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Death of French Cuisine?

On my last trip to Paris this summer, most of the food I ate was bad. I attributed that to traveling with kids and vowed I’d go back soon with another food-loving adult and reservations at some well-researched restaurants. Then I stumbled upon Michael Steinberger’s new book, “Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France,” (Bloomsbury USA, 2009) which contends that French cuisine is in serious trouble. Maybe I couldn’t blame my bad luck on the kids, after all.

Steinberger, who is the wine columnist for Slate and a contributing writer for the Financial Times, makes some very good points in his well-researched and engaging book. I called him up to talk about it.

Michael Steinberger

Michael Steinberger’s Ideal Paris Day

I’d have lunch at Yves Camdeborde’s Le Comptoir du Relais. After lunch, I’d stroll over to Pierre Herme for a praline millefeuille; he is the best patissier in Paris, and his praline millefeuille is an epic dessert. From there, I’d probably meander over to the Right Bank for a visit to to Caves Auge, the oldest wine shop in Paris and truly Ali Baba’s cave for oenophiles. For dinner, I’d probably go to Violon d’Ingres, or if I were in the mood for a taste of old Paris, Le Dome up on the Boulevard Montparnasse.

Caves Augé, 116 boulevard Haussmann, 75008 Paris; 01 45 22 16 97
Le Comptoir du Relais, 9 carrefour de l’Odeon, 75006 Paris; 01-44-27-07-50
Le Dome, 108 boulevard du Montparnasse, 75014 Paris; 01-43-35-25-81
Philippe Alleosse, 13 rue Poncelet, 75017 Paris; 01-46-22-50-45
Pierre Herme, 72 rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris; 01-43-54-47-77

Why did you write the book?

I’m an ardent Francophile and, for a long time, I was in denial about the decline of French cuisine. But as I recount in the book, the snails eventually fell from eyes; I realized that things were changing in France and not for the better, and at some point it occurred to me that there was a book to be written on this topic. I think it’s not just an important food story; it is an important cultural story. You might say that the book is a love letter to France from a concerned friend.

Has the book been published in France?

We just closed a deal there, much to my delight. Fayard will be publishing the book in France next autumn. I’d been told that the French would never buy the book — that the idea of an American chronicling the decline of French cuisine would be too tough for them to swallow. It took a while to sell French rights, but we found an editor who really liked the book, who found it very illuminating, and I’m thrilled. I’d always hoped that the book would be published in France and that it could perhaps, in some very small way, encourage the French to reconnect with their incredible gastronomic heritage and reinvigorate it.

Did Adam Gopnik’s 1997 New Yorker story, “Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?” help turn things around at all or has the decline he chronicled continued?

No, the decline only accelerated in the years that followed, which is why I felt that the subject was worthy of book-length treatment.

What are some of the most important factors you see contributing to the continued downward trend?

I see it as primarily an economic problem; the French economy has spent the better part of the last 30 years stagnating, and French cuisine has done likewise. Governments of the left and the right have served up the same toxic stew — anemic growth, chronically high unemployment, stagnant living standards, crippling levels of regulation and taxation, and the culinary arts have suffered grievously as a result.

You mention in your book the fact that many French women have entered the workforce. How does that affect French cuisine?

This has clearly been a step forward for French women, but it has not been so good for French cuisine. Less and less cooking is being done now in the home; meals often consist of takeout food that is consumed in slapdash fashion. So young palates are not being cultivated like they were in the past. Also, almost to a person, all the great French chefs of the last century had their interest in food nurtured in the family kitchen, by their mothers and grandmothers. But that umbilical cord is now being cut, and that’s a problem.

How do labor laws hurt restaurants?

There are regulations in France that make it very hard to operate a restaurant and turn a profit. The 35-hour work week was a disaster for the culinary industry; it is a business that requires long hours, and after the French government reduced the work week to 35 hours, restaurants had to hire additional staff to make up for the shortfall. The cost-per-worker is very high in France, and in an industry with thin profit margins to begin with, the reduced workweek was devastating. Fortunately, the government has now made it possible for people to work longer hours, but there is still considerable room for improvement.

Chefs were complaining that the high VAT [Value-Added Tax] rate made them charge more than customers were willing to pay, thereby hurting business. They wanted to be taxed at the same rate as the fast-food joints. Has this happened?

Earlier this year, the (President Nicolas) Sarkozy government finally made good on its promise to reduce the VAT from 19.6 to 5.5 percent, and the change took effect on July 1. Chefs had been clamoring for years to have the VAT reduced, claiming that it was a huge drag on their businesses. But the question, when the change took effect, was whether they would actually pass along the savings to diners (the VAT is embedded in the price of each item on the menu), and from what I’ve seen and heard, quite a few of them have been unwilling to do that.

A chapter of your book — about French food — is dedicated to McDonald’s.

France is now the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald’s, and they are now even opening a McDonald’s in the Louvre. The man who spearheaded the company’s strategy in France, Denis Hennequin, did his job so well that a few years ago he was put in charge of all of Europe, and it is believed that he is in the running to head up the fast-food chain worldwide. A Frenchman at the helm of McDonald’s — chew on that one for a moment.

