Monday, January 11, 2010

Recommended Reading: Au Revoir to All That

For a few years, I was lucky enough to live in Germany, just 10 kilometres from the French border. My wife and I often travelled into France in those days and gloried in everything gastronomic that it had to offer, from the simple to the sublime. We’ve been back to visit France quite a few times since our return to Canada, always taking time for some new culinary adventures. Occasionally, we’d wonder, was everything quite as glorious as we remembered it? Did the quality of our new experiences match our idealized memories of the earlier ones? Or were things declining in France?

Michael Steinberger addresses just that topic in his recent book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. He argues that France entered a period of economic and culinary decline in the 1980s. The result? The most influential chefs and best restaurants are no longer French. The French wine industry is in crisis. The French way of life – bistros, artisanal products, neighbourhood shopping – is rapidly vanishing. Horrors: France is now the second most-profitable market in the world for McDonalds, which is its largest private sector employer! Steinberger addresses all these topics, and does it well.

He also takes us through a history of French cuisine; the dominating influence – good and harmful – of the Michelin Guide; the economic malaise that has afflicted France since the 1980s; the rise of Spain and England (!) as the new centres of European gastronomy; over-regulation; the seemingly intractable problem of immigrant assimilation; and the creative coasting of the great French chefs as they placed their focus on corporate culinary empires rather than on their kitchens. The tone is largely elegiac: French culinary culture led the world, and its decline is a loss for us all.

One of his most interesting premises is that the slow decline of French cuisine mirrors, and is driven by, that of France’s economy. (Talk to most French people and they will bemoan their economic malaise, and then thank God that at least they are not Americans.) This axiom, that poor economic times lead to stagnating culinary creativity, is not new or surprising. But in the case of France, with its prolonged malaise, where the spending power of diners has been relentlessly impaired over almost 30 years, the pressure on chefs to cut costs, to stick to the tried and true, to be risk-averse, has become greater and greater. And so France has ceded its leadership.

Equally true, though, is that chefs elsewhere (Barcelona, New York, Tokyo…oh, the indignity…London!) were ready to move into leadership, and did. And that’s the missing piece of the puzzle with this book. Excellence in food and wine has been an obsession of the French for more than a century. Indeed, it’s their gift to the world. But today, the pursuit of excellence in food and wine spans the globe. It was inevitable that competition from elsewhere would catch up to, and sometimes even surpass, the French. The question now is whether the French can respond, not in reclaiming the past but in envisioning a future, especially where its citizens are as pressed for time and desirous of convenience as anyone else is. In the final two chapters, Steinberger does offer some optimism that French cuisine can recover.

Au Revoir to All That is thoroughly researched, perceptive, and written well. There are fascinating profiles of some of the most influential players on the culinary scene in France. If you love food, wine, or France, you’ll enjoy this book. Available at the Ottawa Public Library.

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