Has New York Said ‘Au Revoir’ to All That French Cuisine?

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Now that it’s been out for a week, you may have read a bit from Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, which explores the decline of French cuisine. A passage reprinted on Slate (Steinberger is the site’s wine columnist) describes the Michelin guide’s loss of authority, and another details the rise of McDonald’s in a country formerly known to appreciate leisurely lunches. The book doesn’t really delve into New York dining much, but since so much in it reminds us of Stateside trends, we asked Steinberger for his thoughts.

So has French cuisine suffered in New York City as much as it has in France?
You certainly saw that when a trio of iconic French restaurants (La Caravelle, Lutèce, and La Côte Basque) all went under at around the same time. About a year ago, the Times said French food was making a comeback in New York. I don’t think it went as out of fashion as people say, but I don’t see signs there’s a renewed flowering of Francophilia going on.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers are going back to Italian food, some say because people seek heavy, familiar dishes during hard times. But given that so much of bistro food is heavy and familiar, why don’t we see a resurgence there?
Many years before the recession, there was a flowering interest in lighter, healthier Mediterranean cuisine. Italian is of course the great Mediterranean cuisine. Italian much better fit the sensibilities of eaters into the nineties and aughts then did stodgy old French cuisine. It could also be argued that Italian food is more stick-to-the-ribs, soulful, more generous — perhaps there’s a perception that Italian offers more bang for the buck.

You also discuss the fact that Spanish chefs are more highly lauded these days. Do you think that’s deserved, or is it just a media obsession with the quirkiness of chefs like Ferran Adrià?
It makes for a sexy story, how the French have been toppled, but I also think there’s much more creative cooking in Spain. In a place like San Sebastián there’s an energy that you just don’t find anywhere in France. At the top level there’s a spirit of experimentation that can be found in certain French restaurants but doesn’t seem to have caught on in a big way.

Are there any French chefs you’d like to see here? That are doing things you wouldn’t expect?
There certainly are young chefs in France, like Pascal Barbot, who are looking to escape the deadening weight of this incredibly rich gastronomic heritage. They’re staying true to French technique but also using ideas from all over the world. But I’d rather he not come to New York — I’d rather he stay in his kitchen. I’d prefer more of them stay at home at this point. The Spaniards stay in the kitchen. But one thing the French can yet teach us is how to do haute fare in times such as these — you do see the bistronomie movement in Paris, where Christian Constant and his many talented acolytes said “We’re not going for Michelin stars — we want to do haute fare in a bistro environment, at bistro prices.” They realized that two- and three-star restaurants were becoming increasingly dependent on foreign tourists, and people didn’t want to pay that money. These guys open their restaurants in marginal arrondissements because they can get cheaper space, and people really responded to getting two-star fare for 30 euros. There’s no guy in a penguin suit hovering over them, but people don’t want him hovering over them anyway. We’ve seen some of that in Brooklyn, for sure.

You delve into the idea of the world-traveling “chef manque” in the book, which is timely since Jean-Georges Vongerichten was recently criticized by Bruni for stretching himself too thin. Ducasse and Robuchon have received the same criticism.
This global economic downturn really calls into question this idea of empire-building among chefs. Very few of them can pull it off successfully without diluting their product and running into serious problems. If Ducasse had come ten years earlier and people had been told the most famous French chef in the world was coming, it would’ve generated a lot of excitement. By 2000 you look at how well the city was eating and the level of sophistication — when he made these noises like he was going to teach the natives how to eat, it really rubbed people the wrong way.

French chefs seem to have a habit of talking back to New York critics — do you think there was any validity to Ducasse’s claim, in response to Platt’s review, that Americans don’t understand bistro?
No, I don’t, because I don’t think there was ever any great mystery to bistro food that was waiting to be unraveled. You’re dealing with a pretty sophisticated restaurant scene — people who know in some cases more about what’s really good in Paris than some Parisians. Part of Ducasse’s problem in New York is that he’ll make statements like that. I have a chapter in the book where I attended a tasting at Adour. Ducasse seemed very nervous about the reception that awaited him, but then when I was asked him about his executive chef in Monte Carlo saying that Americans only want lobster and beef, he broke into mocking English and said something like, “I want my beef well done … ” I know he loves New York and considers it to be the equal of Paris, but once in a while that French chauvinism rears its head. It didn’t cut it in 2000 when he opened ADNY, and it certain doesn’t cut it now.

On the other hand, Daniel Boulud is still very much loved. What do you think of him pitching his latest restaurant as downscale?
By now, Boulud is considered a New York chef. He has had a great sense of timing, with Bar Boulud and what it offered — these aren’t cheap meals, but they’re certainly restaurants for the times. He offers a variety of choices for diners, and I don’t think there’s any questioning the quality — it’s a really encouraging development.

New Yorkers were also highly cynical of the Michelin guide. In one of the book’s more interesting passages, you call into question its objectivity when you investigate the suicide of Bernard Loiseau, the esteemed chef-owner of La Cote d'Or.
When Bernard Loiseau committed suicide, Michelin strenuously denied it had ever warned him that his third star was in jeopardy. But Pascal Rémy, the former inspector who wrote the tell-all book about the guide, told me that actually they did indeed warn him in the fall of 2002, when they said they had serious concerns. Madame Loiseau then sent a letter thanking them and telling them the “warning” (and she underlined that word) had been heard. The letter was contained in the chef’s dossier that mysteriously disappeared the day after he died. Since the book is being printed in England, I couldn’t print his comments without independently verifying the existence of these documents or I’d be leaving myself open to a lawsuit. Sure enough, the minutes of this meeting described that he was “visibly shocked” about what he heard from Michelin, and the letter from Madame Loiseau did indeed have the word “warning” underlined. We now know Loiseau had bipolar disorder, so there was an underlying issue, but it was also clear that rumors over this third star being in jeopardy set him on the downward spiral, and this indicated that Michelin was much less innocent in his death than they insisted.

Your book also discusses the harm that French bureaucracy and overregulation did to restaurants there. New York’s restaurateurs seem to have many of the same frustrations — do you think our restaurants will suffer as much as theirs have?
With France the bigger culprit has been the 19.6 percent value added tax, which is changing July 1. They finally responded to decades of pleading and even riots among chefs, and they’re reducing it from 19.6 to the 5.5 that McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants charge. The 35-hour work week was also the most onerous regulation, and the sheer amount of paperwork and bureaucracy and the inability to fire people once you hire them. We’re seeing some similar trends (like the city council in Chicago banning foie gras), but I think we’re a long way from finding ourselves in a straitjacket of regulation.