Yesterday, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the French Culinary Institute rounded up some legends of the field and poised a provocative but not unfamiliar question. FCI founder Dorothy Hamilton threw down the gauntlet by saying that students complain to her all the time, “Why do we have to study French cuisine?” She asked André Soltner, Drew Nieporent, Jacques Pépin, and Eric Ripert, “How did French cuisine move from the top of the pyramid?”
During the contentious debate, Nieporent argued that a sea change in American tastes has made “the Le, La restaurants” less attractive to customers. Plus, “the economics of French cuisine are impossible,” he said, pointing to 45-minute gaps between courses. Soltner granted that people “didn’t like the attitude” that had marked many fine French restaurants in New York. “We were snobbier, and that changed,” he said. But Pépin said, if anything, classic French cuisine is coming back. “Everybody seems to be doing beef bourguignon since that movie Julie & Julia,” he joked. Meanwhile, Ripert disputed the whole argument: “Just try to get a reservation at Daniel or Jean Georges. Good luck.”
The heavyweights did agree that the French restaurant business in New York has changed radically in the last quarter-century, starting with menus in English, local foie gras farming, the explosion of online food criticism, and a new casual tone in serving customers. In the early days of Le Bernardin, said Ripert, waiters were taught a formal body posture, holding their hands so that their knuckles were always even. Now, he said, while he doesn’t endorse what he calls “The ‘Hi, folks, how are you tonight? My name is Eric!’” school of service, he’s glad it’s more relaxed.
Nieporent complained that today, “Everybody’s a critic.” When he ran Lutece, “André Soltner went to every table,” said Nieporent, but “today, he’d get his balls busted” by diners telling him what they did or didn’t like, not to mention “everybody taking pictures to put on the Internet.”
But there is one sea change in the culinary arts that all the chefs applauded: “A very good mother always wanted her children to marry architects and doctors,” said Pépin, “but now, we are geniuses. The role of the chef has changed.”