"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Decline of French Cuisine

In an article in The London Review of Books http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n15/steven-shapin/down-to-the-last-cream-puff Steven Shapin reviews Michael Steinberger’s book Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine.  Shapin discusses how French cooking was the paragon of cuisine throughout the world, influenced a culinary philistine America to look beyond meat and potatoes, and then began a slow decline.  The greatest restaurants in the world were in California, Barcelona, and London not Paris.

This decline, says Steinberger, is due to many factors – a traditionalism which discourages innovation; competition from foreign chefs who are innovating and embracing internationalism, fusion, and cultural diversity; the modernization and globalization of the French economy where more women are working, fewer meals are eaten at home and prepared in far less time; the globalization of food symbolized by the popularity and penetration of McDonald’s; the dirigiste state which has restricted innovation and culinary creativity; and the dominance of the Michelin star system which rewards not only food but expensive presentation, décor, and ambience – all of which cost money and which price top-quality restaurants out of business.

I am one of the many Americans who discovered what it was like to really eat and enjoy food when I went to Paris in 1968.  I was absolutely stunned at the universal quality of the food, the diversity of food products in local markets, the care and attention paid to preparing and presenting a meal, the impeccable restaurant service, and the joyful celebration of food and eating. 

My favorite places to eat have always been brasseries, relatively inexpensive beaux arts restaurants with Tiepolo ceilings, baroque woodwork, elegant Baccarat chandeliers and a simple menu featuring seafood.  My first and most enduring memory is seeing a group of French diners at the next table clapping when the plate of fruits de mer arrived at the table – an enormous platter heaped with crab, oysters, shrimp, sea urchin and all their subspecies.  The tiniest shrimp to the largest.  Great Dungeness-type crabs and araignees de mer (spiders of the sea); cockles, periwinkles, and mussels…all presented beautifully on a bed of ice, garnished with seaweed and lemons.  I clapped too.

The weekly neighborhood markets beggared the imagination of even the most cosmopolitan gastronome – endless aisles of fish and shellfish and every cut of meat; tripe, kidneys, sweetbreads, liver, heart; hundreds of cheeses, soft-ripened, hard, barnyard, pungent, creamy; root and leafy vegetables, fruit, and flowers; freshly-baked bread, most often baguettes but also country wheat, all with crisp crusts and a soft, fragrant interior; desserts of all description – tarts, cakes, custards, cookies, chocolates.  It was simply staggering and amazing.

The variety of wines was endless and the complexity of the appellation system daunting.  With a little patience and some help from the knowledgeable great wines could be had at a reasonable price; and very exceptional wines commonly available.  During that same first trip to France in 1968 I was also introduced to French burgundy.  My friend was seeing a man from a well-known and wealthy French family and he insisted on burgundy for dinner – not just burgundy but the very best, grand cru growths of Charmes-Chambertin, Echezeaux, and Vosnes-Romanee.  They were spectacular.

I stayed with a friend who lived in the 7th Arrondissement, an upscale neighborhood with the best places to shop for food in Paris.  Within a few blocks there were fishmongers, butchers, bakeries, fruit and vegetable shops, patisseries, charcuteries, and much more. Everything was of the highest quality and well-presented.  The service was knowledgeable and polite, despite the reputation of the French.  What struck me most was the appreciation of high flavor and ripeness.  One did not buy a kilo of pears, but only those you were going to eat that day.  The grocer would always ask when you intended to eat the pears you were buying.  The cheese merchant would poke ten camemberts to find just the right one for today, tomorrow, or God-forbid the next day.

There was nothing like it in the United States.  I was living in New York City and the only place vaguely reminiscent of this cornucopia was Balducci’s, an upscale market in the West Village with an outdoor display and a variety of products from the US and from abroad.  It had a European – and, as I was later to find out, a very Italian feel to it; but it was nothing compared to the markets, the shops, and the stores of Paris.

I, like most people who enjoyed the delights of the French food experience was forever changed by it.  Julia Child and Alice Waters were profoundly influenced by French cuisine.  The Art of French Cooking was a must in any kitchen and the local, organic, fresh and creative cuisine of Waters changed American cuisine forever.  In the many years since my first trip to Paris, the American food experience has rivaled that of any other country including France.  The best wines in the world are from California and Oregon.  Willamette Valley pinots easily rival the most prestigious burgundies from France.  The new meritage blends are as good as the best from St. Estephe or St. Julien. Restaurants with adventuresome, unique, and creative chefs are par for the course.

