terça-feira, 10 de fevereiro de 2015
Bitter times for French haute cuisine
The Michelin guide awarded its coveted stars last week to 609 restaurants throughout France as part of its annual appraisal of culinary standards in the country that invented haute cuisine.
The elite three-star category, which in Michelin speak means “worth a special journey”, had two new entries this year. Two stars mean “worth a detour” and one-star places are said to merit a stop if they are on your route.
When it comes to fine food, however, it is no longer the case that all roads lead to France. Globalisation has made a world of difference to restaurants in London.
The flow of ideas has helped spice up the city’s insipid menu; international commerce has provided fresh and plentiful ingredients unavailable to the generations who grew up with the legacy of second world war rationing.
But time has not been so kind to Paris. For one thing, new styles have made traditional French cuisine, with its rich sauces, look out of step with modern life — much like the country’s “big-state” economic model.
For another, globalisation has given France an appetite for junk food. A study found that 970m hamburgers were eaten in France in 2013, almost half of all sandwiches sold, up from one in seven in 2007. Moreover, sales at fast-food outlets in 2012 exceeded those of traditional sit-down restaurants for the first time.
France’s claim to the throne of good food and wine began to look shaky as long ago as 1976. That was when Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, organised a blind wine-tasting in Paris with 11 judges — nine were French — of high-end Chardonnays and red wines from France and California. California won.
Then, in 2007, the Michelin guide showered Tokyo with three-star awards in its inaugural guide to an Asian city, giving more top ratings to the Japanese capital than to Paris.
In a knife-twisting moment for France, Jean-Luc Naret, then Michelin’s international editorial director, described Tokyo as “by far the world’s capital of gastronomy”.
The guide has come in for the same criticism as French cuisine. Europe’s oldest hotel and restaurant guide was first published in 1900 by the Michelin brothers to encourage people to use cars — and therefore more of their company’s tyres — more often.
Today it faces competition from TripAdvisor, Zagat and other portals based on users’ reviews that many think more objective, less stuffy and generally more 21st century.
Last week I cycled to a new restaurant overlooking the Arc de Triomphe to meet Francis Luzin, founder of Le Chef magazine. He told me that when it comes to business, Michelin still packs a punch: a star means an immediate and enduring increase in revenue of 20 to 30
An additional star has the same effect. In France, where the margins of high-quality restaurants rarely exceed about 6 per cent, it can separate success from failure.
Mr Luzin says that the biggest enemy to fine French cuisine is not the lack of invention but France’s tax and labour laws. A top chef in Paris recently confirmed his estimate that it is almost twice as expensive to employ a team of chefs in the French capital as it is in London.
I glance around the deserted restaurant and count seven waiters with time to spare.
“That is the 39-hour week,” says Mr Luzin. The catering industry works 39 hours in France rather than the standard 35, with little to show for the extra time spent on the job).
More important, Mr Luzin believes that the Michelin guide’s approach — in France it employs anonymous reviewers, each clocking every year about 30,000km, 160 hotel stays and 250 restaurant meals — still produces the ultimate reviews.
If that is true, French cuisine is still kicking: this year, the country has 26 three-star restaurants, four more than in 2000. There are 80 two-star restaurants compared with 70 in 2000. And it has 25 per cent more one-star restaurants.
But what, I ask, if your wallet doesn’t stretch to Michelin stars?
Mr Luzin pulls out a dog-eared card with a 20-strong list of his favourite — and moderately priced — Paris eateries. “Keep it,” he says with a smile. “Bon appétit.”