Beatriz Da Costa
A table set for two September weeks dedicated to manger local (local eating) at Youpi et Voilà!! in Paris.
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What Is France?

Sophie Brissaud - November 2013

That the question should even be posed shows how far the tectonic plates have shifted from the bedrock of the culinary world. Sophie Brissaud looks at how the French are coming to grips with a new world order. Vive la France

On February 5, 2008, Pierre Gagnaire was being interviewed on stage at the Omnivore food festival in Deauville, on the English Channel coast of Normandy. Answering a question about the impact of his modern, creative cooking on French cuisine, he cried out: “We destroyed them! Back in the 1980s, there were many great cooks who made rabbit terrines, and we, the new generation of innovative chefs, caused them to disappear!”

“But you were one of those innovative chefs,” said the host.

“Of course I was!” Gagnaire answered dramatically. “We were looking straight ahead, deeply absorbed in our experiments. But ultimately, we did condemn those chefs to death.”

One wasn’t quite sure what to think of that heart-wrenching, though ambiguous, confession. Did it mean that innovative chefs had been consciously destroying French traditional cooking, or was it just a rhetorical lament over the blind steamroller of modernity squashing every bit of cultural heritage, whether we like it or not?

Good French food is an elusive subject. Everyone knows it when they eat it, but it’s harder to define in a few words. In fact, there is not one French cuisine but many different styles, at every level of society and in every region, constantly overlapping and borrowing from one another. “In France, food and society have always been inseparable,” says Éric Roux, founder of OCPop, the Observatoire des Cuisines Populaires, a think-tank devoted to the sociology of French food. “Changes in food always follow changes in society. Thus, when studying the mutations in French cooking, it’s important to ask what exactly is changing: is it restaurant food, or the food that people eat on a daily basis?” Indeed, journalists and writers generally address the former, rarely the latter. Perhaps Gagnaire is overstressing his personal influence on the demise of rabbit terrines.

French cuisine is an ever-changing, multileveled, multifaceted phenomenon. Both chef Bertrand Grébaut’s raw veal and oyster tartare covered with crispy bread crumbs and a hearty cassoulet served at a countryside bistro have an equal right to represent it. So where are things standing now, five years after Gagnaire’s rant at Omnivore Deauville and 10 years after Arthur Lubow, in his article “A Laboratory of Taste” (the New York Times, August 10, 2003), declared French food “in decline,” comparing it unfavorably to a buoyant and creative Spanish nueva cocina?

Whatever the answer, it’s clear that no one is indifferent to the fate of French food. Everybody has an opinion about it. Regularly, articles and essays are published on its impending doom, or at least on its decline: whether it’s blamed for being less new and exciting than its Spanish and Scandinavian equivalents or for having poorly fared in preserving its traditional character; whether it’s judged as not innovative enough or not conservative enough, it always does wrong. Cries of mourning rise when the baguette is in jeopardy (with two major American newspapers once expressing their anxiety only three weeks apart), drums are beaten when the picture-postcard French bistro with “lacy curtains” threatens to disappear. Everybody worries about French food as though it were their own heritage.

And somehow it must be the case, since, in 2010, UNESCO classified “the gastronomic meal of the French” as an Intangible Cultural Heritage (see “Not Just a Meal,” January/February 2011). In France, even those who cheered at the news wondered what that really meant. Some complained that the fuzzy definition of le repas gastronomique (instead of just “la cuisine française”) only highlighted the impossibility to protect a culinary tradition, and others pointed out that French food was truly in danger since it was being treated like a museum item. Michael Steinberger (Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine, 2010), interviewed by L’Express, labeled that classification “absurd,” an “arrogant pose” conveying “a stiff image” of French cuisine. The event, on the whole, inspired little enthusiasm and didn’t help with the general loss of tradition and the very real food issues that France was experiencing like any other developed country.

Since the early 2000s, the discourse about the decline of French food has been oscillating between satisfaction and sorrow: some cheer that ever-arrogant France no longer produces “the best cuisine in the world”—however exaggerated that claim ever was—while others simply mourn the loss. Much of the concern revolves around the decline of haute cuisine at the top and the invasion of fast-food joints at the bottom, as if there were nothing worth reporting between these two extremes. However, as Roux points out, French food is not just restaurant food. So, have the French stopped going to the local bistro, or buying food at their open markets? Have they stopped eating?

