Like bagels in New York or Guinness in Dublin, bread is something you feel you can count on in Paris. So, like a crazed and bloated Goldilocks suffering from OCD, on a recent trip to Paris I found myself on an Odysseyean quest for a decent baguette, and issuing one withering review after another to anyone who’d listen: too dense; too airy; soggy crust; enough crust to wield as a WMD; cornmeal-textured center; cotton-stuffing center.
The City of Lights, I found, had become infused with mediocre, slap-dash, overpriced fare that was threatening to permanently dim its centuries-long culinary luminescence.
France is at a crossroads in the kitchen. Consider these sobering statistics: Wine consumption has plummeted by half since the 1960s, and winemakers in Bordeaux, Beaujolais, and Langueduc are going bankrupt left and right. Some say that a third of Langueduc’s 10,000 producers will have to close shop in the next five years. And while practically all French cheese was made from raw milk 40 years ago, now only 10 percent is.
Trips to randomly selected cheesemongers often produced surprisingly tepid results—goat cheese was by far the worst across-the-board disappointment.
As French culture has seeped out of its food, American culture has crept in. About 200,000 cafés flourished in France in 1960, while roughly 41,000 struggle to remain in business today. This isn’t due to a national shunning of coffee—five years ago, Starbucks invaded Paris, and it recently opened its 50th French store in, appropriately enough, Paris’ Disneyland. Meanwhile, by 2007, France was the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald’s (there’s even one on the Champs-Élysées) with an increase in revenue of 11 percent. Last year, while roughly 3,000 independently owned restaurants closed their doors, more than 1,115 McDonald's thrived.
“France invariably claims that it wants to safeguard its culture,” says Michael Steinberger, wine correspondent for Slate and author of Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France (Bloomsbury, June 2009). “But the government has acted in ways that have demolished its ability to maintain cultural patrimony. Economically, many of the decisions that have been made have been absolutely crushing to the culinary industry.”
Preparing for my trip to France, I was blissfully ignorant of the fray and just looking forward to eating some delicious Roquefort and Pur chèvre. What I didn’t realize is that Paris is no longer a leisurely city with a rhythm and culture ruled by its inhabitants’ gurgling stomachs and wine-soaked whims. “Thirty years ago in France, visitors encountered the proverbial moveable feast,” Steinberger says. “But now you look at how we eat in New York and San Francisco—the qualities of the restaurants, vegetables, breads and cheeses—and you see the gap is narrowing.”
In Au Revoir to All That, Steinberger contends that an unholy trifecta has led to the stagnation of cuisine in France, and the victorious rise of Spain—and to a lesser extent, America, the U.K., and Japan—as the world capitals of culinary creativity. Steinberger believes complacency is a factor. “When you’re the king of the hill for centuries, it’s hard to stay vigilant. You think you’re going to remain there forever.” Changing social mores, like more women joining the workforce and fewer meals eaten at home, have also contributed to the decline. But the main culprit, he believes, is economics.
“Running a restaurant in Paris has become a bloody economic nightmare,” Steinberger asserts. Crippling levels of taxation, the 35-hour work week, and the 19.6 percent value-added tax levied on restaurants (reduced to 5.5 percent last week) have cooked up a “toxic stew” that has been brewing since the late 1970s. “Chefs may have their three stars from Michelin, but to support their flagships they have to run out and open a bunch of ancillary restaurants. The farther away they are from the flame, the less creating they’re doing.”
To be fair, there is still excellent, affordable food to be had in Paris—I had many wonderful meals. I had the best baguette of my life—and a crusty, chewy, miraculously tangy loaf of sourdough Poilâne (8 Rue du Cherche-Midi, Sixth Arr.; www.poilane.fr). And it would be tough to beat the traditional Lyonnaise cooking (outside of Lyon) found at the laid-back, ancient wine bar Le Rubis (Le Rubis, 10 Rue du Marche St-Honore), which was bursting at its slightly fraying seams by noon with regulars, from dust-covered construction workers to men and women in bespoke suits.
But in general, we found that many of our meals blended together in a heavy beurre blanc haze. Stumbling blindly into one of the countless artisanal boulangeries on the streets of Paris, as noted above, rarely ended well. The result, too often, was a sub-par baguette, the innards of which tasted like cotton stuffing with a sprinkling of dustballs, and a top-heavy, unevenly cooked, cracked crust. Trips to randomly selected (but auspicious looking) cheesemongers often produced surprisingly tepid results—goat cheese was by far the worst across-the-board disappointment.
