Have the French abandoned their rich culinary heritage? In an extract from his new book, Michael Steinberger examines this gastronomic decline

In 2003, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story declaring that Spain had supplanted France as the culinary world’s lodestar. The article, written by Arthur Lubow, heralded the emergence of la nueva cocina, an experimental, provocative style of cooking that was reinventing Spanish cuisine and causing the entire food world to take note. Lubow contrasted Spain’s gastronomic vitality with the French food scene, which he described as ossified and rudderless.

‘French innovation,’ he wrote, ‘has congealed into complacency … as chefs scan the globe for new ideas, France is no longer the place they look.’ For a Francophile, the quote with which he concluded the article was deflating. The Spanish food critic Rafael García Santos told Lubow, ‘It’s a great shame what has happened in France, because we love the French people and we learned there. Twenty years ago, everybody went to France. Today they go there to learn what not to do.’

But by then France had become a bad example in all sorts of ways. Since the late 1970s its economy had been stagnant, afflicted with anaemic growth and chronically high unemployment. True, France had a generous welfare state but that was no substitute for creating jobs and opportunity. By the mid-2000s, hundreds of thousands of French (among them many talented chefs) had moved abroad in search of better lives, unwilling to remain in a sclerotic, disillusioned country.

A sense of decay was now pervasive. For centuries, France had produced as much great writing, music and art as any nation but that was no longer true. French literature seemed moribund, ditto the once-mighty French film industry. Paris had been eclipsed as a centre of the fine-art trade by London and New York. It was still a fashion capital but British and American designers now seemed to generate the buzz. In opera and theatre, too, Paris had become a relative backwater. French intellectual life was suffering: The country’s vaunted university system had sunk into mediocrity. Even the Sorbonne was now second-rate – no match, certainly, for Harvard and Yale.

The cultural malaise extended into French kitchens, and it wasn’t just haute cuisine that was in trouble. France had 200,000 cafés in 1960; by 2008, it was down to 40,000 and hundreds, maybe thousands, were being lost every year. Bistros and brasseries were also dying at an alarming clip. Prized cheeses were going extinct because there was no one with the desire or knowledge to continue making them – even Camembert, France’s most celebrated cheese, was threatened. The country’s wine industry was in a cataclysmic state: declining sales had left thousands of producers facing financial ruin. Destitute vintners were turning to violence to draw attention to their plight; others had committed suicide. Many blamed foreign competition for their woes, but there was a bigger problem closer to home: per capita wine consumption in France had dropped by an astonishing 50% since the late 1960s and was continuing to fall.

This wasn’t the only way in which the French seemed to be turning their backs on the country’s rich culinary heritage. Aspiring chefs were no longer required to know how to truss chickens, open oysters, or whip up a béarnaise sauce to earn the certificat d’aptitude professionnelle; instead, they were being tested on their ability to use processed, powdered, frozen and prepared foods. France still had its outdoor markets but hypermarchés (sprawling supermarkets) accounted for 75% of all retail food sales.

Most ominously, the bedrock of French cuisine – home cooking, or la cuisine familiale – was in trouble. The French were doing less cooking than ever at home and spending less time at the dinner table: the average meal now sped by in 38 minutes, down from 88 minutes a quarter-century earlier. One organisation, at least, stood ready to help the French avoid the kitchen and scarf their food: McDonald’s. By 2007, the chain had more than 1,000 restaurants in France and was one of the country’s largest private-sector employers. France, in turn, had become its second-most-profitable market in the world.

Food had always been a tool of French statecraft; now, though, it was a source of French humiliation. In July 2005, it was reported that French president Jacques Chirac, criticising the British during a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, had harrumphed: ‘One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.’ In the not-so-distant past, Chirac, simply by virtue of being France’s president, would have been seen as eminently qualified to pass judgment on another country’s cuisine – and, of course, in disparaging British cooking, he merely would have been stating the obvious.

Coming in the summer of 2005, Chirac’s comment revealed him to be a man divorced from reality. Was he not aware that London was now a great food city? Just four months earlier, Gourmet magazine declared London to be ‘the best place to eat in the world right now’ and devoted an entire issue to its gustatory pleasures. As the ridicule rained down on Chirac, his faux pas assumed metaphoric significance: where once the mere mention of food by a French leader would have elicited thoughts of Gallic refinement and achievement, its invocation now served to underscore the depths of France’s decline. They’ve even lost their edge in the kitchen.