It could be argued that French haute cuisine is in a relative state of stagnation. Many Michelin two-star or three-star restaurants in France no longer deliver quite the excitement and wonder that made them famous. La grande cuisine française has fallen victim to Michelin formatting, compelled to deliver to an upscale clientele that wants to be pleased rather than surprised. Not willing to take risks, it tends to invest more on technical skills and stylistic homogeneity than on taste, and is no longer investing in the best seasonal produce, leaving that to more modest—and more inventive—bistro chefs. Besides, haute cuisine has become more international than French: In 2013, one does not eat better three-star French food in France than in Hong Kong, New York City, or Tokyo, whether the chef is French or not. “The best three-star French meal we had in a restaurant in recent years was at Le Bernardin [in New York City],” remarks Pierre-Jean Pebeyre, a famous, well-traveled French truffle vendor.

Every year, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, published by London-based Restaurant Magazine, comes to remind the world that French gastronomy no longer matters that much. However, a closer look at it reveals a pattern: what is listed is not exactly the “best” restaurants but the hottest, most media-cherished, many of them serving a cutting-edge “techno-emotional” style that combines modernist techniques and neo-agrarian folklore (or, more simply, Texturas powders and foraged herbs). France mostly stays out of the picture, for modernist cooking never really caught on there, and gathering food from the countryside, or buying it fresh at producers’ markets, is not exactly a news item—the French have always done that.

It remains that—with its Michelin landmarks having become somewhat boring and many of its good restaurants being kept out of the world buzz­—French cuisine, understandably, no longer makes the top news. But the real issue is: Is there still good food in France? By focusing only on technology-based modernist cuisine and on haute gastronomique food, everybody is bound to miss the target. The target, as it appears, is below.

In 2003, a few weeks after Lubow wrote off French food in the New York Times, French food journalist Sébastien Demorand forged the neologism bistronomie, a combination of bistro and gastronomie, to describe a new French trend—a fusion of haute and bistro cooking without the Michelin pomp and fuss. Dishes such as roasted woodcock with cèpe mushrooms, oysters and crispy vegetables in seawater jelly, beef cheeks simmered in red wine, salad of heirloom tomatoes with Parmesan shortbread, breaded and deep-fried soft-boiled egg, and old-fashioned rice pudding with walnut brittle elevated the status of bistro cooking while stripping haute cuisine of all its stuffiness.

In fact, bistronomie wasn’t that new: It had been growing since the early 1990s. Demorand was referring to a new generation of Parisian chefs, known today as “the Constant school,” for they had all worked with Christian Constant, then head chef of l’Hôtel de Crillon in Paris—Yves Camdeborde (La Régalade, later Le Comptoir du Relais), Christian Etchebest (Le Troquet), Nicolas Magie (then at La Cape in Bordeaux), Thierry Faucher (L’Os à Moelle), Thierry Breton (Chez Michel), and Stéphane Jégo (Chez l’Ami Jean). Later, more young Parisian chefs, trained under Alain Passard, such as Sven Chartier (Saturne), Pierre Jancou (Vivant), and Bertrand Grébaut (Septime) entered the groove. Bistronomie was always more an informal state of mind than a movement, differentiating it from the nouvelle cuisine of the late 1970s, which was more an affair of media politics and chef promotion than of food, strictly speaking. Bistronomie is based on earthy, simple guidelines: using fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients of the highest possible quality sourced from a network of small-scale producers; expressing regional styles in a streamlined, modernized way; serving food in a simple setting, with a preference for organic or natural wines made by small regional winemakers—in a nutshell, being true to the terroir, that agrarian sense of time and place that lies at the heart of French food and wine.

Bistronomie unites tradition and modernity, inspired many new young chefs to enter the trade, and currently appears as the basic force that nourishes food creativity in France, whatever form it takes. As a rule, bistronomique chefs are more interested in expressing their identity, being actually present in their kitchens, and keeping their local producers close to their heart, than in ascending the Michelin stepladder. They also tend to function in a network structure with other chefs, regarding friendship as a higher value than stardom. “Do I hear that France is lacking in creative chefs?” wonders Camdeborde, one of the founding fathers of bistronomie, referring to Steinberger’s pessimistic essay. “On the contrary, it never had so many talented new chefs as it has now, and they have understood something that the older generation never did: It’s not customers who should deserve the chefs, it is the chefs who have to deserve their customers.”