France taught Americans how to eat. The lessons were about more than just eating well; they were about living well. It was never merely about the food, and the idea that there was nothing mere about food, that food was never merely fuel, was lesson number one. For Julia Child, the epiphany was a simple sole meunière in postwar Rouen: ‘I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume … I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.’ Julia wasn’t the first American to swallow France whole. The mysteries of haute cuisine had been revealed to visiting and expatriate Americans from the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age, and after World War Two they returned to see if it was still as it had been.

In 1929, the young M.F.K. Fisher had her initiation chez Aux Trois Faisans in Dijon – ‘safe in a charmed gastronomical circle’, having ‘seen the far shores of another world’. In the 1950s, the journalist Waverly Root lectured meatloaf-era Americans on the glories of a correct bouillabaisse. A.J. Liebling told New Yorker readers about the necessary conditions for being what he called a serious ‘feeder’ – ‘It goes without saying that it is essential to be in France’ – and Joseph Wechsberg did major damage to the magazine’s expenses budget by explaining what Michelin stars meant and then filing reports from every one of France’s three-star establishments.

Even Washington, DC where I have lived since 1977 has changed dramatically.  Thirty-five years ago it was still a Southern backwater.  The only specialty food shop was Larimer’s on Connecticut Avenue, but outside the superior cuts of meat and a few international items, it was not worth a trip.  Some Giant Supermarkets had small fish counters, but the fish was often old and nasty.  There were good corn and tomatoes from Poolesville, but they didn’t count, since they were staples of the old-fashioned American table for centuries.

Now there are a few good restaurants which rival those in London, New York, or San Francisco; farmers’ markets which carry excellent produce; and true specialty stores like Dean and Deluca.  Whole Foods has brought quality, variety, and service to the area.

The excellent American food and wine writer Michael Steinberger is concerned that haute cuisine has gone to pot. The disappointment is clear; its cause is not so clear. Is the problem that French cooking is not what it was, or that it is? In Casablanca, Bogie reminded Ingrid Bergman that ‘We’ll always have Paris.’ Now, it’s not so certain we will.

As a food aficionado and amateur chef, I began to notice something was wrong in France when the baguettes in Africa were far better than those in Paris.  I remember walking across the sandy, windblown, unpaved streets of Nouakchott in the late Seventies to get the freshest, most perfectly baked, moist and fragrant baguettes that I had had since 1968.  The same was true in Dakar, Bamako, and Abidjan.  The ones I ate in Paris on my short transfer stays to and from Washington were increasingly airy, more crisp than substance, more intent than result.  The same was true for the pain au chocolat or the croissants. What had been buttery, soft, and seductively melting had become dry and tasteless. Where was the chocolate?

I also remember one day in Paris, celebrating the Beaujolais Nouveau which had just arrived at Le Rubis, a bistro near the Place Vendome.  The atmosphere of expectation and curiosity about the new vintage was the same as that in the brasseries as the platter of shellfish arrived.  It was happy, lively, and animated.  As I was waiting for a table, I happened to look at the display window of a patisserie next door.  It was filled with the familiar tarts, custards, and puff pastries, but all baroque with architectural struts of chocolate, fantasies of structural berries and clouds of cream.  This was a long way from the exquisitely simple lemon tarts of the past.  It was too much.  Something was happening.  French cuisine was turning in on itself. What happened? Steinberger observed that the best French cooking was very innovative and that the tradition demanded it.

One of the principles of high French cooking was a commitment not just to intensity but to innovation, making things ‘far more original than anyone can imagine’. Combinations, preparations, tastes which are not just very good but very new – things to eat that expand your vocabulary of tastes.

But chefs, like most people enjoying success, got lazy, and the brilliance and spirit of French cuisine began to dim:

Haute cuisine once sat at the global top table and now it’s been pushed aside by other nations. The new tastes, new combinations and new presentations come from Spain, Japan, the United States and the changed beyond recognition restaurant scene in Britain. Au Revoir to All That argues that French cuisine got complacent, smug in its historical supremacy; its chefs paid little attention to what was happening in what had been the culinary provinces. As one French chef acknowledged: ‘People didn’t really cook; they just practised a cuisine,’ and French cuisine, Steinberger says, got stuck ‘in a sort of time warp’.

