Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Au Revoir to All That

For years, wine writer and ardent Francophile Michael Steinberger ignored the doomsayers trying to hang crepe on France’s gastronomic culture. He dismissed out of hand a 1997 New Yorker article with the interrogatory headline, “Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?” He refused to consider the emergence of super star Spanish chefs and their la Nueva Cucina as a real threat to France’s dominance in the kitchen. And he discounted his own sub-par dining experiences as well as the accelerating death rate of France’s restaurants, closing by the hundreds each year.

But, eventually, the totality of the evidence overwhelmed his denial. The “snails fell from [his] eyes,” he explains, after a particularly bad lunch at his favorite Parisian restaurant. His “adored institution” had changed, replacing its classic dishes with a dumbed-down menu and the equally classic waitresses with “bumbling androids.” The experience forced him to consider the unthinkable idea that French cuisine might really be in trouble. He decided to find out for himself.

In Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Steinberger opens the cupboards of France’s culinary heritage and makes a compelling case for how and why the situation looks so bleak. Topics he examines include chefs who leave the kitchen and toque behind for the boardroom and business suit; the economic and bureaucratic quagmire sucking down French restaurants and associated businesses; competition from innovative Spanish, British, and American chefs; France’s wholehearted embrace of fast food and willing abandonment of culinary tradition; the mess of the Michelin star system; the mess of the wine appellation system; the demise of handcrafted cheese and lack of support for other artisan producers; and the general malaise of the French public who seem not to notice or care that their fabled cuisine may soon be a thing of the past.

Steinberger did his research. He interviewed star chefs, rising stars, falling stars, restaurateurs, wine makers, wine merchants, cheese makers, and PR flaks. He visited restaurants, wineries, and farms; eating, drinking, and listening his way through the French culinary scene. He amassed a staggering mountain of statistics. And then he turned these raw ingredients into captivating vignettes that tell a story so much bigger than the sum of all these parts.

For instance, it is interesting to learn that 90 percent of the Camembert cheese made in France is made from pasteurized milk by industrialized producers. But it is absolutely fascinating to read Steinberger’s story about visiting François Durand at his dairy farm outside the virtually extinct hamlet of Camembert. Here in Normandy, in the legendary birthplace of France’s most famous cheese, there are only seven producers left who make raw-milk Camembert. Of these, Durand is the last one who makes cheese by hand, using only milk produced from his own cows. The only one? How can that be? Stories like this one of a lonely cheese maker ladling milk in his barn put a face on the problems Steinberger seeks to explain.

But Steinberger does more than string together individual snapshots. He uses stories like Durand’s to illustrate the larger problems -- including French social attitudes and politics -- threatening French cooking. For example, sticking with the cheese theme, Steinberger questions why there is not greater demand for products made by masters like Durand; why the French seem content with industrialized, bland, plastic-like cheese. He compares Durand’s constant struggle to make a living selling hand crafted cheese at the same price of supermarket, machine-made cheese with artisanal cheese makers in America. Why, he wonders, do Paris chefs not drive two hours to buy Durand’s superior product, like New York chefs are wont to do? Why do rich French yuppies not retire to the French countryside and start making their own fancy cheese, like so many urban refugees in America have done? The answer, he decides, is in the French outlook:
[T]hat sort of thing wasn’t likely to happen here in France; here, your chosen career, your métier, was considered your station for life, and you definitely did not give up a well-paying job in Paris to go milk cows in Normandy.
Steinberger blames the French government as much as societal ennui for the culinary crisis. He offers example after example of how politics and excessive regulation are crushing France’s food industry. These examples range from irritating regulatory details, such as a new rule prohibiting wine merchants from displaying “AOC” (premium) wines next to more ordinary vins de pays wines; to onerous laws such as the 19.6% value added tax on restaurant meals; to the biggest political issue of all, the economic legacy of François Mitterand’s socialist policies, which eroded the standard of living for ordinary citizens (left with shorter work weeks and more vacation, but stagnant wages and high inflation) and bled the country of talent as hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs (including chefs) left for more promising markets.

Steinberger is no libertarian zealot. His political conclusions are based, not on partisan ideology, but on his first-hand observations and discussions with the people trying cook and run culinary businesses in France. It does him credit that he does not shy away from these bigger issues. His clear-eyed approach allows him to provide a comprehensive picture of his subject matter.

Which is not to say that his chosen subject matter is comprehensive. Where the book falls short is in not providing a fuller picture of the current state of French cooking. With the exception of Durand’s cheese making, Steinberger limits his scope to restaurants and, to a lesser extent, wine makers. Discussion of other parts of the French gastronomic scene is missing, such as the state of home cooking in France, the condition of farmers (other than grape growers), and the popularity of food trends like “eating local,” farmers markets, and cooking shows. But this is small criticism, based mostly on wanting more of Steinberger’s keen observation and lively writing.

With luck, and hard work, maybe France can reinvigorate its culinary reputation and Steinberger will write another terrific book about the comeback.


This review was first published in the Internet Review of Books. Reading and reviewing this book allows me poke one paw out of my LibraryThing Early Reviewer doghouse. It also counts as one of the four books I'm reading for the Spice of Life Challenge. And, it is going on my French Connections list.