“Contemporary French food is alive because it is still functioning as it always did,” says Roux. “As an everlasting ping-pong game between all the different culinary levels: restaurant cooking, home cooking, regional cooking, festive cooking, cheap workers’ restaurants serving €12 menus, and, above all, foreign culinary traditions through immigrant communities. French food always was, and still is, a terre d’accueil—a “land of welcome”—constantly absorbing the culinary influences of Portuguese, North African, Middle-Eastern, Indian, East Asian, Sub-Saharan, or Eastern European residents. Of course, one can always complain about junk food, fast-food joints, and industrially processed dishes plopped out of a plastic bag in many restaurant kitchens, but that is only one side of the situation. The other side, which is rarely discussed, is a new food awareness at all levels of society. It can be called a revolution. All over France, the cantines scolaires (locally run school restaurants) are increasingly relying on self- management, getting their products from local, often organic, sources, and keeping a close eye on their suppliers. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, there was a notable decline in home cook-ing and family-based culinary transmission, but now the French are beginning to take charge of their culinary destiny once again.”

Baladovore is a good example of that revolution. Produced by a team of three (chef Nicolas Gautier, architect Jérôme Muffat-Méridol, and food writer Caroline Miquel), it’s a simple smartphone or tablet application listing a number of chefs in all regions of France. Clicking on the picture of a chef leads you to a list of his or her local producers, who can be located from a map. Everyone benefits from it: Great ingredients are no longer for professional chefs only, and small artisans find more customers.

Terroirs d’Avenir, created in 2008 by Alexandre Drouard and Samuel Nahon, achieves a similar result through a different process. This Paris-based retail company sources ingredients from small-scale producers throughout the country. Until April 2013, it sold only to restaurants, but when it opened its first public outlets in Paris—a fruit, vegetable, and wine store; a fish market; and a meat and poultry market, all in the same street—stunned urban customers discovered not only an extensive range of hard-to-find products—farm-raised chickens, spring lamb from the Pyrenees, shiny fresh fish from the Île d’Yeu, Pontoise cabbage, Meyer lemons, Pardaillan turnips, and Breton gray shallots—but also the beneficial effect of a short supply chain: the fewer the intermediaries between producer and consumer, the lower the prices.

Among the facts indicating that the French are not yet ready to relinquish their culinary heritage, the sous-vide paradox is probably one of the most telling. Recently, it became publicly known that much of the food served in restaurants was actually bought ready-cooked in sous-vide plastic bags from wholesale markets geared to the catering business, reheated before being served, and with a sprig of parsley on top. The shock that ensued triggered a nationwide public scandal. Activists like Parisian restaurateur Xavier Denamur began to demand a new labeling legislation for restaurant menus, while chef Alain Ducasse created the “Restaurant de Qualité” label, to be purchased by restaurateurs that claimed to cook all their food on the premises. But this project did not meet with much success for two reasons: Some of the chefs involved were suspected of using the label to distract attention from their contracts with the agro-food industry, and there was no outside authority to control the label itself. What was needed was clear legislation. But a draft bill submitted in Parliament failed to be voted upon by the Senate for lack of clarity in defining the field of application. “Not a tragedy,” as Roux points out. “Controlling food in restaurants is trickier than controlling the quality of bread, as was done some years ago. What really matters is the people’s increasingly vigilant reaction to that sort of news, many restaurateurs writing toute notre cuisine est faite maison (‘all our cooking is done on the premises’) on their menus to ease suspicion. Consumers are now aware of the problem, and the awareness is here to stay. That sous-vide affair actually revealed how the French really care about their food.”

One is spoiled for choice when choosing a few chefs to represent the vitality of today’s French cuisine. Many others could be selected. However, the following five chefs, culled from different levels of the restaurant world, convey a true image of today’s French food:

Haute terroir cuisine:
Nicolas Magie, Le Saint-James, Bordeaux
Nicolas Magie, 41, born in Bordeaux into a family of restaurant owners, trained as a chef in Southwest France before working with Constant in Paris at L’Hôtel de Crillon, where he was among the founders of the bistronomie movement. In 1999, he moved back to Bordeaux and got his first Michelin star at La Cape, in suburban Cenon. Now head chef at Le Saint-James, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Bouliac, a short drive from Bordeaux, he delights local diners with his hearty, creative cooking, based on a deep respect for the tastes and products of Aquitaine and an admirable talent for miniatures. Though an admirer of Spanish cooking, he’s skeptical about the fate of nueva cocina: “Six years ago,” he says, “French chefs tried to imitate Ferran Adrià. But they found out that they were destroying the emotion in their cooking. Sharing emotions with the customer is what cooking is all about. Two years later, everyone went back to the basics, namely product quality. We French chefs are lucky to have such great products. Culinary excellence? We never lost it. Some of our chefs stick to the classics, while others fool around, but all of them respect the product.”

