The New Face of French Gastronomy

Which city boasts the most Michelin stars? No one would be surprised to learn that, for much of the famed guide’s history, the answer was Paris. Yet, as Michelin’s website notes, 2007 marked a major shift in the form of a first-ever restaurant guide to Tokyo. More notably, Michelin awarded the city more stars than it had awarded to Paris. Still, observers could argue that one set of subjective rankings does not signal a broader trend. In 2013, however, another restaurant guide, San Pellegrino’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, continued to undermine French legitimacy. The list contained only six French restaurants, with none placing in the top 10.

France’s crise culinaire is a subject that generates heated debate. There are those who strongly defend a long history of culinary tradition, while detractors call for chefs to be dragged to their metaphorical guillotines. The French themselves lament the fall of their once-unassailable reputation, and cite its perceived decline as another symptom of a weak economy and a general erosion of French culture. They are forced to ask themselves: Is France even a relevant player in the global culinary arena?

This debate was addressed directly in July 2013, when the French newspaper Le Monde devoted its entire monthly magazine to a portrait of La Table. The articles examined all aspects of the current state of French gastronomy and included topics such as celebrity chefs, bistros, grand restaurants, ingredients, and culinary techniques. The aim was to respond to some of the questions currently on the minds of French citizens and tourists alike about gastronomy. In recognizing gastronomy’s particularly unique role in France today, Le Monde noted, “The passion of cuisine and the art of the table are, for a country marked by depression, signs of encouragement…. The gastronomic tradition and concept of the abundant table are as much about nourishing the body as they are a salve for the spirit” (translated from French).

Along with the popularity of Le Monde’s magazine came a dubious development for the French food world. Despite continued fascination with haute cuisine and more traditional aspects of gastronomy, for the first time in history, sales from fast-food restaurants represented more than half (54%) of sales in the restaurant industry. In addition, France became the second-largest market worldwide for McDonald’s, another indication that the French are trading multicourse meals and white tablecloths for more modern styles of dining that cater to a faster-paced lifestyle. The younger segment of the French population seems far more likely to grab a burger chez McDo than to sit down at an expensive restaurant for an elaborate three-course meal. The result? Many members of older generations fear for the long-term survival of the more traditional meals that at one time made France so famous around the world.

For the first time in history, sales from fast-food restaurants represented more than half (54%) of sales in the restaurant industry.

To fully understand France’s culinary culture, one must consider its history. Modern French gastronomy dates back as far as the 16th century, when weary travelers would stop at roadside shops to eat rôtissage des viandes (roast meat). These early restaurants established a type of service-oriented environment distinct from other Western European countries such as Italy, where meals would be consumed only in the home. During the Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath, restaurants continued to evolve and represent a type of democratization of French society. As with many industries, guilds no longer reigned supreme, and individual chefs could now offer food to bourgeois consumers. Over the course of the next two centuries, this ideology spurred the emergence and modernization of haute cuisine and the grand restaurants that many today associate with French gastronomy.

For the French, gastronomy has come to represent much more than food. In 2010, UNESCO added the “French gastronomic meal” to its Intangible and Cultural Heritage list and defined the term as “a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups…. [I]t is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking.” Moreover, it is not only the food itself that plays a critical role, but also the ambience, the quality of the products used, and the overall structure of the meal. In that sense, it is important to explore numerous facets of the current culinary scene in France in order to assess its long-term prospects.

It should be no surprise, then, that Le Monde dubbed the practice of proclaiming the death of French gastronomy as the nouveau sportif of the press. Successive headlines lose their potency as readers gradually become numbed to the sensationalist cries for attention to a problem that many would classify as endemic. A closer examination of the melting pot of France’s culinary culture, however, reveals an entirely different outlook. A new set of trends on both the micro and macro levels is helping to shape the new face of French gastronomy. It is far from dead; it is simply adopting a new guise.

A Necessary Skill Set

French gastronomy is far more prevalent in the world than we realize. Sandra Messier, director of communications at Le Cordon Bleu Paris (LCB), noted that the long-standing tradition of young chefs from around the world eager to study in France is stronger than ever. They arrive with the aim of learning classic French techniques to further their abilities and hone their skill sets. After their studies, some remain in France to open their own restaurants and take advantage of the fertile gastronomic environment there. Whether they serve French or international cuisine, they develop their own innovative styles that cross-fertilize and strengthen the gastronomic community in France. Notable examples include Daniel Rose, an American who opened the French restaurant Spring in Paris. It is one of the hardest restaurants to book in the city. Another example is Hiroyuki Hiramatsu, a Japanese chef who left behind an empire of restaurants in Asia to open Hiramatsu Paris, one of the pillars of the Franco-Japanese fusion trend on the Parisian restaurant scene.

In contrast, Messier spoke of other foreign students who studied in France and returned to their countries of origin. She described a vast community of accomplished alumni who leverage French gastronomic techniques to change and sometimes “heighten” their own gastronomic cultures. A noteworthy example of this trend is Peruvian cuisine, which has been particularly prevalent in Latin America and smaller European countries that are developing their own haute gastronomy. The international importance of French culinary education-focused institutions is evidenced by the fact that LCB has schools in nearly 20 countries, ranging from Peru to Thailand. LCB’s global director traveled to China in mid-2013 to herald the opening of a new school there.

Beyond the realm of individual chefs, there is still a high demand for French cuisine among the clientele of elite restaurants around the world.