There were other indignities, less noted but no less telling. In October 2006, New York’s French Culinary Institute marked the opening of its new International Culinary Centre with a two-day extravaganza featuring panel discussions, cooking demonstrations and gala meals. The FCI was one of America’s foremost cooking schools but it was also a wellspring of French cultural influence – a culinary consulate of sorts. Its faculty included Jacques Pépin, André Soltner and Alain Sailhac, three expatriated French chefs who had helped unleash America’s food revolution. To assure a suitably splashy debut for its new facilities, the FCI brought 10 eminent foreign chefs to New York. Amazingly, though, the list was headed not by a Frenchman but by three Spaniards: Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak and Martín Berasategui. Not only that: the other seven chefs were Spanish, too. The French Culinary Institute threw itself a party and didn’t invite a single chef from France.

In December 2006, Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller, along with the American food scientist and author Harold McGee, issued a joint manifesto entitled Statement on the New Cookery, in which they laid out some of the core principles guiding their own efforts in the kitchen and that they believed should form the basis of a 21st-century cuisine. ‘In the past,’ they wrote, ‘cooks were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes…

Today there are many fewer constraints and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods and traditions… to explore what it is possible to do with food. This is not a new idea but a new opportunity. Nearly two centuries ago, Brillat-Savarin wrote that the “discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star”.’

That not one French chef was among the manifesto’s signatories was as telling as the FCI not inviting a single French chef to its gala celebration in New York. But some of the most eminent French chefs were pursuing an agenda of their own. That same year, Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse, Guy Savoy and a group of like-minded colleagues launched an effort to persuade UNESCO to formally declare French cuisine to be part of the world’s cultural patrimony. In 2008 their effort won the backing of Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he supported it because ‘we have the best gastronomy in the world’.

The validity of that claim notwithstanding, the UNESCO bid was taken by some observers as a sign that the French had given up any notion of culinary progress and had ceded intellectual leadership in the kitchen – that French cuisine had, in the words of the International Herald Tribune’s Mary Blume, entered ‘a gelid commemorative phase’ and was looking inward and to the past rather than outward and to the future. Le Figaro’s François Simon put it more cuttingly. He said that if UNESCO agreed to enshrine French cooking this way, ‘opening the door of a restaurant, making a soufflé rise, shelling an oyster will become part of cultural activity like going to sleep at the opera, yawning at the theatre, or slumping over James Joyce’s Ulysses’.

Twenty-five years earlier, it had been virtually impossible to eat poorly in France; now, in some towns and villages, it was a struggle to find even a decent loaf of bread. The France memorialised by writers like MFK Fisher, Joseph Wechsberg, Waverley Root and AJ Liebling; that inspired the careers of Julia Child, Alice Waters and Elizabeth David; that promised gustatory delight along every boulevard and byway – that France, it seemed, was dying. Even those epiphanic vegetables were harder to come by. When Waters started regularly visiting France, she would smuggle tomato vine cuttings home to California; now, she smuggled vine cuttings to her friends in France.

It saddened me to see this way of eating, and being, disappearing. In France, I didn’t just learn how to dine, I learned how to live. It was where my wife and I had fallen in love, a bond formed over plates of choucroute, platters of oysters and bowls of fraises des bois (Ladurée pastries, too). When we began travelling to France as a married couple, great meals weren’t just occasions for pleasure, they were a way of reaffirming our vows. The calendar indicates that our children couldn’t have been conceived in France but, from the moment they were able to eat solid foods, they were immersed in our Francophilia. They became acquainted with crème caramel before they ever knew what a Pop-Tart was. But it now appeared that the France I grew up knowing would no longer be there for them.

Were the French really willing to let their culinary tradition just wither away? Did they no longer care to be the world’s gastronomic beacon? What did eminent French chefs and restaurateurs such as Ducasse and Jean-Claude Vrinat have to say about all this? And what of the almighty Michelin Guide, long a symbol of Gallic supremacy in matters of food and wine – was it still a force for good in French kitchens, or had it become a drag on progress? Even as France’s culinary influence was waning, the country continued to churn out talented young chefs – what did they think needed to be done to get French cooking out of its slump? As signs of France’s decline continued to accumulate, these and other questions began to weigh on me…

Forgotten traditions

With the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, the French economy fell into recession and the hospitality industry was hit hard. Some 3,000 restaurants and cafés went bankrupt in the first half of the year, and profits for those that were able to keep the lights on declined by 20%; 2009 promised more of the same.

But as devastating as the economic downturn was, some struggling restaurateurs knew that French cuisine faced an even graver long-term threat: younger French seemed indifferent to what they ate and to the country’s gastronomic heritage. Bernard Picolet, the owner of Les Amis du Beaujolais, a restaurant near the Champs-Elysées, told Britain’s Independent newspaper, ‘Younger French people today don’t understand or care about food. They are happy to gobble a sandwich or chips, rather than go to a restaurant. They will spend a lot of money going to a nightclub but not to eat a good meal.