Still making terrines:
Jean-Paul Barbier, Le Lion d’Or, Arcins-en-Médoc
Jean-Paul Barbier still makes rabbit terrine. His, mortared with rabbit, pork, rabbit liver, pork liver, and foie gras, and lubricated with a healthy dose of Cognac, arrives as a thick slab dotted with Sauternes jelly—a perfect match for a glass of decades-aged red Margaux from vineyards within hand’s reach of his restaurant. Among the favorites on his handwritten menu, the magret de canard is written up as “with nice crispy skin,” the boiled calf’s head comes with fresh vegetables and spot-on shallot vinaigrette, the pink-roasted pigeon sits in its Armagnac-laced jus, and the large rib steak he serves as entrecôte Bordelaise not only overruns the edges of the plate it lies on, but it also disappears under a thick layer of chopped shallots. Barbier’s cooking is the sort of French cuisine that you thought had disappeared forever.

Although he is worshipped as a living treasure in Bordeaux and among a small circle of French food lovers, Barbier’s generous, brilliant cuisine bourgeoise remains little known by the general public, and few Parisians have ever heard of him. For 34 years, he has run Le Lion d’Or, a village cafe doubling as a rustic-chic Bordeaux hangout, where the owners of the greatest Médoc classified growths keep their own bottles in climate-controlled glassed cabinets. “I let everyone bring the red wine,” says Barbier. “Fashions fade quickly, standards must be met and lived up to. A well-prepared product is more important than a stylish plating. Rain or shine, I never failed to serve an affordable menu. Whether my customers pay €14 or €50 for their meal, they get equal treatment, equal care, for harmony is important. It’s also essential to harmonize the menu with the weather and the season. In winter, I serve chicken foot consommé, and in the spring a roasted rack of veal with fresh peas and asparagus. Calves’ liver is cut on demand, and I make ‘desserts de cuisinier,’ such as Escoffier’s genuine peach Melba.” Out of modesty, Barbier does not mention his renowned canelés, baked fresh at every service and served with coffee. Bordeaux connoisseurs claim them to be the very best in the region that claims them as its own.

Bringing an island to life:
Alexandre Couillon, La Marine and La Table d’Élise, L’Herbaudière, Noirmoutier-en-l’Île
Born in 1975 in Dakar, Senegal, to a fisherman father and a seamstress mother, Alexandre Couillon grew up speaking Wolof with his schoolmates. Later, his parents returned to their native island of Noirmoutier, bought La Table d’Élise, an old seamen’s bistro on the port of L’Herbaudière, and opened La Marine in the 1980s, running it while young Alexandre worked for various chefs, including Michel Guérard. In 1999, Couillon and his young wife, Céline, began running La Marine, which received a Michelin star in 2007 and a second in 2013. The island’s famous potatoes, fish, shellfish, and dairy products, plus herbs from the backyard garden, form the base of his cooking—a modern, streamlined gastronomic cuisine that aims at translating the local landscapes and atmospheres into sensory poetry. Yet traces of his African childhood, he says, remain in his cooking through spicy, toasted tastes. His signature dish is an oyster, poached in a bacon and squid broth, served in a black, viscous squid-ink sauce—a bittersweet evocation of the oil slicks that sometimes plague the French Atlantic coasts. A small transparent, iridescent sugar disk dots the dish like a sliver of mother-of-pearl, and a powder of dehydrated bacon is sprinkled on top—the island of Noirmoutier summoned into one dish. At La Table d’Élise, the next-door bistro sharing the same kitchen, the food is heartier and more casual: lobster claw meat in a raw tomato cream and dotted with freshly picked herbs.

