The French have lost another wine tasting, and now its old-fashioned cuisine is under pressure from other food cultures. ROSI HANSON spots a way out for the country’s chefs

Last year, Rene RENOU, as head of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, exhorted the vignerons of France to wake up. ‘The crisis is already upon us. In 2007 it will be war,’ he declared. Well-made wines from all over the world were stealing the traditional French markets. Now the same story is being told about the French restaurant trade.

Headlines are made as Ferrán Adriá of El Bulli in Spain and the UK’s Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in Bray top Best Restaurants of the World lists with their innovative food. French chefs, meanwhile, are in the same boat as the winemakers, and sinking fast. French wine and food, for so long admired, are suffering from global competition. For the first time, people are starting to ask if French cuisine might just be passé.

Last year top chef Alain Senderens turned his gastronomic temple Lucas Carton in Paris into a plain brasserie. He was happy for three Michelin stars to be taken away in respons. René Jugy-Berges of the Sainte-Victoire restaurant in Beaurecueil, Provence, did the same with his one star. Both had found that cooking traditional, haute cuisine-style food to please food snobs and Michelin just wasn’t adding up. A new kind of customer is less inclined to worship at the altar of expensive high gastronomy in intimidating, formal settings.

‘The 1980s and 1990s were a great time for French food’ says French critic Luc Dubanchet, ‘but we don’t really know who we are now. At the same time as London, New York, California and Sydney were developing strong restaurant cultures, and those in the know were beating a path to Spain’s cluster of top restaurants, we were missing out.’

French commentator and historian Benedict Baugé believes that ‘French cooking is stuck, congealed, embalmed in principles and rites’. Dubanchet agrees: ‘Nouvelle Cuisine became Cuisine Bourgeoise.’ Many restaurants still serve tiny portions of exquisitely arranged food on large plates and charge plenty of money for the privilege.

On this side of La Manche, two-Michelin starred French chef Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire is practising what many believe could be the way forward: French cuisine lite: ‘Guests don’t like formality these days, they are too stressed,’ he says. ‘When they go to a restaurant they want to celebrate and have fun’. The revamping at Le Manoir has extended to the wine list too, with 20 lesser-known appellations available by-the-glass (see p10).

But according to Blanc it’s harder to practise new methods in France: ‘Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Bras are great chefs, but they are struggling with the 35-hour week and other crazy employment legislation. That’s the real problem. French chefs are up against it, but the government continues to ignore their ever-worsening plight.’

But for those who fear that it is all over for French food and its major proponents, there is hope. A group of young chefs have formed a new organisation, called Generation.C (for cuisine and culture) to promote modern cuisine. They claim French arrogance has put off international clients, and that the trade has been slow to modernise. The Generation.C pitch is that they must join together, like the French vignerons, to evolve.

One of the founders, Thierry Marx, runs the restaurant in Château Cordeillan-Bages’ vineyards in Pauillac and is adamant that the group is looking to the future rather than the past. ‘Above all it is a question of a state of mind, of caring, a way of doing our trade,’ says Marx. ‘We’re not criticising those chefs of 30 years ago, but building something new. Nouvelle Cuisine was created by the French, it went round the world and lots of chefs were influenced.’ Then the world moved on. ‘We were left behind, still thinking we were the best,’ he says.

Such chefs have made their mark on paper too. A monthly publication called Omnivore was started in September 2003 by Dubanchet and fellow critic Laurent Seminel. It espouses what they call Jeune Cuisine – food that is young in spirit and attitude. Already, a guide to 150 more modern-style French restaurants, Carnet de Route, has been produced by the group.

Generation.C also feels the need to promote cooking as a thrilling metier. To this end, cutting-edge chefs can be found at all sorts of outdoor events offering bites of delicious finger food. They try to reach out to young people to break down gastronomic barriers. They take every opportunity to interact with the public in an informal, articulate way. For the first time, perhaps, the French are having to be encouraged to eat out, and to aspire to become chefs.

Rosi Hanson is the author of Recipes from the French Wine Harvest (£12.99, Cassell)