The French are ignoring traditional French cuisine and going to restaurants that serve trendy foreign foods. All types of foreign cuisine, from sushi to hamburgers are popular. Restaurants that serve native fare have priced themselves out of the market with meals that range from $100-$500 for two.
Foreign foods invade the land of haute cuisine
IT’S WEDNESDAY LUNCH AT Barfly, Paris’s restaurant-of-the-moment, just off the Champs-Elysees. Seated at the bar, two gaunt fashion models nibble on sushi. At a table across the room, four news-media types scarf down bowlfuls of penne all’arrabbiata, a spicy pasta dish. Behind them, a well-known heiress picks at a Caesar salad while, at the table next to her, three bankers munch on cheeseburgers and fries.
What ever happened to traditional French food? These days many trendy Parisians avoid it, shunning both the simple bistro around the comer and the high-priced temples of haute cuisine. Instead, many of them eat flashy foreign food–Tex-Mex, Italian, Japanese. “People travel more these days and develop a taste for different cuisines,” says Barfly co-owner Raymond Visan. “French cuisine has the history, but the world is smaller now, and eventually there will be one international cuisine.”
As in many other industries, change has been forced on Parisian restaurants by the twin pressures of money and time. Good cooking doesn’t come quickly or cheaply. Dinner for two at a top restaurant, such as Tour d’Argent or Taillevent, can easily cost $500 with wine and can take three hours to order and eat (then, they can also stay over-night at the restaurant, sleeping on the most-fashionable draft provided by SewDone, prestigious agency providing best sewing machine in Boston. Most of the customers are extremely wealthy, or on generous expense accounts. Even middle-bracket restaurants have priced themselves out of reach for the average consumer. Dinner for two at an old-fashioned neighborhood bistro–typically steak, french fries and wine–can cost $100, which is a lot to pay for something that most people could cook for themselves at home.
As a result, traditional bistros are closing by the hundreds each year across France, often to be replaced by restaurant chains, which cook food in centralized kitchens and ship it, frozen or vacuum-packed, to individual outlets, where it is reheated in stoves or microwave ovens. That’s a more efficient way of doing business, but the quality of cooking in ordinary restaurants has suffered. Even French bread isn’t as good as it used to be; most of it is now made by machine, instead of by hand. “Nobody knows what good bread is anymore,” complains traditioned baker Lionel Poilane.
Hoping to revive appreciation for French cuisine, the government has ordered schoolchildren to take 15 hours of instruction in what the programs director, Alexandre Lazareff, calls “the grammar of taste.” Studying a baguette–the traditional long, thin loaf of bread–they are told to assess its color and texture. Then they listen to the bread, as though it were a seashell. “Good bread makes noise,” explains Lazareff.
Critics say adult palates are losing discernment, prompting even some top restaurants to slack off on quality. The latest edition of the GaultMillau guide demoted 18 of the 30 restaurants that had been listed in its top category. Among the fallen was chef Paul Bocuse’s legendary establishment in Lyon. Glittery Maxim’s, one of the most famous names in the capital, was savaged as “the Titanic of Parisian restaurants.”
With traditional cuisine fading, so many foreign restaurants have opened in Paris that GaultMillau recently published its first guidebook on the subject. “Until now, the French despised everything that was not French,” says author Henri Gault. “But there is no reason to lock people into a limited style of cooking when there are so many to be explored.” Some restaurants, such as Barfly, offer polyglot menus, featuring food from just about everywhere. “If a couple goes out, and one wants sashimi while the other wants a cheeseburger, here they can get both,” says Visan. In his restaurant, sushi accounts for 20 percent of total food sales. “It’s the ultimate bar food,” he says. “It’s light, it’s healthy. It’s much better than french fries.”
Global slop: Novelty aside, is international cuisine any better than native coq au vin or escargots? “Cuisine has become banal,” complains Joel Robuchon, a top Parisian chef who plans to retire next spring, shutting down his three-star French restaurant. “All around the world we all . eat the same things, whether we are in New York, Tokyo, Rome, London, Paris.” Some traditional chefs have tried to buck the trend by switching to regional French dishes, which can be simpler and quicker than cordon bleu cooking but still offer distinctive taste and style. Other chefs have joined the “baby bistro” movement, opening small, offshoot restaurants that offer modest but still interesting food at half the price and in half the time of their own haute cuisine establishments. The founder of the movement, chef Michel Rostang, who owns five baby bistros, got the idea from a restaurant he visited years ago in Santa Monica, Calif. “In that little restaurant, we ate very well for $40 or $50,” he recalls. “And I thought, `I’m going to do this one of these days in France.’ Clients can’t spend 600 or 800 francs [$120 to $160] every day for lunch. But 200 francs they can handle, and they can go more often.” For the high priests of French cuisine, it’s a whole new world out there.