The menus at the sidewalk cafés of Montmarte, the neighborhood in which we stayed, were carbon copies of each other, as they were in the other quirky arrondissements to which we ventured. Boeuf Bourguignon, carré d’agneau a la Provencale and cassoulet are undeniably delicious, but I was expecting more from Paris than Julia Child’s greatest hits—yes, even in reasonably priced (for Paris) local brasseries.
As the days wore on and we ventured further into the city, we were flabbergasted not only by the sheer number of McDonald’s, Subways, Pizza Huts, and Domino’s we encountered, but also by the sloppy food carelessly dished out at the beautifully appointed, but gastronomically challenged brasseries we hit. Twelve euros for wilted lettuce topped with a pile of canned corn and other assorted veggies? Really?
Many local Parisians that we spoke to eagerly groused about how typical café food just wasn’t the same—and they, too, lay the blame on the economy.
“They spend too much time catering to tourists,” grumbled one Montmarte local, a retired gentleman in his 60s who had lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. “They should spend more time in the kitchen and less time worrying about the specials and happy-hour board.”
A concierge at our hotel complained that while getting a luxe meal was a snap if you could afford it, finding an economical delicious meal on the fly in Paris was becoming increasingly difficult. “The culture of food here is so strong, I get very upset thinking about the changes that are going on,” she said. “Even four years ago, brunch and all of these deals to entice customers didn’t exist and the food was better—restaurants and chefs could focus on the food, not the promotion. I still won’t go to McDonald’s, though.”
Every café and brasserie seemed to be offering standard Americaine brunch options, and aggressively civilized dinner hours (8 p.m. or later) were being blithely rolled back to 6 p.m. It all seemed so mediocre, so—dare I say it? —McDonald’s!
In France, McDonald’s is taxed as a takeout establishment, not a restaurant, allowing it to keep costs way down and expand as quickly as the waistlines of its most loyal customers. “They’ve played France like a fiddle,” Steinberger says. “They bombard their customers with brilliant corporate propaganda about how much of their food—about 70 percent—is sourced in France, which hits French people right in the heart.” These days, ordering a Croque McDo—two melted slices of Emmental cheese and ham on a bun—may be the closest many Frenchmen can come to supporting their local farmers.
Spain, in many ways has supplanted France as “the intellectual hothouse of haute cuisine,” Steinberger says, with chefs like the recently crowned King of Cuisine Ferrán Adrià enjoying the freedom to spend all of his time cooking and creating—either at his much-vaunted restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Spain (when he chooses to open it), or his Barcelona laboratory/workshop at which he tinkers with everything from centrifuges to canisters of CO 2 to caviar to tofu.
But is it really time to say “au revoir?” to France as the world’s culinary guiding light?
“There’s a crisis, but during crises, people do a lot of soul-searching,” says David Lebovitz, pastry chef, Parisian transplant and author of The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious— and Perplexing— City (Broadway, May 2009). “You die or you have a revolution. It’s a lot like what’s going on in the auto industry in America right now—it’s been clear that a problem was brewing, but now it’s come to a head. A lot of places may close, but they may deserve to. It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next five years.”
Steinberger agrees—and even sees signs of a surging backlash.
“Young chefs like Pascal Barbot are leading the way with ventures like Astrance,” he says. “He is incredibly talented and he refuses to be handcuffed by French traditions, drawing influences from all over the world. It’s not over yet—France just has to wake up to what’s being lost. Sarkozy is shaking things up economically. He loosened the 35-hour work week and finally reduced the value-added tax to 5.5 percent—we’ll see if restaurants will pass the savings on to customers.”
If economic factors change significantly enough to lure diners away from their Filet-O-Fish, they will find a gaggle of enthusiastic toques at the ready, says Alexander Lobrano, Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent and the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House, 2008).
“An amazingly talented new generation of chefs with haute-cuisine training decided to open bistros instead of traditional ‘fancy’ French restaurants,” Lobrano wrote via email. “The trend began in 1994 when Yves Camdeborde opened La Regalade. Camdeborde had trained with Christian Constant at Les Ambassadeurs, the grand gastronomic table of the Hotel de Crillon, and so he had the background to do haute cuisine. Instead, he put a haute-cuisine spin on the traditional bistro dishes of his native southwest (he’s from Pau), and this riff reinvented the bistro for a new generation.”
But, unlike the Paris of the 1960s and '70s, when getting a bad meal was as likely as getting good service, diners will have to seek these chefs out.
Kathleen Willcox is a freelance writer and a student at the Institute of Culinary Education.