Despite the famous French paradox, it seems even they are more concerned with health issues. Is this impacting classic French cuisine?

French cuisine lost its luster worldwide — to the Italians and Spanish — in part because of health consciousness. Interest in health is a big factor in why French cooking is seen as passe and why Mediterranean cooking has such interest.

Is it true they’re not drinking as much?

Wine consumption has dropped by more than 50 percent in France since the 1960s and continues to plummet. French 20-somethings see wine as an old fart’s drink. They prefer mixed drinks and beer. I think there is a much more vibrant wine culture in New York and San Francisco than you find these days in Paris, which is quite an amazing change.

There’s long been a well-known organic farmers market on the Boulevard Raspail. Has interest in organic, locally raised foods grown from there?

One of the bedrocks of French cuisine has been the notion of local, seasonal products, but I think we have a much more passionate locavore movement here in the U.S. now than you find in France. The French mostly shop at hypermarkets — giant supermarkets — these days and just don’t seem to be as interested in the organic food movement, or in supporting local artisans, as a lot of Americans now are. In a way, we’ve traded places: We’re acting more like them, and they are acting more like us. Interestingly, the manifesto establishing the International Slow Food movement was signed in Paris in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2003 that a French chapter came into existence. And today, participation in France is dwarfed by Italy and America. Maybe they don’t feel that their culinary heritage is threatened, or maybe they don’t care.

What about farming in France?

Small farms are disappearing in astonishing numbers; thousands go out of business every year. As recently as the 1960s, 20 percent of all French workers were employed in the agricultural sector; now, it is barely 5 percent. One byproduct of this is that a lot of the produce you find in those charming outdoor markets doesn’t actually come from France. And it is not just fruits and vegetables; it also things like cheeses. Raw milk cheeses are disappearing at a staggering clip. Fifty years ago, virtually 100 percent of all French cheeses were lait cru; now, barely 10 percent of them are. Even the most iconic French cheese of all, Camembert, recently came under threat.

You entitled a chapter of your book, “The Pain From Spain.”

In the last 10 to 15 years, Spain has supplanted France as the gastronomic lodestar; it is Spain that now produces the big ideas and the most influential chefs. For the first time in the annals of modern cuisine, France is not the intellectual leader.

But isn’t all that foam just a fad?

No, I don’t think so. It’s a step in the evolution of food. Every revolution produces excesses, but for every nine bad ideas, one good one will take root. Innovation is important. If traditions aren’t built upon, they become stagnant.

Do the French still go out for formal meals?

People don’t want to dress for dinner anymore; they don’t want to eat in the old style, with five guys in penguin suits hovering over them. They don’t like that ostentation. And with current living standards, they don’t have the money for it. They want a convivial setting and good food at an agreeable price.

{sidebar id=14}Thus “la bistronomie,” which you write about in your book?

The bistronomie movement is centered in Paris and has really taken off over the last 10 years. A number of very talented young French chefs, chefs who would unquestionably have climbed to the top of the Michelin hierarchy had they chosen to go that route, looked at the changing culinary and economic landscape and decided that there was not much of a future for opulent, ultra-luxury, Michelin-starred restaurants. These places were now impossibly expensive to operate, and restaurant-goers were no longer interested in this kind of formal dining — they wanted great food in a convivial setting, at prices they could afford, and this is what the bistronomie movement has delivered. So these chefs — people like Yves Camdeborde and Thierry Breton — have opened very smart bistros, often in less posh neighborhoods, and they have cut back on the amenities — fewer waiters, no sommeliers — in order to be able to use first-rate ingredients and serve wonderful food at reasonable prices.

Christian Constant is really the godfather of the bistronomie movement. When he was chef at the Hotel de Crillon, a number of incredibly talented young chefs, among them Camdeborde and Breton, worked for him. He was the visionary who saw these changes on the horizon, who understood that for economic and cultural reasons, the Michelin model did not have a bright future, and he urged his proteges to go in this different direction. And eventually, he took his own advice, opening an upscale bistro in the Seventh Arrondissement called Violon d’Ingres. He now has four restaurants, all on the same block, and they are all wildly popular — the food is great, the ambience is terrific, the service is smart but relaxed, and the prices are very affordable.

So, there’s hope?

Good eating still exists in France. There are some great restaurants, new and old, but you need to know where you are going now; you just can’t drive into a town or village and expect to eat well, because there is a good chance you won’t. The French need to wake up; they need to shake off the complacency and recognize that a lot has been lost — that France’s culinary heritage is endangered. We will never get back to the point where the French are the undisputed kings of cuisine; too much progress has been made elsewhere. Good food is happening all over the world now, and that is not going to change. But the French can certainly reinvigorate their culinary tradition, and for anyone who is passionate about food and wine, and passionate about France, that is the hope.


Zester Daily contributor Christy Hobart is a food and shelter writer in Los Angeles.


Zester Daily contributor Christy Hobart is a food and shelter writer in Los Angeles.