The State of French Food

One of the best restaurants in Paris today is Spring, owned by chef Daniel Rose. Or so I hear, not having had the chance to eat there myself. But last night I did have the chance to hear from Daniel Rose, at a panel event hosted by the American Library in Paris, a venerable institution situated in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

Rose was one of three speakers on a panel addressing the subject of “The State of French Food.” He was joined by Alexandre Drouard, who supplies many of the ingredients used by Rose at Spring, and by Pascale Brevet, a  writer and promoter of the slow food movement. A native Chicagoan (from Wilmette), Rose did most of the talking for the panel, which was conducted in English. Joining a long tradition of American interpreters of French cuisine and culture, Rose tackled the subjects of gourmandise, terroir, and les marchés with aplomb.

The most thrilling part of the evening was listening to Rose’s explanation of how he created a recipe that one member of the audience had recently enjoyed at Spring. The dish of mackerel with smoked tomatoes illustrated his commitment to the principle of terroir, which encompasses the plants, animals, fish, weather, and culture specific to a given place (definition offered by the supplier, Drouard). Rose explains that he mentally divides each year into 24 seasons, which are set not by dates but by the weather outside. During this past week, Paris has suddenly shifted from summer to fall, with the warm sunny days that greeted us on our arrival giving way to the cool rainy weather I associate with the city. Rose’s mackerel and smoked tomato was designed to capture this transitional moment. The tomatoes represented the spirit of summer, and the smoke represents the coming of fall. Rose explained that while tomatoes may reach their peak of flavor in September, some fruits begin to grow mealy. Thus he chooses the best-textured tomatoes to smoke and serve in the dish while the others are juiced into a clean tomato water that decorates the plate. The mackerel, which were available for one day only from Drouard, were a natural match for the tomato since smoke and fish are a classic combination. To continue the play on cooked/uncooked in the tomato portion of the dish, Rose burnt the tops of the mackerel while leaving the bottoms almost raw. Wow! His account of this dish, with its combination of sensual and intellectual logic, both staggered me and made me very very hungry.

Despite Rose’s evocation of terroir as a French concept, I was struck by how different his dish sounded from those listed on the black chalkboards of most brasseries I pass. The unchanging sameness of the menus in Paris has been a great surprise to me. Again and again I see the familiar list of tartare de boeuf (steak tartare), riz de veau (sweetbreads), magret de canard (duck breast), escalope de porc (pork chops), and tarte tatin. The concept of terroir does not seem to have a lot of influence on the brasseries of Paris, at least when it comes to matching food to the weather.

In fact, the panel was presented as a response to a perceived crisis in French food culture. A recent report has revealed that as many as 75% of Paris restaurants serving meals in the 30-35 euros range (the typical cost of a full meal at an average brasserie), incorporate some frozen dishes into their menus. (Here is a CNN report on the scandal.) Unfortunately, we’re not talking about frozen raspberries picked at the peak of their flavor for use in preserves, or some other non-offensive item. Restaurants are serving frozen cassoulets and boeuf bourguignon, with all the signature ingredients of processed foods (high sodium content, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.). What you pay for at too many restaurants is the right to sit and enjoy the ambience. If you’re interested in eating well you’d do better to buy some quality ingredients and cook at home.

Which leads to a second distressing theme of last night’s panel. Although Paris has more daily markets than you can shake a stick at, almost all the sellers are supplied by a single centralized wholesale market, the enormous Rungis out by Orly airport. Unlike in North America, producers very rarely sell their own products at market. The best you can hope for as a shopper in Paris (besides buying from Drouard) is to find the market sellers who build relationships with particular producers that they respect. Since arriving here, we’ve made it a mission to visit as many markets as possible in search of the best ingredients. It hasn’t taken long to identify the sameness of the fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish offered by so many market stalls. In defense of this system, that sameness is very very good. You can buy wonderful, if identical, ingredients for dinner at any number of markets. But the danger, as last night’s commentators made clear, was that the unique products of different terroirs would be lost to an industrial logic that prioritizes maximizing profit. Pascale Brevet illustrated this danger with the example of the endangered Breton Pie Noir cow, renowned for its yellow creamy butter, which have almost entirely given way  to the higher-yielding, ubiquitous, Holstein-Freisian.

Anyone familiar with reading history will recognize this as a declension narrative, that ever-familiar story line in which the present day represents a falling off from a former Golden Age. Kids today don’t listen to their elders. The Breton Pie Noirs have given way to laboratory grown hamburger meat. Daniel Rose resisted this declension narrative by refusing to express alarm over the frozen food crisis, explaining that there has always been good and bad food, and savvy customers should be able to figure out the difference and vote with their pocket books. But he was in the minority on the panel, and judging from the questions, among the over one hundred people in attendance at the event. Perhaps that is because the declension narrative of French cuisine holds a special appeal to Americans who define French cooking by its connection to tradition.

Here the French and the Americans may be fully in consensus. By common agreement, French food is traditional, deeply rooted in place and history (terroir again), and an aspect of “world heritage”  deemed worthy of formal recognition by Unesco. American food, in contrast, is represented as rootless, subject to dietary and aesthetic fads, and unquestionably inferior. Who can imagine Unesco electing American cooking to the world heritage list? If French food is defined by tradition, there is little surprise that it always appears under siege. Everything changes over time, but changes to French cuisine can only be interpreted as losses.

There are real flaws to viewing the state of French food through the lens of tradition/declension, not the least of which is that it overlooks how many definitional aspects of French food culture are actually of recent vintage. Take for example the baguette, a word coined in 1920, when a new law prevented bakers from working before 4:00 am and thus made difficult the preparation of the large round loaves that had been a traditional staple of the French kitchen. Okay, the real story is a lot more complicated, as you might expect. But the fact that perhaps the archetypal French food is not even a century old should give us pause before bemoaning the loss of French traditions to the pressures of modern capitalism. Another thing I learned last night is that despite the common assertion that Parisians think eating on the street is gauche because France has a traditional food culture of shared mealtimes, in fact the city used to have a thriving street-food scene. In the 19th century street stalls sold plates of offal and frites that were considered especially salubrious.

A final thought on Daniel Rose: what does it mean that his restaurant celebrating French food traditions and seasonality has an English word for its name? Is this Rose’s acknowledgment that American cooking in Paris comprises part of the French tradition? Is he self-consciously following in the footsteps of other Americans who have mastered the art of French cooking, from James Hemings to James Beard to Julia Child? Is Spring in fact a renewal of this tradition for the new century? If only I had reservations there I could find out.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

8 thoughts

  1. A sad reflection of some poor practice in French restaurants, but signs of a revival in local food abound. I have just returned from Paris and ate extremely well. I may have to return just to be sure!

  2. Thank you for this, I completely agree. I, luckily have a friend with his eyes wide open on the food in Paris. And when I visit, we only find the best. We also cook a lot in the apartment and shop in places like Rue Daguerre and in markets. I wish this sad trend will cease and desist.

    (you may enjoy my blog; it’s full of photos of Paris and food, of course)

    1. Great photos from the rue Daguerre. We live nearby in the 14th, so this is a frequent shopping trip for us. It’s going to be hardest to say goodbye to the markets when our year is up. Have you tried the Bastille market on Sundays?

      1. I, unfortunately, don’t spend as much time as I would like in, Paris. I would visit every market and live there for a time, if I could. I live in the Netherlands and we visit our friend in Paris.. and now his two years are up and he will likely be moving to Rio in Brazil.

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