The French Meal

Grand dining room at Les Ambassadeurs in Paris

UNESCO recently gave a nod to Gallic cuisine, placing “the gastronomic meal of the French” on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Humanity. The achievement was due to the efforts of Jean-Robert Pitte, a food writer and historian. According to Pitte’s UNESCO application, the French meal consists of a minimum of four courses, artistically folded napkins, a written menu and “between two and five glasses” on the table.

This sounds quite tangible to me. In fact, it seems calcified and rigid. Mr. Pitte seems to be a modern Rip Van Winkle who has slept through the last two decades of culinary evolution. Even a short walk through Paris will reveal scores of sushi bars as well as restaurants specializing in the cuisines of Vietnam, Thailand, and various parts of North Africa. Some of the “foreign” restaurants even have Michelin stars: Copenhague (Denmark), Fogon (Spain) and Aida (Japan).

The real story, of course, is the evolution of French cuisine itself over the past twenty years. While it’s more than possible to find an elegant establishment measuring up to Mr. Pitte’s standards, the trend is toward restaurants which are more casual and innovative. Consider L’Astrance, a restaurant seating perhaps 30 diners with a market-driven “surprise” menu at every meal, presided over by Pascal Barbot; it received three Michelin stars in 2007, despite being the polar opposite of a classical temple of cuisine. What about L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a two-star restaurant where diners sit on stools in front of an open kitchen, enjoying the spontaneous creations of the chefs? The list goes on, but the trend is obviously toward less opulent surroundings and lighter dishes created from the ingredients of the day.

The bad news for Mr. Pitte is that everything changes, and the good news is that this isn’t a bad thing. When I was a teenager, my parents thought that the music I listened to was garbage, because it wasn’t Benny Goodman. I now think that the music my grandchildren listen to is garbage, because it’s not the Grateful Dead. Their turn will come.


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