When asked about the food traditions of Noirmoutier, he replies: “Ordinary cooking based on extraordinary products.” About the current state of French cuisine, he says: “I certainly see no decline, with so many motivated, curious, and creative chefs. They like to meet and cook together, and learn from one another. It’s no longer Bocuse-Ducasse-Robuchon, and that’s it—it’s a myriad of new talents at every level. Here, in my kitchens, I welcome many young cooks from all over the world. They know all the technical skills, but they come to France for the taste. That is our secret.”

Never do the same thing twice:
Bertrand Grébaut, Septime, Paris
Bertrand Grébaut, 31, first worked as a graphic designer. He was bored at school; then he was bored sitting at his computer. “I asked myself what I really wanted to do. Having a restaurant was the answer. It gave me the artistic and physical dimension I needed.” His mentors include Bernard Pinaud, Frédéric Simonin, and Passard. In 2011, with his sommelier friend Théo Pourriat, Grébaut opened Septime, a warm, modern restaurant in the Charonne district, between Bastille and Père-Lachaise. Tasting one of his first dishes—tender small gnocchetti served in sweet corn cream with elderflowers and slivers of aged Gouda—it was easy to see that Septime would soon be a huge hit. And it was and remains so. Grébaut was the first in Paris to serve raw veal and oyster tartare covered with crispy fried bread crumbs. The dish was so successful that soon enough, other chefs were copying it. So he changed it again, furiously covering it entirely with a warm Parmesan emulsion. “I am tired of seeing my stuff imitated all over town,” he says. “Identity is what matters to me. I want to do things that not everybody does. Reconnecting with a certain French tradition is a way of achieving that. No more sous-vide. I’ve returned to low-temperature roasting and cooking techniques that have now become rare—jus, reduced broths, whisked butters.”

Great food for everybody:
Patrice Gelbart, Youpi et Voilà!!, Paris
Previously, Patrice Gelbart had Aux Berges du Cérou, a haute cuisine bistro in a lost corner of his native Tarn region. In 2012, he opened Youpi et Voilà!!, a restaurant philanthropique, as he labels it, with reasonably priced menus and affordable wines, generous servings, and a warm atmosphere. Gelbart likes to indulge in the old French tradition of the weekly special, first serving poulet-frites (roasted chicken and fries) for Saturday lunch, later replacing it with the much-appreciated Youpi burger, a generous patty of ground Aubrac beef served in a large crusty French sourdough bun with homemade fries and homemade ketchup. Other dishes may bear the less casual touch of his previous restaurant, but the warmth and friendliness reflected in the name of the restaurant is always there: simmered octopus with fresh white beans; pigeon roasted rare with polenta and ginger sauce; caponata with fresh farm eggs; magret de canard with fresh cherries and bulgur wheat; lightly steamed codfish with fresh pea cream, chorizo crumbs, and raw mussels; and strawberry/rhubarb crumble.

“Food is supposed to feed you,” he says. “Cooking should have an identity. I want to bring back the concept of the neighborhood bistro, where you popped in without a reservation and ate great food for a few francs. France used to be the land of the worker’s bistro, and my aim is to be honest with my customers, not just with a certain category of customers. I control costs, so I can offer them Breton lobster every once in a while. My guidelines: using fresh products, being open to serendipity, helping people to trust food again. In a world of globalized tastes, I want my food to show identity. I want to do what pleases me rather than being innovative. Innovation at all costs means that you do everything and nothing; you become a number. The big question is: Whom do you cook for? My answer is: Everybody!”

Previous pages: A bowl of roasted cèpes at Septime in Paris. A table set for two September weeks dedicated to “manger local” (local eating) at Youpi et Voilà!! in Paris. Photos by Beatriz da Costa. Above, from left: At Le Saint-James in Bordeaux, Nicolas Magie’s meagre, octopus, and celery risotto and a blackberry accented dessert. Photos by Sophie Brissaud.

From top: Canelés, an example of Jean-Paul Barbier’s reverence for tradition at Le Lion d’Or in Archins-en-Médoc, as is pommes feuilleté. Photos by Sophie Brissaud.

Bertrand Grébaut at Septime. Photo by Beatriz da Costa.

Alexandre Couillon’s Challans duck with cucumber, blueberries, and orach leaves at La Marine on Noirmoutier-en-l’Île. Photo by Sophie Brissaud.

Top: Patrice Gelbart’s stewed octopus with chorizo, mussels, and green chiles at Youpi et Voilà!!. Gelbart holds two heads of Pontoise cabbage, an heirloom variety from the Paris region. Photos by Beatriz da Costa.