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your thoughts on "Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France"

In this book Michael Steinberger is mourning the death of French Haute Cuisine(not that this is a novel announcement). it seems that he sees the cause of death to be the lack of innovation in the leading french restaurants, which have reverted back to their classic tired methods after the fall of nouvelle cuisine, betrayed 'from within' by Bocuse and his followers who invented the notion of a a globally branded executive chef who is never present in the kitchen. the result is a cuisine that has ceased to explore the boundaries of taste, sending the truly adventurous eater to spain, japan and italy.

I am by no means an expert on this topic. what I am posing as a question to the board is your thought on restaurants in Paris that can be cited as examples and counterexamples for Steinberger's argument. prominent chefs that are engaged in the practice of pushing the boundaries of their profession, and those who are riding on the waves of past glory. I thought creating a catalog with Steinberger's argument as an organizing theme, done by true foodies who actually spend their time and money on fine dining in this city would be worthwhile.

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  1. Had lunch today at Chez L'Ami Jean, and l feel Stephane Rego is pushing serious boundaries. When l started to eat there some years back his cuisine was very good but somehow many things were at different levels of development, thus ordering could bring you heaven or who knows depending on the item and the day. Now his mojo is working strong and having eaten things that ranged from udder with leeks and red pepper that was great to tete de veau that was so much better than any of the examples l had consumed before was a true pleasure. His pomme puree which has always taken a distant second to Robuchon's stunning example seems to be getting a lot closer and is better than any dessert imaginable. After saying that we were given four desserts to try and both the rice pudding and some very very deep and dense chocolate thing were so evolved in their flavors they stopped conversation. The group of us all said the strange and normal combinations worked far better than they had any right to and it was a great meal. Add to this his house created bubbly water that is wonderful and the fact that Rego has been in the kitchen each and every time l have eaten there, always working his butt off and always greeting and speaking to his clients. l feel he is always getting better. l eat better in France than anywhere else l travel, but also well in Japan,Spain, and Vietnam. Thus l see no lessening of quality, fervor, and inventiveness in French cuisine but think it is getting better.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

      I had the same reaction to the same lunch: I don't know how Jégo does it. Already when we bit into our respective starter, all 3 of us kept saying: you should try mine, no you should try mine, no you should try mine. Then we lost all language abilities as we grunted through the paleron de veau-foie gras kind of hure. Wedged within the aspic, everything tasted and textured as intensely as it could possibly be and as different from its neighboring ingredient as possible. It was one of the 3 best starters in my life.

      Guru Julot did the ordering. -- Wait, that is not fully representative of what happened. Guru Julot arrived when DCM and I were studying the menu. He might as well have snatched the menus away from us the torn it up in smithereens, the way he thoroughly dismissed our menu-related comments. DCM and I were even ashamed to be holding the menu. Does one make drawings of little people in front of Picasso?
      I never thought I would let anybody else do my ordering and be so happy with the result. Who am I kidding? If I had gone by myself, I would have eaten also very well, but not transcendentally like that. I would never have ordered cow udder (and probably would not do so again unless it is CAJ or in another place with another udder decreed by Julot).

      Warning: if you planning to go to CAJ and order the wild duck, wear dirty clothes.
      When I bit into it, it was so juicy it sprayed wild duck juice all over my face. Pas très glamour.

      Before I went, I was looking forward to doing an A-B comparison of the riz au lait between CAJ and La Régalade SH where I had dined 2 nights before. But not only did the CAJ RAL win hands down, honestly this dish which used to be one of my faves got lost in the taste orgy. -- Not because it was unmarkable, but because the rest of the meal was so … I have no more adjective.

      Conclusion: it was not just excellent. It was the surprise factor that wowed me, surprising texture, surprising taste, surprising juxtaposition of textures and tastes. And I especially treasure a food experience where I get talked into tasting something I think I hate, but I do end up making an exception to love it the way it is prepared. This meal reminds me the time I had sautéed silk worm in Chiang Rai...

      Last but not least, the company topped even the food. When we were not grunting we were laughing. And laughing and grunting. Yes we're an articulate crowd.

      The service was excellent. We were given so many different desserts to taste in the end that the table was so full i nearly ate a mouthful of condiments thinking it was one of the dozen little jars of dessert. The kitchen seemed tickled pink to make us try everything. I got the feeling that if we had stayed long enough, it would send us starters and mains and, hey, dinner begins …
      Lastly, after this Tolstoyian digression, I should answer the OP, duh.
      If I were not living in France, CAJ would be the kind of restos that make me miss France and create in me a need - I repeat, need, not want, - to come back again and again. And the strong culinary institutions in France ensure that techniques and concepts go somewhere, get developed, get experimented on, rebelled against.
      What a War&Peace post. As the poet said: "j'ai trop pleuré." All for now…

      1. re: Parigi

        This post has me convinced that I need to dine with all of you sometime. Suffice it to say that the posts by you regulars opened a whole new world of Paris delights to me in May, and now I'm planning to move there in March. If you ever want to take a baby chowhounder under your wing and allow me to tag along...I would even eat udder, and with gladness.

