The rise and fall of French cuisine

French food was the envy of the world – before it became trapped by its own history. Can a new school of traditionalists revive its glories? By Wendell Steavenson

In 2006, after years reporting in the Middle East, I moved to Paris. It was an accidental choice, the serendipity of a sublet through a friend of a friend. It was meant to be temporary; at the time I was just looking for somewhere to hole up and finish a book. My friends all said: “Oh Paris, how lovely! You must be eating well.” They were surprised to hear me complain that Parisian menus were dull and repetitive. “Paté followed by nothing but entrecôte, entrecôte, entrecôte. Occasionally roast lamb, duck breast. No vegetables to speak of,” I told them. “It’s a tyranny of meat-in-brown-sauce.” As the rest of the world had begun to (re)discover their own cuisines and innovate, the French restaurant seemed to be stagnating in a pool of congealing demi-glace.

Elsewhere, places such as Balthazar in New York and the Wolseley in London seemed to be doing the French restaurant better than the French. In France, the old guard of critics and restaurateurs remained convinced that French cuisine was still the best in the world and a point of national pride. The bistros cleaved to the traditional red-and-white checked table cloths and chalked-up menus even as they were microwaving pre-prepared boeuf bourguignon in the back. In 2010, when the French restaurant meal was added to Unesco’s list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”, it felt as if the French restaurant had become a museum piece, and a parody of itself.

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