers and other trades) – is almost a prerequisite to working in culinary fields. For example, you can bake and sell bread without a CAP diploma, but for the first three years, you are not allowed to put up a sign that says Boulangerie. These trades are further organised into professional guilds and confederations, each with their own criteria for inclusion.
There is also a prestigious state competition open to many trades, from stonemasons to sommeliers. Over several days of tests, those few who are deemed by their peers in the profession to have qualified receive the title of un des meilleurs ouvriers – one of the best craftspeople in France – and earn the right to wear a tricoleur collar. (Just watch the 2009 documentary Kings of Pastry, to understand the rigour and tears and seriousness with which this distinction is won. The pastry event is held every four years, entry is by invitation and only three or four patissieres will be judged worthy to ascend to the ranks of Meilleur Ouvrier.)
There are also many gastronomic associations that celebrate and preserve specific dishes and maintain the traditional versions of tête de veau, cassoulet, andouille, boudin and regional specialities such as the black figs of Caromb and cherries of Venasque. These associations confer and organise awards, badges, dinners, festivals and competitions. I once met two representatives of the Association to Safeguard the Oeuf Mayonnaise, who were very happy to explain, without any irony, the criteria for an excellent example of the form. “It depends on the eggs, their freshness, how well they are cooked, and then the nap of the mayonnaise must be perfect – it should cover the eggs and not fall down too easily.”
This is all a great celebration of a grand culinary legacy, but there is a danger of tradition being codified into obsolescence, creativity shackled by specifications and rules. There has always been a tension in French restaurant kitchens between tradition and innovation. In the late 60s, a young generation of chefs revolted against the old order, as the rupture between the old and the young in the violence and general strike of 1968 pushed change in restaurants, too. They rebelled against Carême’s gluey, flour-thickened gravies and began to make sauces out of vegetables and herbs.
This movement became known as nouvelle cuisine and was championed by a new guide that hoped to overthrow Michelin’s regime. In 1973, its eponymous editors Henri Gault and Christian Millau issued their manifesto: “Down with the old-fashioned image of the typical bon vivant, that puffy personage with his napkin tucked under his chin, his lips dripping veal stock … no more of those terrible brown sauces and white sauces, those espagnoles, those périgueux with truffles, those béchamels and mornays that have assassinated as many livers as they have covered indifferent foods. They are forbidden!”
Nouvelle cuisine focused on simplicity. At the forefront of the new cooking, the Troisgros Brothers’ salmon with sorrel was as famous for its fresh acidity as it was for its pretty colours: pink and vivid green. For the first time, French chefs sent out dishes already carefully arranged on the plate. Gone were the table-side theatrics of flambéeing and carving, pressing whole duck carcasses in silver duck presses and quenelling sorbet; waiters were relegated to ferrying plates. But the plates were as pretty as a picture and, for the first time, chefs’ cookbooks began to heavily feature glossy colour photographs. Nouvelle cuisine was as much as aesthetic revolution as it was a culinary one.
There is much that modern chefs and their happy customers owe to the nouvelle cuisine movement – the art of plating, fish lightly cooked to opalescent instead of woolly, the liberal use of herbs – but at the time, plenty of people liked to laugh at the fussiness of the presentation and complained that the portions were too small. Innovations and the reactions to them have always been part of the kitchen table debate. In 1996, several well-known French chefs including Joël Robuchon, of mashed-potato fame, and Alain Ducasse, probably the most famous French chef alive today, issued a manifesto denouncing the “globalisation of cuisine” and innovation for its own sake. Eighteen months after the reactionary manifesto, opposing chefs of equal stature – known as the “group of eight” – fired back, rejecting nostalgia in favour of experimentation in the kitchen.
It is tempting to draw a neat loop from culinary conservatism to culinary cul-de-sacs, but this isn’t really fair. France has consistently produced extraordinary chefs cooking extraordinary food. This year, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the list first published in 2002 that has largely replaced Michelin as a global guide to top restaurants, ranked Mirazur in the south of France as No 1. It’s more the general mid-level restaurant culture that had got stuck, but in France, just like everywhere else, the internet has been breaking down frontiers and collapsing distances between trends and ideas and dishes.
