Every year the publication of the Michelin restaurant guide creates an excitement in France akin to the Oscars. But this year has caused a stir for altogether different reasons. 2020 is the first year since 1965 that the restaurant founded by Paul Bocuse— the Napoleon, of French cuisine— no longer figured among the 29-strong group of 3-star restaurants in France, missing out on the ultimate culinary accolade. The omission shocked France. Even President Macron, who has enough revolutions to contend with, could not help a ‘thought for Monsieur Paul’.
Two years after the maestro’s death, the black truffle soup and la volaille de Bresse en vessie Mère Fillioux have failed to seduce the Michelin inspectors. What Bocuse called la sainte trilogie, ‘butter, cream, wine’ is no longer the founding formula of haute cuisine. But Monsieur Paul is not the first to go. A growing number of great chefs from the old stable like Marc Veyrat or Marc Haeberlin have also been sacrificed on the altar of Michelin’s new-found idols: ‘local’ and ‘organic’ aromatic plants, flowers and citrus fruit.
France was the first country to have its cuisine consecrated by UNESCO back in 2010. French food, it concluded, merited world intangible heritage status for “a social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups”. Yet less than a decade later, a new form of culinary narcissism is undermining its very foundations.
Apart from dumping some of the great names of French gastronomy, the Michelin guide has gone ‘woke’ with the creation of a new oxymoronic category of ‘sustainable gastronomy’ (gastronomie durable) marked by a green leaf pictogram. It may assuage the conscience of Oscar luvvies to know that their favourite Paris 3-star Plaza Athenée hotel restaurant uses renewable energy when preparing its 390 euros set menu, but this virtue signalling in French gastronomy is part of a wider, baleful trend.
Nobody would deny that culinary tastes and dishes evolve. In the 1970s the bible of French haute cuisine, the Michelin Red Guide, was confronted by an ‘arriviste’ rival, the Gault et Millau, which scandalised the traditional gourmet establishment with its emphasis on ‘revolutionary’ nouvelle cuisine.
But today’s revolution is more subversive for attacking not only what is on the plate but also the famous conviviality of the French at table. The modish trend for organic produce, vegetarianism, veganism and gluten and lactose free dishes is undermining the spontaneity and bonhomie of a good French meal. The gregarious informality of rustic lunches à la bonne franquette to dinner parties with copains – quintessential aspects of Frenchness in which sharing and spontaneity reign – are being sacrificed to the individualism and planning associated with personal food requirements. Disappearing too are the quick and economical set menus of friendly local bistrots – the formule – because catering to the growing cacophony of dietary requests hardly lends itself to brevity.
That your politics were in your plate was a well-told joke of 1980s France. So when Socialist President Mitterrand sat down for his favourite dish of ortolans – a protected species of bunting – while his centre-right Gaullist successor Jacques Chirac tucked in to his favourite tête de veau ravigote (calf’s head in a highly seasoned sauce) everyone understood who was the true man of the people.
But today it is individual virtue that is most present in your choice of dish. On 19 January a radio debate on the high-brow French radio channel France Culture asked whether we are still free to eat what we like. Citing a recent study showing that pleasure is still the primary criterion when the French choose what to eat, it pointed out that this gratification is under attack from the progressive individualisation of food customs and a new guilt generated by moral food censors. At stake is not only the pleasure of eating, but also the social bonding that accompanies it. French food culture is founded on the principle of deriving pleasure from the same dish—and then talking about it afterwards. Can it survive the fragmented food tastes of modern diners? I’m not so sure.