Finding fault with French cuisine is an old story — but Michael Steinberger is working with fresh ingredients.
Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End
By Michael Steinberger
(Bloomsbury, 256 pages, $25)
We have it on the authority of none other than Nicolas Sarkozy
that France has the best gastronomy
in the world. So convinced is he that he is pushing UNESCO to declare French cuisine part of the world’s cultural heritage, something with outstanding universal value right up there with the Taj Mahal, Chartres Cathedral, the pyramids of Giza, and the Statue of Liberty. Whether the international functionaries in that Paris-based culture palace will agree remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that over the centuries France has created one of the world’s most artful, complex, and enjoyable forms of preparing food, teaching the rest of us how to cook — and eat — in the process. The French preoccupation with eating well has benefited us all. As the great epicurean Brillat-Savarin put it in his Physiologie du goût in 1825, gastronomy is our last pleasure as we grow older, the one that consoles us for the loss of all the others.
Has French cooking now become another victim of the zeitgeist and its assault on values, standards, and excellence? Michael Steinberger, Slate’s longtime wine columnist and unrepentant gourmand, toured French restaurants and chefs to see whether their cooking still measures up. He concludes regretfully in his new book that it does not. French chefs, he finds, have been content to rest on their laurels while others, including the likes of Spanish cooks, have surpassed them in some respects.
To be sure, finding fault with French cuisine is an old story. The writer Alexandre Dumas père was already lamenting in 1869 that excessive haste was beginning to mar French cookery, with fewer chefs willing to spend the necessary hours tending a boiling pot au feu. A. J. Liebling, who held that the first requirement of a professional food critic was a good appetite — he qualified handsomely — complained that in 1939 there was a decline in the quality of Paris restaurants. “The decline, I later learned, had been going on even in the '20s,” he wrote. “We are headed for a gastronomic Dark Time.”
Maybe Liebling was prescient and the Dark Time is now at hand. Steinberger rightly places the deterioration of French cuisine in the overall context of the country’s palpable decay in everything creative, from literature to films, fine-art trade to fashion and the once-admired education system. “Nothing in the cultural sphere was spared,” he writes, “not even food.” The state of gastronomy may seem a frivolous topic when the world economy is in a mess, but it augurs nothing good for what used to be called civilization. Time to reread Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
For Steinberger, a major villain of the piece is socialism French style, particularly as practiced by François Mitterrand during his 14-year term: “France’s government seemed determined to take a hammer and sickle to free enterprise, to punish the striver rather than the slacker, and to micromanage the economic life of the nation down to the last cream puff…France had become a profoundly dysfunctional nation.”
In contrast to the wealth spawned by the Reagan and Thatcher years that helped spark the gastronomic revolutions in the U.S. and Britain, France’s economic torpor of the last 30 years, with its weak growth and high unemployment, meant there was less money in French pockets to spend on restaurant meals. In recent decades the number of cafes in France has been divided by five. Bistros have gone out of business by the thousands — becoming so relatively rare that one in Paris’s 16th arrondissement is now classified a historic monument, if not yet on the World Heritage list. Per capita wine consumption has dropped 50 percent, ruining scores of vintners.
Incredibly, the French no longer care that much about food. In good part that is because French women, doubtless inspired by Simone Signoret’s exhortations to liberation, increasingly prefer flirting in the office to preparing meals and nurturing the appreciation of good food that is the foundation of a national cuisine. The legendary family meal, that used to average an hour and a half, is now over in 38 minutes. Even that is often at a McDonald’s, where more than 1 million Frenchmen eat every day, apparently lovin’ it. (After initial resistance, France has become McDonald’s biggest market outside the U.S., with more than 1,000 outlets.)
Neighborhood butchers, bakers, and cheese shops have been going out of business in droves, replaced by trendy clothing stores. Cavernous hypermarkets with 40 or more checkout lanes account for three-quarters of retail food sales, and Internet food shopping is gaining fast. Perhaps most ominously for the French restaurant scene, Steinberger reports, future chefs are no longer required to know how to truss chickens, open oysters, or make a béarnaise sauce to qualify for their professional certificate. Rather, they are tested on techniques for using processed, powdered, frozen, and prepared foods.