        1. re: juliemarie8

          Be delighted - I'm listed in the phone book.

            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

              Julie, you have to eat with those gentlemen. They are the ultimate dining companions. I was, AM, the baby chowhounder tagging along, providing some ghoulish entertainment with wild duck blood dripping from my face.

              1. re: Parigi

                My first order of business when I get to Paris is to begin calling every John Talbott in the phone book.

      2. The minute you accept the opposition between riding the waves of past glory and pushing the boundaries, you actually have to concede Steigenberger's point, which is the same as the old NYT's point about Spain being the new center of the universe.

        To me, the problem is exactly that underlying assumption, based on a Schumpeterian capitalist model: the best are the most successful are those who push the boundaries are those who create etc. It's a pretty linear vision of the world, where everything is measured against one scale -- novelty=success=innovation=good.

        Another way to look at it is: it's the point of a view of a food critic, i.e. who has seen it all and is bored of excellence and whose body is crying mercy for less food. As all professional food critics, he values novelty over quality.

        Now, to some, the question of good food is just that: the question of good food. What sets France apart, (and probably Japan and Italy too), is a culture of food. Not only in the sense of value and ideas and knowledge, but also in the sense of an organization of society and the supply chain. To me, it comes down to this: France is the only country in the world where there is a market (i.e., suppliers and clients) for chicken that are 20€/lb. The same way Japan is the only country in the world with the market for toro they have.

        Another word about his hatred of Bocuse: learn to cook properly first instead of writing nonsense about how to roast a chicken (in another book). Yes, Bocuse took chefs out of slavedom. Partly. Man, does he deserve to be hated for that by slave owners and other ploutocrats like Steigenberger.

        8 Replies
        1. re: souphie

          Interesting angle of approach to the question. I must add that steinbergers praise of liberal market practices as the solution to the french 'haute cuisine problem' leaves me entirely unconvinced

          1. re: shekamoo

            Bollocks, to use an English expression.

            The French are still far more sophisticated in their approach to food, be it haute cuisine or more daily fare, than Americans or the the English, because it starts when they're kids.

            Look at what the children are eating for their school lunches in the schools in this provincial town that I found by random on the Internet:

            http://www.montreuil-touraine.fr/spip....

            Or here in the 13the arrondissement in Paris:

            http://www.mairie13.paris.fr/mairie13...

            That makes good chefs, and more importantly good "foodies".

            1. re: vielleanglaise

              I guess you are addressing the book's author, not me, as I did not endorse the position, just asked posters about examples of restaurants in Paris that would go for or against the author's assertion.

              1. re: shekamoo

                Of course I'm addressing the author,

                To paraphrase a famous Scotsman: Food's not a matter of a life and death...it's far more important than that.

          2. re: souphie

            Souphie you wrote:
            "Another way to look at it is: it's the point of a view of a food critic, i.e. who has seen it all and is bored of excellence and whose body is crying mercy for less food..."

            Perhaps this should be added; "and who needs to justify his (generally high) salary and his much-envied lifestyle of regular restaurant-going at the newspaper or magazine's charge by always finding "new" stuff, since his editor does not pay him to come up with things like "You know I have been to Michel Rostang and it is as good as ever", or even "L'Ami Jean really does things right, their côte de veau is awesome and the axoa rocks", but rather "the piece of green glob thrown at 1 metre distance into my plate by the waiter at La Grenouillère was the most amazing questioning of the pertinence of gastronomy that I've ever experienced".

            1. re: Ptipois

              An excellent parody of the bloviated dross that is food writing today

              1. re: Ptipois

                Indeed. I have friends in Catalonia (where there is wonderful food) who can't abide molecular gastronomy.

              2. re: souphie

                "France is the only country in the world where there is a market (i.e., suppliers and clients) for chicken that are 20€/lb. The same way Japan is the only country in the world with the market for toro they have."

                True. True also of Japan and Italy. But I would extend the selection drastically. Everywhere in the world there is a market for exceptional produce at the required price. At lychee season in Guangzhou some fruit sell for the equivalent of several dozen euros a piece. Not a pound, a piece. In Persia there is a native rice whose every grain wears a black dot and which very few people can afford. And so on. Steinberger's point of view is actually a very isolated one, I would even say insulary. It bears the mark of his political background, not on a sensible observation of world gastronomy - not just France, world gastronomy, a topic which makes me doubt that France is that different from the rest of the world, even though I agree that it is a rather exceptional case.

              3. This is what I wrote in July 2009 (I see no reason to revise it):
                The title of this book must have been thought up by some marketing genius who thought Steinberger would sell more books with a doom and gloom title than an upbeat one. But it could have as easily been called "French Cuisine: How some things have gotten better, some stay stuck in the past and other parts have fallen by the wayside."