French cuisine began to change, says Steinberger, in the late Sixties, in a response to the democratic, popular uprisings of the students and the Left who demanded change and the elimination of privilege and elite influence.  Nouvelle cuisine was the emergence of the first significant change in French cooking in centuries.  Yet, says Steinberger, it was betrayed from within by Paul Bocuse:

It was betrayed, Steinberger says, by the media-savvy chef Paul Bocuse, wrongly identified as a leader of nouvelle cuisine. The new cuisine revolution needed its Trotsky, but what it got in Bocuse was its Stalin. What Bocuse did was to erode culinary creativity by taking its human source away from the stove. He established a new conception of what it was to be a successful ‘executive’ chef: abandoning the kitchen, launching frozen food lines in France and Japan, and turning himself into a global brand. The model was followed by a younger generation of star chefs, such as Alain Ducasse

French cuisine was always based on a foundation of respect for excellence in food products, preparation, and presentation.  The transformation of product into execution, however, took time, patience, careful marshaling of family resources, and diligence.  All of that is changing:

The statistics tell much of the story: in 1960, there were 200,000 cafés in France, now there are about 30,000, an average of two closing every day; the French home meal a generation ago took 88 minutes to prepare, now it’s 38 minutes; the great majority of French cheeses were unpasteurized in the 1950s, now only 10 per cent are made from raw milk; French family-owned wineries and farms have been going out of business at an alarming rate, and the proportion of the labor force employed in agriculture has dropped from 20 per cent in the 1960s to about 5 per cent today. And you surely have to give attention to some of the good things that have also eroded traditional foodways in France, as they have in many other countries: for example, slightly better pay for restaurant workers and the unshackling of women from the domestic kitchen.

The French increasingly turned to supermarkets and faster food to accommodate these changes.  The neighborhood butcher, grocer, baker, and patissier were exchanged for cheaper, more accessible products at the Prix Unique.  A woman could do one-stop shopping and pay less than she would in a time-consuming round of local, individual purchases.

‘The quarter-pounded conquest of France was not the result of some fiendish American plot to subvert French food culture. It was an inside job, and not merely in the sense that the French public was lovin’ it – the architects of McDonald’s strategy in France were French.’ The French buy ‘Les Big Macs’ because they like them.

The famous Michelin Guide which anointed restaurants with their stars and attracted food enthusiasts from around the world, also sowed the seeds of destruction of these very restaurants.  To meet up to Michelin standards, chefs had to invest not only in food but in décor, all of which cost money.  At the same time, tourists – even the wealthier ones – wanted the simpler and tastier food they were getting increasingly at home without the glitz, crystal, and glamor.  Some of the best restaurants anywhere are in the Mission District of San Francisco where the décor is simple, the clientele demanding, and the food excellent.

The Michelin system saddles restaurants wanting to get or maintain their third star with a crushing financial commitment. A three-star restaurant in Saint-Etienne went bankrupt in 1996 – the first time that had happened to one of the super-elite – and in the same year Marc Veyrat’s top-rated establishment in Haute-Savoie, then $9 million in debt, had a near-death experience.  The burden was too much, and the economics didn’t compute.  Diners didn’t want to pay as much for their food; they didn’t want restaurants to tell them how to dress; they didn’t want to spend quite so long at table; and they wanted very good food on their plates served up with less grandeur, less hauteur and a lot less froideur. Nouvelle cuisine had aimed to lighten up the food, and ‘new age’ clients wanted to lighten up the dining experience.

The true villain behind the decline of French cuisine, says Steinberger, is not Michelin or the media chefs, but the dirigiste French State:

In Steinberger’s story, innovation in haute cuisine, and probably haute cuisine itself – for all the talk of passion, aesthetics and integrity – flourish in a free enterprise system, and so his critique of French cuisine moves smoothly into a celebration of capitalist entrepreneurship and a condemnation of anything that stands in the way of the entrepreneur: restrictive labour laws, crushing VAT burdens, mountains of forms and government inspections.

Some of the ‘declinists’ think that what would set France right is a good dose of Thatcherism and Chicago School economics, and Steinberger considers that this sort of remedy would do much to fix the national cooking crisis.

All is not lost, however:

The recently emerging bistronomie movement in France attracts talented chefs capable of winning the Michelin race but who have opted out, electing to offer good food at fair prices, with fewer amenities and staff, often in low-rent districts.

It may be too late, however.  Anyone who understands and loves food is far less likely to go to France than London, San Francisco, or New York.  The cuisine of these cities has benefitted from immigration and a cultural diversity in taste.  Starting from almost zero in terms of good food, embodying the same entrepreneurial spirit that has energized their economies, and open to the best of the world’s cooking, British and American chefs have created fusion cooking which has taken cuisine to a whole other level.  Few diners could ever have imagined the combinations of Asian-European-African-Caribbean-American cuisine available today.

We owe a great debt to French cuisine.  My food life has never been the same since Paris 1968; but I, like millions of other foodies, have moved on.  It was a great and exciting ride while it lasted.

1 comment:

  1. Your article about French cooking is really informative . It is really great work. I like various cuisine food very much. I like French culture, tradition, french food etc . Last summer I have visited France as well as I have visited French restaurant. I have enjoyed French food very much.

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