They have the most sophisticated kinds of mobile telephone but they have no idea what a courgette is. They know all about the internet but they don’t know where to start to eat a fish.’ I heard much the same from a twenty-something PR assistant to Alain Senderens while interviewing the legendary chef in 2006. When I had asked Senderens if he was concerned about the dining habits of French youths, he had waved his hands dismissively and assured me there was nothing to worry about; the kids would come around – they always did. A few minutes later, after Senderens had stepped away to greet a client, his flack turned to me and in a hushed tone said, ‘It’s true – my friends, they don’t care anything about food. My generation just doesn’t care.’

But amid all the gloomy portents, there were some hopeful signs. In 2008, regulators reaffirmed that appellation-designated Camembert could only be made with raw milk, and both Lactalis and Isigny Sainte-Mère, the two industrial concerns that had threatened to quit the appellation unless they were allowed to begin treating their milk, eventually decided to continue making the lait cru variety rather than carry out their threat. True, this was a small victory in a war that was being lost, but perhaps it would help spark a raw-milk renaissance. That other staple of French cuisine, bread, was enjoying a revival. Its quality had plummeted through most of the 20th century.

The transition from sourdough-based breadmaking to yeast-based panification, begun in the 1920s, was the initial and most significant factor in its decline. Two world wars didn’t help matters, nor did the mechanisation of boulangeries in the 1960s, which yielded a bumper crop of bad bread. But at the prodding of France’s millers, whose businesses were suffering as a result of bread’s diminished appeal, the bakers finally began to turn things around in the 1980s. Improvement came chiefly through the efforts of certain innovators, notably the late Lionel Poilâne, who reconciled ‘artisanal practices (long sourdough fermentation, baking in wood ovens, and so on) with production on a quasi-industrial scale’ and whose entire genius was ‘summed up in the note of acidity that marks his fine round loaves’.

Those words are taken from Good Bread is Back, a book published in 2006 by Steven Kaplan, who has himself played a big part in French bread’s revival. Kaplan, a historian who splits his time between Cornell University and the University of Versailles St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, has devoted much of his career to chronicling the role of bakers and bread in French society through the ages; he is now recognised as perhaps the world’s leading authority on this topic.

He is also a bread critic who, with his wife, wrote a guide to the 100 best baguettes in Paris. Kaplan evaluates bread with the same full-sensory rigour that wine critics apply to Cabernets and Syrahs, and he has a gift for the descriptive: the first time I met him, he compared one loaf we tasted to Brigitte Bardot’s posterior and proceeded to trace a voluptuous heart shape in the air to make sure I got the idea. His seamless blend of erudition and pugnacious, salty humour has made Kaplan a popular figure on French television and radio.

In the process, the Brooklyn native has become the conscience of French baking – a conscience that does not hesitate to tug. He carries a baguette with him whenever he visits restaurants for the first time and if he finds the house bread substandard, he eats his own. He considers it a form of public shaming. Amazingly, this practice has never gotten him evicted from a restaurant. Indeed, he says, the waiters and owners often take the admonishment to heart. In some instances, they have sat down with Kaplan to talk about bread, confessed their sins and vowed to have a better baguette waiting for him next time. He is close to some prominent bakers – Eric Kayser, Dominique Saibron – and seems to have liberty to enter their kitchens whenever he wishes.

Kaplan is quick to acknowledge that the title of his book is slightly misleading; good bread is back but only to a limited extent. By his reckoning, maybe 15% of French bakers produce bread worth eating these days and constant vigilance is required, even with acclaimed producers. When he caught one boulanger, renowned for his supposedly all-natural approach, using additives, he made his displeasure known and their previously amicable relationship soured. But Kaplan was not about to sacrifice a good crust to the exigencies of friendship. ‘He lied to me and he is far too talented to have to use the crutch of additives,’ he said.

Kaplan is ebullient proof that one man, even a foreigner, can make a difference. Perhaps other foreigners, similarly passionate about France and French cuisine, can follow his example. The Japanese are certainly doing their part, as are all those British, American and German cheese lovers imploring Philippe Alléosse to continue his work. With or without a UNESCO declaration, France’s gastronomic tradition is part of humanity’s cultural heritage, and in the same way that people of many nationalities had contributed to the effort to protect Venice from the floods, there is no reason why food lovers the world over shouldn’t rally to the defence of French cuisine.

Ultimately, though, its fate is in the hands of the French themselves, and while the outlook is not encouraging, there is still a chance that they might yet realise what is being squandered and resolve to prevent it. Jean-Robert Pitte puts it eloquently: ‘But all is not lost! Let the French convince themselves to eat well once again and they will remedy the disease of languor that sometimes affects them. They will salvage their optimism, and for certain, a great chunk of their economy, in a Europe and a developed world that have too willingly thrown their gourmandism out the window. A supplement to well-being is priceless; no one can lose by treating oneself to it.’

Written by Michael Steinberger