                For readers of this blog, it's not going to tell you anything about the history of French cuisine or raw milk cheese or bread or wine that you don't already know. On the other hand it tells it extraordinarily well and covers all the bases from Careme to Les Cocottes de Christian Constant.

                I found it a wonderful review, in one place, of all that has been written in French and English in the past 20 years about the history, status and future of French cuisine, with some marvellous eating experiences/interviews with all the names from Bocuse to Remy thrown in. A fun read.

                1. From what the OP describes, it would seem that Steinberger equates the value of a cuisine and its capacity for innovation. I see no evidence that the two are even minimally related.

                  Besides, I have read another report of his book where he seems to imply that the shipwreck of French "haute cuisine" could be caused by the socialist regime that has oppressed the country for about thirty years (as all the French population can testify, at least those of us who have not been sent to work camps).

                  Not wishing to go into details, even a superficial knowledge of French history - economical, political, cultural, culinary - since the end of World War II would prevent anyone from studying the matter from these angles.

                  Now I know it is very bad manners and intellectually irresponsible to report on a book one hasn't read, and I am taking full responsibility for my irresponsible behavior. But the question for me is whether I will waste precious time reading even a few pages of another one of a few non-French food or chef-related essays based on a visibly fragmentary experience of French history and culture, an euphemism of mine for 'the author is full of it". In that way, indeed the comparison with the silly "Spanish-vs-French cuisine" debate of a few years ago - while less insidious people were coming up with the related concept of "freedom fries" - comes to mind.

                  Edited to add: this was written before I read the other posts in the thread. Just my immediate raw impressions.

                  Edited again to add: Julot expressed my opinion better than I did.

                  1. To be fair, now that I read the book a little more, John T is right (that's right, I said it!): it seems that the "thesis" of the book is to a large extent a construction of the publishers/marketers. The book reads first and foremost like a collection of reviews of great places in France, written by a lover of French food. And, as he's also a sophisticated new-yorker, the love story HAS TO be tinted with hate and conflict and drama and decadence. But reading the book is much less annoying that discussing its supposed point.

                    And, as is often the case on this board, none of us responded to shekamoo's actual request. But I'm not sure to understand it right: is he asking that we list restaurants that maintain a supposed tradition, and others that "push the boundaries"? Let me try that:
                    PTB: Gagnaire, Chateaubriand, MBC, Colliot (as Pti just wrote in another thread), Passard.
                    Tradition: l'Ambroisie, Lasserre (or is it with the new chef?), Ducasse (eeew), Rostang -- and the iconic institution bistrots: Denise, Joséphine, l'Auberge Bressane, La Fontaine de Mars, both Chez Georges, l'Auberge du Quincy.

                    As I said earlier, if you concede the premise, you have to concede the conclusion: many more tradition places than PTB places.

                    Another factor that shaped expectations for a certain category of American foodies is the memory of Nouvelle cuisine in the 80s: at that time indeed, France was both one of the best places in the world to eat, and a cutting edge gastronomic place, full of the then revolutionary inventions of Senderens, Troisgros, etc. Some became of gastronomic age at that time. Their reference is still mixing excellent food and that sense to be at the tip of worldwide movement, part of the fashion, showbiz scene.

                    In that sense, Au Revoir to All That indeed: not French cooking and fine dining. But Au Revoir to Nouvelle Cuisine, to Troisgros, and Senderens: for sure.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: souphie

                      "John T is right (that's right, I said it!): "
                      I always thought we were brothers separated at birth.

                      1. re: souphie

                        surely steinberger is writing as a man in love with french cuisine. I was wondering whether on the negative side of the list I would hear about prominent places which may be accused of not only lacking innovation in the sense of staying with classical methods (as perfecting traditional methods is an undisputable way of achieving perfection) but rather in the sense of having become complacent, and no longer making the effort to offer a truly 'fine' experience. in this 'interpretation' of Au Revoir, pushing the boundaries can be exercised within the tradition, if carried out with the passion and drive to excellence which steinberger perceives to be in decline. so maybe a more helpful articulation of the dichotomy is between places where you still experience a push towards excellence and perfection, and places which are no longer bothering with all that, hence properly accused of riding on the wave of past glory. did that make any sense?

                        1. re: shekamoo

                          I have no idea if that's Steigenberger's point, but that definitely makes a lot of sense, and sounds very very real to me. To me, the culprit is more Ducasse than Bocuse, but there is a common theme of the industrialization of luxury -- high-end assembly chain, says Mikael from Gastroville about palace food these days. And indeed the passion is hard to maintain, regardless of how traditional or innovative your food apparently is. But I doubt that this dichotomy between excellence and routine is anything new. To me the change of chef at Au Bon Accueil is definitely emblematic of that change, in any case -- it all looks the same, but it was wonderful and it became blah.