What do the French do when their economy and identity are under
assault? Throw a dinner party, of course – a global one.
From Madagascar to Washington, D.C., more than 1,000 French
chefs on five continents hosted multi-course gastronomic
dinners last Thursday in celebration – and defense – of
France’s culinary prowess.
At one dinner, at the Chateau of Versailles west of Paris,
around 600 guests (including NPR), dined in the lamp-lit
Battles’ Gallery, flanked by oil paintings of French military
victories through the ages.
Some 350 years ago, Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” wielded haute
cuisine as a tool of the state. At Versailles, France was
flexing those soft power muscles again.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the guests at the
Versailles dinner that France’s heritage is its cuisine and
wine. “It is a heritage that should not simply be contemplated,
glorified and savored,” said Fabius, “but built upon and
Still, the country’s reputation as the world’s premiere
gastronomy has taken a hit in recent years.
A 2010 book entitled Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine
and the End of France declared that France’s culinary
“Golden Age” was long over. And last year, the prestigious
British compilation of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants failed
to name a single French establishment to the top 10.
How to explain the decline? France has become one of the
top consumers of fast food. And pre-prepared, industrially
produced meals are now the
dirty little secret of even some top French restaurants.
Meanwhile, some of the most innovative cuisine has been coming
Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.
The dinners at Versailles and across the world — events dubbed
Gout de France (Good France) — were just the latest
efforts by the French government to assert that the food is
just as innovative, elegant and delicious as ever.
At Versailles, diners were regaled with a seven-course meal
prepared by top chefs Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon. Courses
including suckling lamb from the Pyrenees and salmon tartar
topped with caviar were paired with first-growth wines from the
French regions of Burgundy, Chablis and Bordeaux. The meal was
both traditional — with a classic Roquefort, Camembert cheese
plate — and original. Ducasse’s creation of toasted quinoa stew
with shaved truffles showed that French food is not stuck in
Preserving the country’s gastronomic heritage is also an
economic imperative for the government. Tourism accounts for
7 percent of French GDP (France is the world’s top tourist
destination), and many visitors come to France to taste iconic
dishes like magret de canard and boeuf
bourguignon — and to imbibe.
Food is also fundamentally a matter of national identity, says
Sorbonne scholar Jean-Robert Pitte, who led the 2010 campaign
to include the multi-course French
meal on UNESCO’s list of the “world’s intangible heritage.”
“Gastronomy is definitely a cultural activity,” says Pitte, who
was in Washington, D.C., to attend the feast hosted by the
French embassy there. (The wines, we can attest, were a
revelation with their nuanced layering of flavors.)
What’s more, says Pitte, food is “the action, the ritual of
buying, preparing, sharing a good” meal. Food serves not just
as a way to strengthen social ties, he says, but as a way to
transmit the values at the core of French society.
Even as globalization spreads fast food across the globe, the
French continue to take the act of eating very seriously. They
consider an understanding of food – where it comes from, and
how crops and animals are raised – to be fundamental. Freshness
and local production are prized – in Paris alone, there are
more than 250 outdoor food markets every week. And the idea of
the table as a place for conviviality and sharing is still
These ideals are passed on to future generations from the
youngest age. Even
pre-school children sit down to home-cooked, multi-course
meals at day care, and they’re encouraged to taste different
foods and share in conversation at meal time.
The threats against French food traditions have mobilized the
country to protect them. “Taste education” – in which students
are taught how to savor foods, and about concepts like
terroir – is now a formal part of the curriculum. Last
fall, the government even unveiled a national food policy that
aims to make “high-quality food and nutrition a foundational
aspect of French citizenship.”
Quite simply, says Pitte, the table unites the country. “The
French are often divided along left, right, ethnic, religious
and political lines,” he says. “But around the table they
agree. They come together.”
With reporting by Maria Godoy in Washington and Eleanor
Beardsley in Paris.