Beyond the realm of individual chefs, there is still a high demand for French cuisine among the clientele of elite restaurants around the world. Many of the leading restaurants outside France are French and seek to employ chefs trained in this classical cuisine. Thomas Keller’s Per Se and the French Laundry are great examples of this trend. In the domain of pastries, French-trained chefs remain highly sought-after everywhere as masters of desserts. Thousands of schools around the world that teach French gastronomy and pastries exclusively (including branches of LCB) operate to satisfy demand from young chefs who seek to gain French culinary training but cannot afford to travel to France. Overall, it is clear that international chefs continue to regard France as a reference for techniques and savoir faire and seek to study French gastronomy to gain the skills needed to master all cuisines.

Bistronomy

When he pondered the rise, fall, and future of French gastronomy in his book Au Revoir to All That, wine critic Michael Steinberger described French gastronomy as tired and strongly criticized the decline of the once-grand French restaurant scene. Based on his experiences, he felt that many of the best restaurants in France lack the energy and exuberance that are evident in the gastronomic cultures of New York, London, and especially Spain — clearly threatening France’s once-hegemonic position. He also pointed to the common French problem of relying on tradition and past success, noting that for many French chefs, “an inclination to rest on former glory [is] understandable.”

In addition, Steinberger describes how French gastronomic traditions are evolving in ways that demonstrate innovation and change incarnated in the bistronomy movement. The young chefs at the head of this culinary movement represent the positive future of French gastronomy and are breathing new life into France’s culinary culture. Chef Christian Constant is one of the leading figures in this movement, and his story demonstrates the importance of ensuring that French gastronomy remains a player on the world stage.

Constant built his reputation as a chef at Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris. He left Les Ambassadeurs at the Hotel de Crillon to open his own restaurant, Violon d’Ingres, where he received two stars at the height of his fame. In 2004, he reached a turning point and decided to reinvent Violon. The economic climate was difficult, and the public was spending less money on food. Constant decided to cut the extravagances required by starred restaurants — such as a sommelier, expansive wait staff, and expensive décor — and focused all his energy on the food itself. He succeeded in developing a mid-priced €45 (US$61) menu that maintained high-level quality and utilized classic French ingredients such as foie gras and morels. Food experts and critics celebrated his simple idea, which continues to change the face of French gastronomy as we know it with principles of good taste and high quality at reasonable prices. A number of chefs who have worked with Constant have moved on to open their own establishments, and renowned restaurants such as Frenchie, Septime, and Chateaubriand continue to disseminate his innovative philosophy.

Bistronomy will grow and thrive, especially as Europe’s economic stalemate continues and restaurants must cater to the demands of a public seeking to spend less time and money on fine dining.

According to chef Bertrand Grébaut, one of the leaders of the bistronomy movement, “the strength of the French cuisine of my generation is restaurants where there is the same quality, the same demands, the same work as in a three-starred restaurant, but accessible to everyone.” Observers suggest that bistronomy will grow and thrive, especially as Europe’s economic stalemate continues and restaurants must cater to the demands of a public seeking to spend less time and money on fine dining. This movement represents the evolution of French gastronomy in the modern context.

Food Trucks: Fast Food Frenchified?

By taking bistronomy’s principle of quality food at low prices to a higher level, food trucks also represent a dramatic innovation in the French culinary culture. Food trucks first appeared in France around 2010 as part of a wave led by expatriate American chefs. These trucks usually serve one dish that is easy to prepare and eat while standing, demonstrating to consumers that French cuisine can be simple, inexpensive, and quick. This trend exists largely in Paris, reflecting the city’s ongoing role as the center of French gastronomy over many centuries. Critics have attacked this American-style fast-food invasion, but there has been a long history of street food in France, dating back to the Middle Ages. According to French historians cited by Le Monde’s La Table magazine, during that period it was more common for people to purchase and eat food on the street than to cook at home.

Today, street food is gaining increasing renown and acceptance — even celebration — by the public and by the gastronomic community. The November 16, 2012, issue of the journal Les Echos cites Kristin Frederick, the American chef who opened the first Parisian food truck in 2011 and who has quickly become an icon in the gastronomic community. Frederick herself received the Prize of Honor from the French Fooding Guide in 2013. The food-truck movement has also demonstrated its strong role in the gastronomic culture by attracting heavyweights such as French Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx, who created the Street Food Association in 2012 to attract a young public that dedicates less time to eating and seeks quick, good meals. This recognition by a growing populace of both consumers and industry veterans shows that food trucks play an important role in ensuring French gastronomy continues to evolve and progress.

That eating habits are a theme worthy of debate highlights gastronomy’s importance in the lives of French citizens. While it is difficult to deny that France now holds a tenuous grasp on its position as the world’s culinary emporium, there is still a special link between the French and their food that even globalization and difficult economic times may be unable to erode. Even today, when the top-ranked restaurants in the world may be found in Japan, Scandinavia, or Spain, tourists flock to France to sample a meal at a bistro as much as they do to see the Eiffel Tower and to savor a plate of cheese as much as the picturesque countryside. If one can make a general statement about French gastronomy in 2013, it can be said that it has become faster-paced, more open to fusions with the cuisines of other countries, and, most importantly, more accessible to both foreign and local consumers. This development might be exactly what French cuisine needs to remain on top in the twenty-first century.

This article was written by Trex Desai, Frank DeSimone, and Sarit Henig, members of the Lauder Class of 2015.

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