The association between Paris and ‘haute cuisine’ is intricate, deeply entrenched and etched into the sub-consciences of savants and lay persons (like myself) alike.
The reputation of France and Paris for its culinary prowess endures long after Louis XIV worked to establish the reputation of France as a centre for luxury, decadence and as a standard bearer for good taste.
Since then, what has changed is that haute cuisine has somewhat democratised since the monarchical days of old when good taste was the esoteric preserve of the extremely well-heeled and powerful. Over the decades, the secrets to fine dining have been progressively leaked and common folk, like myself, can access information on what makes for good food. We also have access to the food itself, depending on our levels of willingness and capacity to pay.
At the same time, a few things remain antiquated : The domination of the professional culinary world by men for example.
While it is true that a broader proportion of middle class folk can enjoy fine dining, the profession itself remains primarily driven by men (1% of Michelin-starred restaurants have a woman as head chef).
Furthermore, as the world becomes increasingly interlinked, it is no longer absolutely clear that France and Paris offer undisputed and non-contestable leadership over the universe of haute cuisine. Other cities of similar repute – London, New York – are able to produce pretty much what one can find in one of Paris’ restaurants. Haute cuisine has not only trickled down to the masses but has also done so horizontally, spreading to other parts of the globe.
In a rapidly changing global landscape, Paris holds on to pride of place as having been first to venture into ‘nouvelle cuisine’ four centuries ago.
The city holds a protracted and deep relationship to the culinary arts and has served to establish global trends for much longer than any other city in the Western world. It was in the Parisian region that a challenge to Italian cuisine emerged and inventive, contemporary cooking took root. Paris has presented, consistently, a brave vision of contemporary fine dining versus regionalised, traditional food.
It was also in Paris that the concept of establishing rules, regulations and competitive standards became central to the culinary world. It is in this lovely city that the distinction between eating with little reflection (as is, unfortunately often my case!) and more literate approaches to food were established.
In the movie ‘Comme Un Chef’ (‘Le Chef’/’The Chef’ in other markets), the contemporary realities of Paris as a city that invented haute cuisine in the face of modern discourses on food is presented in a light-hearted, entertaining flick.
The movie delves into the story of a three starred Michelin chef struggling as he straddles between established concepts associated with haute cuisine and new trends – molecular cuisine in particular.
As it presents and animated illustration of the conflict between the past and the future – it also offers glimpses into the geography of good taste in Paris.
On one hand, it depicts ‘La Pépinière’ a brasserie (this eatery actually exists at 6, place St Augustin, in the 8th arrondissement (tel 01 45 22 85 03, Métro stop: St Augustin, Miromesnil, Europe). In this instance, the film demonstrates the ‘popular’ end of Paris where food is consumed for purely functional purposes, reflection upon a deeper culinary philosophy, artistry and metaphor behind the food is absent. Regulation and rules do not apply. This is the gastronomical Paris of several of us who either lack the taste or disposition to strain our already meager budgets for delightful fine dining. We get to eat hearty ‘regional’ food that follows patterns of cooking established through tradition and rudimentary recipes.
On the other hand of the spectrum, the movie spends the most part providing insight into the interesting world of regulated and reflexive cuisine. It gives a bit of insight into key components of haute cuisine in Paris: The now unspoken aversion to spice and preference for sauces and herbal aromas; The centrality of carnivorous cuisine and affinity for meat based dishes from filet mignon to aiguillettes de canard; The indispensability of good wine – from Pétrus to Hortus.
The film juxtaposes the popular version of Parisian food and the more sophisticated, socio-culturaly distinct version of the city through subtle inferences to ingredients and short, sharp cultural references.
The importance of rules and regulations in the world of sophisticated Parisian dining is also hinted at quite strongly: The world of haute cuisine is placed within the context of a Paris where time, discipline, education and literacy are central. In the world of haute cuisine, there is a rootedness to Left Bank Paris – with the Pantheon and the Sorbonne making cameo appearances in the movie. There is also a clear linkage to bourgeois taste and preferences : with the métro stop ‘Iena’ and a series of baroque interiors serving as part of the backdrop of the literate world that underpins Parisian ‘haute cuisine’.
In essence, one could say that the film is an interesting insight into several layers of taste, class distinction and which parts of the city’s territory act as spaces for good taste.
Globalisation and Parisian Cuisine
At the same time, ‘Comme Un Chef’ also ventures into a hot topic : the reality of foreign influences upon the city and the imperative to respond.
Interestingly, most of the foreigners in the film are cast as either mentally challenged, bizarre or just plain old bastardly, in contrast to the thoughtful French characters. It is not done so in a mean spirited way but it is done so in jest as would be the case in any other cinematic work from other countries. It is perhaps interesting to observe the roles assumed by aliens in Paris: There is a bizarre Spanish molecular cuisine enthusiast, a perfidious English speaking character with little to add in terms of the culinary discussion, and foreign immigrant workers that form a trio of simple minded guinea pigs for experimental French food. One of the characters plays out a Japanese stereotype as an ambassador’s wife – although the diplomat’s wife is shown as a geisha.
That aside, the film brings to life an image of Paris as the venue for a gastronomy-related struggle in the face of globalisation. Established French approaches to cuisine contend with adventurous departures from the past into territories such as that of molecular cuisine that marries food science to the culinary arts, the film seems to suggest. Real world evidence bears this point out. In the 2012 edition of the Michelin guide, Tokyo held on to the title of the world’s food capital. Paris on the other had appears less frequently with two handfuls of 3-starred Michelin restaurants.
Tous au restaurant: Haute Cuisine for half the price
The pressures of globalisation aside, it bears repeating that Paris remains a well established venue where good taste has set down its roots for decades. It is deeply infused into the socio-cultural fabric of the city. One clear (albeit flimsy) demonstration of this is the ‘Tous au restaurant’ initiative. It is basically an initiative in Paris and beyond that offers a ‘two meals for the price of one’ for haute cuisine and more modest forms of dining over the course of about a week. This year it runs from the 17th all through to the 23rd of September.
One has to admit, it says a lot (in the positive sense) about a country – and city – where haute cuisine is prized strongly enough to make sure that all have access to it! More reasons to love this city!
There is more information on ‘Tous au restaurant’ here and a promo vid 5in French) Below)