But the extent of the fall really hits home when you learn the largest French private sector employer is McDonald’s, catering to the fast food chain’s second most profitable market in the world after the US.
Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That does an excellent and most forensic job of detailing that decline and its multiple causes.
Those causes include protectionism designed to promote French food and wine which have instead descended into farce, allowing sub-standard produce to ruin overall reputation. Complacent chefs and producers have often been content to coast along on reputation alone and the attrition rate for bistros has been quite appalling, closing in their thousands. In 2003, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story declaring Spain the new culinary mecca. French arrogance saw many continue to mutter about the innate superiority of French cuisine; none, however, could deny the gauntlet had been well and truly thrown.
Most compelling is the rise and fall of the Michelin guide and its star rating, which did more than most to secure the reputation of French cuisine, but in Steinberger’s book it is very much villain of the piece.
Three Michelin stars were once the holy grail for every serious French chef but the 1998 suicide of three-star chef Bernard Loiseau on foot of a threat of losing one of those stars was the turning point. After Loiseau’s death, the latest in a series of controversies to hit the guide, some three-star chefs simply walked away from the designation so utterly draining to sustain.
Au Revoir is very well researched, and includes an informative and lively potted history of French cuisine and exhaustive interviews with all the major players: chefs, winemakers, producers and bureaucrats.
Although a deeply committed gastronome and ardent Francophile, American Steinberger can’t resist the occasional dig – in the US, the book was subtitled Food, Wine and the End of France – and appears to suggest the burgeoning American artisan food movement is down to a free market policy from which the ailing French could learn well. Deeply ironic, when you consider French cuisine is one of many global casualties of the US free market-inspired industrialisation of food production.
And while Steinberger attempts a few optimistic notes, you can’t help feeling that rather than praying for a Spanish-style reinvigoration of French cuisine, he is instead pining for a past now gone – a past he might have preserved in aspic, served with a jus reduction and a bottle of ’82 Chateau Petrus.
Nonetheless, an essential and utterly compelling read for anyone with more than a passing interest in Les Affaires du Belly.