Is French cuisine dead? Not even close.
Is haute cuisine still relevant? Yes. What’s happening with it and does it still matter?
In 2009, Michael Steinberger, in his book Au Revoir to All That, declared that the ostensible decline of Michelin-starred restaurants mirrors the decline of France. While it is true that French cuisine, in particular the haute cuisine of the gastronomic palaces, may be threatened by high overheads and a weak economy, it would be wrong and premature to announce its demise. Profit margins are slim in high-end, labor-intensive restaurants, and labor laws are strict. The over-indulgence of the grandes tables of the past with their thousands of bottles of ancient claret in the cellar has been compromised by taxes on stock and thirty-nine hour work weeks that simply don’t work in the restaurant business, even if it’s four hours more than in other sectors.
Despite all that, French cuisine is still alive and kicking, and the number of Michelin star restaurants increases every year: today France has 26 three-star restaurants, four more than in 2000, and 80 two-star restaurants, ten more than in 2000, according to the Financial Times. In 2015, there are 25 per cent more one-star restaurants. These palaces remain quintessentially French in their food, service and organization. Simplified versions of these chefs’ dishes are published in cooking magazines and imitated in millions of homes around France, making it relevant even in middle class households. French families may not eat in such establishments often, but they will save and go to them once a year for a special occasion. This French devotion to their food traditions will ensure its survival.
In Steinberger’s 2015 article, “Can Anyone Save French Cuisine,” he focuses on foreign chefs who bring life into a dying French cuisine. These are not chefs serving foreign food, but chefs using the classic French techniques refined by the likes of Carême and Escoffier, adding a new flair through their knowledge of other ingredients and dishes. They are reviving the spirit of craftsmanship and artistry that is at the heart of French cuisine. Bonjour, La Nouvelle Cuisine, version 2015.
As Yannick Alléno, named best chef of the year by Gault&Millau in 2015, of the restaurant Le Doyen in Paris said: “Everything that’s working [in cuisine] abroad was born in France. The vegetables from Passard; the emotional, Gagnaire; foraging, Bras; sauce, Alléno.”
French cuisine is not only alive, but doing quite well.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.