Some of France’s most famous chefs, particularly Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, are no longer involved in their métier. Steinberger has lunch with Bocuse at his restaurant near Lyon and comes away depressed. “The food was awful,” he remembers. “I was dumbstruck by how bad my lunch was, a parody of Escoffian cuisine.” It was Bocuse, one of the prominent creators of nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s, who became the first international celebrity chef, opening restaurants abroad and leaving the cooking to underlings. “Truant chefs,” as Steinberger calls them, became the norm in the 1980s and '90s, busier opening restaurants in Japan and New York than sticking to their stoves. The quality and creativity of French haute cuisine could only suffer.
The most flagrant truant today is Alain Ducasse, Steinberger charges. With more than 20 restaurants on four continents bearing his brand, along with a cooking school, publishing imprint, and more than 1,000 employees worldwide, Ducasse no longer even pretends to be anything but a businessman. The author concludes that he epitomizes much of what is wrong with French restaurants today: absentee chefs, money-motivated self-promotion, a lack of sincere devotion to good cooking. (Even Americans, we of short attention spans and burger-dulled palates, saw through Ducasse’s New York restaurants, the town’s food critics reacting indignantly to their flashy vulgarity and outrageous prices.)
Where the author does find gastronomic hope is Spain, to my mind a questionable choice. He has abundant praise for the country’s nueva cocina, with its “hunger for innovation, openness to new ideas, and desire for creative freedom.” But innovation for its own sake can turn into self-caricature. Instead of relying on their own taste, talent, and respect for local produce to refine and reinterpret traditional dishes, Spanish chefs began treating cooking as a form of chemistry. They accordingly filled their kitchens with test tubes, syringes, pH meters, and lasers. The result: “a riot of strange powders, foams, jellies, flash-frozen dishes, and unusual flavor combinations.” This produced dishes like pistachio truffles frozen with liquid nitrogen, coconut ravioli in soy sauce, Parmesan ice cream sandwiches, and — my favorite — exploding strawberry milkshakes.
In nodding approval of such culinary clowning, Steinberger comes across as a foodie liberal taking the neophiliac approach to haute cuisine: make it novel, make it fun, surprise us. Creativity is certainly important, but, pace nouvelle cuisine and nueva cocina, it is not the be-all and end-all of fine cooking.
He also tends to neglect that indefinable thing called taste, an admittedly old-school notion including judgment, discernment, and refinement. It is not to be confused with tasty. Otherwise, three stars would go to Denny’s Super Grand Slamwich with two scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, shaved ham, mayonnaise, and American cheese on potato bread grilled with maple spice spread and hash browns. Not very epicurean but tasty — and creative — as hell.
The food people eat and the way they prepare it, like other elements of traditional culture, is the tangible expression of a nation’s soul. Brillat-Savarin also wrote, famously, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” By that measure the French, and by inference we as well, have become hurried, harried, undiscriminating, and largely incapable of nuanced pleasure.
But the end of france? Come now. The France where you couldn’t get a bad meal ended decades ago when it, alas, began to join the Modern World. That doesn’t mean you can’t still find good vittles there. On a recent journey to the South of France I stopped off at La Pyramide, a restaurant in Vienne that was once one of the pinnacles of gastronomy under its famous chef, the late Fernand Point. It’s not what it used to be — what is? — but the current chef, Patrick Henriroux, respects his heritage and does a creditable job at the stove. I started with a creamy bisque of succulent crayfish and stuffed mushrooms, followed by perfectly cooked lamb chops breaded with white poppy seed and garnished with spinach gnocchi, and ended with a Grand Marnier soufflé that nearly floated off the plate. No creative breakthroughs or exploding dishes, but a memorable dining experience.
An avowed Francophile, Steinberger clearly knows his way around French food. It’s regrettable that his predilection for the new and inventive leads him to stray from the epicurean ideal. (And I can’t help wondering about the palate of someone who drinks red wine with a vinaigrette-drenched salade Niçoise.) But despite that, and the book’s provocative, over-the-top title, this is a readable, thoughtful, well-reported critique of the parlous current state of French gastronomy.
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