Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Demise of the Temple of Gastronomy?

Classic French cuisine relies on the brilliance of its chefs and the quality of ingredients. The pioneers, still revered today, include Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), a violinist and lawyer who wrote La Physiologie du Gout (The Psychology of Taste) in 1825 and raised French cooking to an art and science. A quote: Dinner without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) created dishes for the celebrities of his day and became known as “the chef of emperors and emperor of chefs.” His showy, rich dishes relied on the creation of a master sauce and dominated French plates until the 1970s, when a lighter style, known as nouvelle cuisine, became fashionable. Escoffier revolutionized the way professional kitchens were organized, and he is responsible for the custom of offering restaurant meals in courses, instead of delivering all dishes at once.
Escoffier ruled the kitchen at Lapérouse, a restaurant dating from 1766. Its location along the Quai des Grands Augustins affords diners a view of the Seine, and waiters serving occupants of the private dining rooms (each conveniently furnished with sofa -- a rare carry over from previous times), cough discretely when approaching. If you get my drift.
Today, there is much debate over whether classic French haute cuisine is on its way out, as many of the best-known chefs in France have opened moderately priced brasseries or bistros alongside their celebrated restaurants. They do this in order to survive. The days when tourists make reservations at 3-star temples of gastronomy several months before leaving for Paris are numbered. Le Grand Véfour, a restaurant with a 200-year tradition, just lost one of its coveted stars (in March, 2008), demoted to a mere 2 asterisks. It still charges €268 (US $425) for its fixed priced dinner menu, but everyone at the table must order it in order to get out of there so cheaply. That’s per person, exclusive of wine. It is sadly telling that the restaurant web site emphasizes famous patrons over its cuisine.
However, a restaurant of that category might employ two chefs who spend several days prior to your dinner making sauces exclusively (of which you might be served only a tablespoon or two as a garnish to your main course). It’s all about labor and overhead.
In defense of Le Grand Véfour, it should be noted that even the 2-star field is not crowded. The Michelin France guide lists only 68 two-star restaurants, and only 26 dining establishments sport 3 stars (the highest rating possible).
The fact that neighboring Spain has stolen the thunder from France when it comes to the world’s highest-rated dining experiences is a reality difficult for Parisians to swallow. Add to that the fact that Milan is the world’s most-happening fashion capital, and the French are likely to ponder, “What’s next?”
Many Parisian restaurants, in fact, have gone global, opening restaurants in the United States and Asia. These outposts generally offer a dining experience at a fraction of the cost of eating in their Paris locations. Las Vegas, for example, is awash in such offerings.
Reacting to current trends, French restaurants are now serving more down-to-earth, country-style cooking called “cuisine du terroir,” drawing on regional dishes and ingredients. And tourists can take delight in that prospect, eating dinner all week for the price of one meal at Le Grand Véfour.

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