A conclave in London, England, last week convened for the London Restaurant Festival. And, as happens whenever a minyan of Anglo-Saxons is reached, they talked smack about the French. The group being of a culinary bent, they talked smack about French cuisine. The French and the English have never been the best of friends. Mention 1066 to anyone in the British Isles and you'll receive a dirty look. And so the group gazed at their nombrils or rather, not at their own, but across the Channel, at the bellybuttons of the French. They wondered: Is French Cuisine dead?
The conservative broadsheet The Telegraph asked "Rosie Boycott, writer, campaigner and chair of London Food," (and fameball!) to weigh in. [London Food being much as it sounds, an organization dedicated the promotion of English cuisine.] "Real French food has died," she writes. "If you think about it, what one always used to love about France was the ability to go to any old place and have an amazing meal. These are the places that have disappeared." Bias aside, I'm not sure that is what "one always used to love about France." Just because not all French food isn't amazing doesn't mean no French cuisine is amazing. And by Boycott's measure, England would be remanded to the dark ages of cooking. There's lots of great food in London but a whole lot more crappy pubs. Arguing that French cuisine is moribund makes any claims to the viability of English cuisine laughable and that's pretty weak tea.
Meanwhile, The Financial Times asks, "Have the French Lost Their Touch?" Their answer: Yes and it's because they're fucking Communists. "The French have been singularly responsible for the decline in their culinary reputation, and the most significant factor in this has been the introduction of the 35-hour working week by the former Socialist government." Writer Nicholas Lander equates this somehow with a lack of movement in the haute culinary ranks of French chefs: "Paul Bocuse, now in his mid-eighties, still casts his shadow over many of the restaurants of Lyon. Alain Ducasse, having scaled Michelin's culinary heights, has expanded his empire into bistros, as has Guy Savoy... With little movement at the top, what incentive is there for any young, aspiring French chef, sexy or not?" That's all well and fine except Messrs. Bocuse, Ducasse, and Savoy have offered and offer the sort of rigorous training and vertical movement within their organizations that give young chefs the experience and the knowledge to branch out on their own.
Elsewhere, across both the Channel and the Atlantic, Bruce Palling, writing for the Wall Street Journal, skirts the issue by — gasp! — simply reporting on a panel discussion, in which our favorite Boycott, Rosie Boycott, was a part as well as kind of dickish critic A.A. Gill who, nonetheless, brought up the most salient point in the whole discussion: "Embarrassingly, this is a question being put by a developing, third-rate food nation." Not that there aren't problems or that the system hasn't become sclerotic.
Raymond Blanc, one of the few Frenchies actually quoted — though he, like the traitor Ganelon, lives in England — says of his native cuisine: "Yes, French cuisine is in a hole at the moment, but it is not dead." In other words, French Cuisine has experienced le petite mort. It'll be rising again in no time.
So the French are frozen in existential spasm regarding a proud past with both shame and arrogance. The English are, instead, occupying themselves feeling superior and lauding the noble past and feeble present of their Gallic neighbors. And everything rolls on, in the words of David Byrne, same as it ever was.
· Is French cuisine dead? [Independent]
· Have the French Lost Their Touch? [FT]
· Is French Fare a Spent Force? [WSJ]