(If you have a review, please post a link in a comment and I will add it here.)


bermudaonion said...

This book sounds fascinating, but I have to tell you, after living tow years in France, I never could figure out how they got the culinary reputation they have.

Book Psmith said...

This sounds like a very interesting book. I always pictured France as the first and last bastion of culinary excellence. I'll have to check this out.

Rose City Reader said...

Bermuda -- This book would confirm your personal experience, for sure!

Psmith -- From what I've gathered about your personal viewpoint, you would like this one a lot, I think.

Nicole said...

This sounds like an interesting read. French food is not my favorite and is probably the food that I eat the least. It's too heavy and cheesy and complex for me.

JoAnn said...

Great review! This sounds fascinating. I'll keep an eye out for it.

Bob said...

Terrific review. I haven't read this one; I'll be sure to.

As someone who's dabbled in the restaurant-review game (I abandoned it when I realized that, not only was I not particularly well suited to it, I also thought it was a dumb format for writing about food and wine; I guess the fact that I'm pretty much a fishatarian these days disqualifies me, too) I wonder if some of the same things might be going on in France as are here.

First: Until the recent economic collapse, a booming class of restaurant consumers who had the money but not the background or taste to appreciate adventurous food. They demand surprise but want safety, which leads to a million variations on meat/starch/veggie, with something sweet at the end.

Second: The deification, usually by critics, of the chef, who has become the face of almost every restaurant, whether it's worth a damn or not. A very few great chefs truly are worth knowing, and following, by name. Most good chefs are just that -- good cooks (and administrators) who know how to put out an honest meal reliably. Once a chef has been deified, he (and occasionally, she) can Do No Wrong. That's not healthy. In far too many chefs it leads to erratic, self-absorbed behavior. They come to believe their press notices.

Third: There are (and this is an oversimplification) two kinds of French cooking: home cooking, the gran-mere stuff, and refined, invented cooking. Traditionally the latter has been built on the former. Superstar chefs sometimes become so full of themselves that they believe they can and should break the connection.

Fourth: Cynicism. If people think we're that great, we can do anything. We can cut corners. We can not pay attention. The dummies who eat here don't know the difference, anyway. You can get away with it for a while. But it's the path to ruin.

Fifth: Greatness versus goodness. Greatness is expensive. We're in a recessdepression. This is not the time most people are willing to shoot for the moon. Goodness isn't cheap, either, but in tough economic times a lot of would-be customers don't want to pay for even that. And if you lose the customers, you lose the will. I'm guilty. I'd rather buy a good lunch than a bad dinner. I want goodness.Unfortunately, a lot of the time I don't get even that.

Sixth: French has been oversold. Julia Child oversold America on it, to the detriment of genuine regional American cooking. I adore Julia, but James Beard had a more honest (or maybe just more accurate) approach. There is literally a world of great cuisines out there. Honor what's under your nose. Isn't a great gumbo better than a so-so cassoulet? Despite what the French think -- and as wondrous as great French food can be -- they are not the be-all and end-all.

Ridiculous laws such as the United States' virtual ban on raw cheeses (thanks a lot, health police!) no doubt play into the fading of the French farmer; I can't explain why French restaurateurs aren't doing everything they can to make sure their finest suppliers stay in business. I'm hoping this book will make that clearer.

Sorry about the ramble. This is off-the-cuff and disorganized; just a few ideas that immediately bubbled up.

Rebecca Reid said...

It sounds very interesting! It sounds like it does put France and French cooking in to perspective. I don't cook French style but I do like to eat it. If it's good, which sounds like it's the current problem...

Kelly @ The Novel Bookworm said...

Great review!! I know I'm way to "Americanized" to truly enjoy French cuisine!

Laura said...

I'm sorry. I forgot to latch the gate again.

Rose City Reader said...

Oh, Laura -- let him run off leash!

Bob -- Thanks for another great comment. Your "off-the-cuff" ramblings have more substance behind them than most of my posts!

You raise interesting ideas, including a couple of things I've been mulling over for a while, although I can't seem to get them organized in my head. Lots of overlap. Unfortunately, this book, while really good, doesn't get much deeper. He raises the same kind of issues and asks the same kind of questions, but doesn't get as far as real answers. Still one of the more interesting books I've read in a long time, but it left me wanting more.

Bob said...

Help. Laura's locked me in the basement and I can't get out.

Marie said...

Great review. it sounds perfect for the Francophile in me. i know next to nothing about the French foodie scene- this book sounds like an informative intro. :-)

Bybee said...

France is really starting to fascinate me. I've never really eaten French food, but it all sounds pretty good. This book goes onto my wishlist. Thanks!
Nice blog...I'm going to link you.

Tom Cunliffe said...

I visit France a couple of times a year and am usually disappointed with the restaurants we visit. They just don't "get" vegetables despite market stalls groaning with wonderful fresh produce. Their addiction to tinned haricot vert is hard to understand!

Did you know there are more McDonalds in Paris than London? See

Any my wife has yet to get over walking past men in the urinal in order to get to the toilet!

Tom C said...

PS - I have added you to my blogroll

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