In the new global foodie zeitgeist, a younger generation of chefs are now establishing themselves in French kitchens. Increasingly, they have trained in restaurants in London, New York, Copenhagen or Barcelona. When I came back to Paris in 2014, after four years away, a new era was in full swing. The hip new places used jamón Ibérico, turmeric and yuzu in their dishes, eschewed tablecloths and had pared a new “bistronomy” movement back to bare wooden tabletops, small plates and handwritten menus that changed daily. Just as before, they were championed by a new restaurant guide, Le Fooding, founded in 2000, which, with its Anglo-ish name, illustrated a new openness to global influences. This was all very welcome, delicious and fun. But often it felt as if France was borrowing from other food cultures – there was a lot of raw-fish appetisers, main courses a la plancha, and the ubiquitous burrata – rather than reinventing or reinvigorating its own.
For a long time, I felt as if good French food in Paris were the domain of a few almost prohibitively expensive, old-faithful restaurants, while the smattering of newer places were uber-chic and often booked up. The perfect bistro around the corner no longer seemed to exist. Of course, this is personal observation; everyone has their finds and their favorites. But where I live in Montmartre (a touristy area, it’s true), the classic French restaurant where the locals go – a large, jolly place with great platters of fruits de mer and fleets of waiters – easily cost us well over €100 for two, without much wine or dessert. For many years, Chartier was my stand-by, and the only bouillon in Paris providing a cheap but hearty sit-down meal. Suddenly, in the past year or so, three others have opened. They have been so successful that their proprietors are planning to open more.
Back to basics is proving popular. The Bouillon Pigalle opened in my neighbourhood a little over a year ago, an updated version of the genre. The space is modern and bright with clean lines, but the old, familiar style of decor has been respected; the banquettes are red and long baggage racks run above the tables, although these days people put their motorcycle helmets on them, not their hats. The young manager, Jean Christophe, told me that for the menu they had deliberately returned to nostalgia. “There are hamburgers and Caesar salad everywhere, but we can’t find our cultural recipes. We thought: ‘What can we do that reminds us of our grandmother’s cooking?’”
On the menu is celeri remoulade, herring in oil with potatoes, marrow bones, escargots, cauliflower cheese, boeuf bourguignon, pot-au-feu, blanquette de veau, roast chicken with frites. You can eat a starter, a main course, have a glass or two of wine and come out with change from a €20 note. The food is very good, but it’s not going to stick in your memory, change the way you think about food, or make you hanker for a certain dish for years afterwards.
Maybe we are now surrounded by so much variety and plenty that we have lost our ability to be amazed by food in the way my parents once were. Maybe what we think we remember about the glories of the French restaurant – because nostalgia is really a false memory, the longing for something that never really existed – is not really the meal, but the unexpected pleasure of the meal, the discovery of deliciousness. À la recherche du temps perdu; the ability to be surprised by something we eat is a mouthful of madeleine that is long gone.
Perhaps restaurants are less about the food than we think, and our relationship with them is more emotional and social than gustatory. When I asked a group of French restaurateurs what was the most important ingredient to a restaurant they answered, in unison, “ambiance” – the feel of the place. The last time I had dinner at Bouillon Pigalle I watched people at tables talking, plotting, flirting, celebrating. There were old people, solo diners, tourist families, couples on a date. The tables are side-by-side so you rub elbows with your neighbour, pass the salt, swap menu advice, get chatting. I realised that this is the fun and flow of the French restaurant experience. The waiter brought another demi-carafe of wine, conversation sparked and hummed, one table sang happy birthday, another was laughing loudly. The French after all, are master purveyors of joie-de-vivre. At Bouillon Pigalle, the line is permanently out the door.
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French food was the envy of the world – before it became trapped by its own history. Can a new school of traditionalists revive its glories?