Before I went to London and Paris last summer I wrote some posts that I set to be published while I was gone. This was a challenge since I was already at that time writing a post a day– this goal forced me to write two or three. Instead of trying to create something entirely new, I mined my past and came up with my prom. More specifically, how I did not go to prom and how this act changed the course of my life. Since it posted in June, this reflection has been one of my most viewed posts ever, and the search term “not going to prom” has lead many a people to my site.
Prom, or not going to prom, apparently is a big deal. As someone who has taught high school seniors in the spring, I know how all-consuming prom is for the teenage brain. There is a lot of pressure to go and even more pressure to have it mean something, so it’s not surprising that there is more than one kid who would want to opt out. Some may even see it as akin to Valentine’s Day, an event that everyone gets so wrapped in because it’s supposed to “mean something” but ultimately only means something to the corporations hawking their red, pink, and white wares. Prom is good for business– it tides companies over between Easter and the Fourth of July. These consumerist tendencies are kept alive because of “tradition”– it’s what everybody does every year. It is no small thing to buck tradition, but doing so can teach you a lot and may even be the key to survival.
The Michelin Guide, the little red book that lavishes stars on restaurants they deem worthy of praise, is like prom. Restauranteurs do everything to be titled prom king or queen and when they do not win, it’s crushing. More puzzling is how were the winners chosen. Was it a popularity contest? Did the winners have a whiter, brighter smile? Did they deserve to win? In the meantime, Michelin turns a profit: people buy their guides and their tires. Michael Steinberger explores the impact of the Michelin Guide and other social and economic forces that lead to the downfall of French cuisine and culinary greatness in his book Au Revoir To All That:Food, Wine, and the End of France.
Steinberger is a Francophile who remembers the France of his youth: the one that set the standard for the world to follow. Now he laments its fall from grace as other cities such as New York and London, yes, London, have taken over the reins as as the culinary capitals. He set out to discover how this came to be so, and wrote not only an engaging and entertaining book, but one that sheds light on the impact of economic policies, the rise of businesses and celebrity chefs, the non-integration of immigrants, and the control of societal expectations.
The decline of French food and wine cannot be traced back to one source. It is the result of government policies and regulation run amuck. First of all, we need to consider the traditional fine dining experience; it included not only top-flite cuisine, it also meant that the meal would be served on fine china, with crystal stemware and silver on crisp, white linens in an opulent dining room run by a legion of suited servers. This cost money. With a history of high unemployment and a 19% value added tax, most French cannot afford go out to eat. For a successful French chef to remain successful, it means opening restaurants in the States, Japan, and England. This results in less time behind the stove and less time involved in quality control.
The economy has also hit cheese-makers and vintners. Most French consumers cannot afford to purchase the expensive small-batch cheeses that are made in the traditional ways. Instead they turn to mass-produced cheeses that are less expensive but also have less quality. Regulations against using raw milk for cheeses hurt the industry, too. The extra bacteria in raw milk cultivates the complexity of flavor that traditional cheeses are known for. Regulations have hurt the vintners as there was a massive crackdown on drunk driving and the advertisement of alcohol. In addition to these prohibition-like moves, the wines are categorized as AOC (supposedly the best), vin de pays, and vins de table. Wine sellers are required to display each group separately, rather than displaying the best together. The AOCs often had many bad wines, while the vins de tables represented many of the good wine-makers. Of course, the French vintners rested on their laurels and were blind-sided by the quality and affordability of California wines, and soon those made in Chile, Argentina, and Australia. They experienced competition like never before as the French consumed less wine and the Americans consumed more.
If California’s wines were surprising, then their other form of competition is even more surprising: McDonald’s. In a depressed economy McDonald’s acts as a salve to many. It’s cheap and only has a 5.5% value added tax; most of the youth are poor, need something, anything to eat, and cannot afford fine-dining; it employs large numbers of youths, including immigrant youths who have been disenfranchised from traditional businesses; and most people do not have time for long meals anymore. McD’s won over the French by reaching out to the consumers and using French beef, bread, and vegetables.
Steinberger also puts much of the blame on the Michelin Guide. Michelin put out the guide to get Parisians out and about, on the road, to experience fine dining and gain product recognition for its tires. It doled out one, two, or three stars to various restaurants; two stars cemented the success of any chef who received them. Chefs, in turn, worked hard and did anything they thought was necessary to receive a star, including piling up millions of dollars of debt. Unlike our Zagat ratings, which lay out the standards by which a restaurant is judged by, Michelin’s methodology is unclear, nor do they feel the need to explain themselves. The result is restaurants of inconsistent quality being awarded stars and those of quality not receiving them or having stars taken away. This guide dominated the food scene for almost one hundred years.
But is this ultimately the end of France? Steinberger points to some new trends that signal the revival of French dining, but they do not include expensive tabs, fine linens, or le Big Mac. One involves a group who turns out to be more French than the French: the Japanese. From a culture devoted to making a superior product, many Japanese chefs have learned French cuisine and often stay in France to open restaurants. If not, they go back to Japan or elsewhere in the world and recreate the bistros and brasseries. Another group is a new generation of chefs who have bucked the traditions of large dining rooms with opulent decor. They focus on smaller restaurants that provide quality local food at reasonable prices. They do not aim to create culinary empires but prefer to stay behind their stoves. The result? They’re getting the French interested in French food again.
Au Revoir To All That‘s first half is reminiscent of Robert Grave’s WWI memoir Goodbye To All That in that it shows the death of a way of life. The last part of the book twists the meaning as the new trends say goodbye to much of what has held the culture down. New chefs are carving their own paths, creating new experiences, and reviving their culinary greatness. They do not chase after anyone else’s stars, but instead chase their own.