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On an uncomfortably warm September evening in 1999, I swapped my wife for a duck liver. The unplanned exchange took place at Au Crocodile, a Michelin three-star restaurant in the city of Strasbourg, in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. We had gone to Crocodile for dinner and, at the urging of our waiter, had chosen for our main course one of Chef Emile Jung’s signature dishes, Foie de Canard et Écailles de Truffe en Croûte de Sel, Baeckeofe de Légumes. Baeckeofe is a traditional Alsatian stew made of potatoes, onions, carrots, leeks, and several different meats. Jung, possessed of that particular Gallic genius for transforming quotidian fare into high cuisine, served a version of baeckeofe in which the meats were replaced by an entire lobe of duck liver, which was bathed in a truffled bouillon with root vegetables and cooked in a sealed terrine. The seal was broken at the table, and as soon as the gorgeous pink-gray liver was lifted out of its crypt and the first, pungent whiff of black truffles came our way, I knew our palates were about to experience rapture. Sure enough, for the ten minutes or so that it took us to consume the dish, the only sounds we emitted were some barely suppressed grunts and moans. The baeckeofe was outrageously good — the liver a velvety, earthy, voluptuous mass, the bouillon an intensely flavored broth that flattered everything it touched.
We had just finished dessert when Jung, a beefy, jovial man who looked to be in his mid-fifties, appeared at our table. We thanked him profusely for the meal, and my wife, an editor for a food magazine, asked about some of the preparations. From the look on his face, he was smitten with her, and after enthusiastically fielding her questions, he invited her to tour the kitchen with him. “We’ll leave him here,” he said, pointing at me. As my wife got up from the table, Jung eyed her lasciviously and said, “You are a mango woman!” which I took to be a reference to her somewhat exotic looks (she is half-American, half-Japanese). She laughed nervously; I laughed heartily. As Jung squired her off to the kitchen, I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of Gewurztraminer.
By now, it was midnight, the dining room was almost empty, and the staff had begun discreetly tidying up. After some minutes had passed, Madame Jung, a lean woman with frosted blonde hair who oversaw the front of the restaurant, approached my table, wearing a put-upon smile which suggested this wasn’t the first time her husband had taken a young female guest to see his pots and pans. Perhaps hoping to commiserate, she asked me if everything was okay. “Bien sûr,” I immediately replied, with an enthusiasm that appeared to take her by surprise. I was in too much of a stupor to engage in a lengthy conversation, but had I been able to summon the words, I would have told her that her husband had just served me one of the finest dishes I’d ever eaten; that surrendering my wife (in a manner of speaking) was a small price to pay for such satisfaction; and that I’d have gladly waited at the table till daybreak if that’s what it took to fully convey my gratitude to Monsieur Jung.
In the end, I didn’t have to wait quite that long. After perhaps forty-five minutes, Jung returned my wife to the table. She came back bearing gifts: two bottles of the chef’s own late-harvest Tokay Pinot Gris and, curiously, a cold quail stuffed with foie gras, which had been wrapped in aluminum foil so that we could take it with us. We thanked him again for the memorable dinner and his generosity, and then he showed us to the door. There, I received a perfunctory handshake, while my wife got two drawn-out pecks, one to each cheek. She got two more out in front of the restaurant, and as we walked down the street toward our hotel, Jung joyfully shouted after her, “You are a mango woman!” his booming voice piercing the humid night air.
Early the next morning, driving from Strasbourg to Reims in a two-door Peugeot that felt as if it was about to come apart from metal fatigue, my wife and I made breakfast of the quail. We didn’t have utensils, so we passed it back and forth, ripping it apart with our hands and teeth. As we wound our way through the low, rolling hills of northeast France, silently putting the cold creature to an ignominious end, I couldn’t help but marvel at what had transpired. Where but in France could a plate of food set in motion a chain of events that would find you whimpering with ecstasy in the middle of a restaurant; giving the chef carte blanche to hit on your wife, to the evident dismay of his wife; and joyfully gorging yourself just after sunrise the next day on a bird bearing the liver of another bird, a gift bestowed on your wife by said chef as a token of his lust? The question answered itself: This sort of thing could surely only happen in France, and at that moment, not for the first time, I experienced the most overwhelming surge of affection for her.
I first went to France as a thirteen-year-old, in the company of my parents and my brother, and it was during this trip that I, like many other visitors there, experienced the Great Awakening — the moment at the table that changes entirely one’s relationship to food. It was a vegetable that administered the shock for me: Specifically, it was the baby peas (drowned in butter, of course) served at a nondescript hotel in the city of Blois, in the Loire Valley, that caused me to realize that food could be a source of gratification and not just a means of sustenance — that mealtime could be the highlight of the day, not simply a break from the day’s activities.
A few days later, while driving south to the Rhone Valley, my parents decided to splurge on lunch at a two-star restaurant called Au Chapon Fin, in the town of Thoissey, a few miles off the A6 in the Macon region. I didn’t know at the time that it was a restaurant with a long and illustrious history (among its claims to fame: It was where Albert Camus ate his last meal before the car crash that killed him in 1960), nor can I recollect many details of the meal. I remember having a pate to start, followed by a big piece of chicken, and that both were excellent, but that’s about it. However, I vividly recall being struck by the sumptuousness of the dining room. The tuxedoed staff, the thick white tablecloths, the monogrammed plates, the heavy silverware, the ornate ice buckets — it was the most elegant restaurant I’d ever seen. Every table was filled with impeccably attired, perfectly mannered French families. I hadn’t yet heard of Baudelaire, but this was my first experience of that particular state of bliss he described as luxe, calme, et volupté (richness, calm, and pleasure), and I found it enthralling.
Other trips to France followed, and in time, France became not just the place that fed me better than any other, but an emotional touchstone. In low moments, nothing lifted my mood like the thought of Paris — the thought of eating in Paris, that is. When I moved to Hong Kong in 1994, I found a cafe called DeliFrance (part of a local chain by the same name) that quickly became the site of my morning ritual; reading the International Herald Tribune over a watery cappuccino and a limp, greasy croissant, I imagined I was having breakfast in Paris, and the thought filled me with contentment. Most of the time, though, I was acutely aware that I was not in Paris. On several occasions, my comings and goings from Hong Kong’s airport coincided with the departure of Air France’s nightly flight to Paris. The sight of that 747 taxiing out to the runway always prompted the same thought: Lucky bastards.
In 1997, a few months after I moved back to the United States, the New Yorker published an article by Adam Gopnik asking, “Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?” The essay was vintage Gopnik — witty, well observed, and bristling with insight. Gopnik, then serving as the magazine’s Paris correspondent, suggested that French cuisine had lost its sizzle: It had become rigid, sentimental, impossibly expensive, and dull. The “muse of cooking,” as he put it, had moved on — to New York, San Francisco, Sydney, London. In these cities, the restaurants exuded a dynamism that was now increasingly hard to find in Paris. “All this,” wrote Gopnik, “makes a Francophile eating in Paris feel a little like a turn-of-the-century clergyman who has just read Robert Ingersoll: you try to keep the faith, but Doubts keep creeping in.”
I didn’t share those Doubts: To me, France remained the orbis terrarum of food, and nothing left me feeling more in love with life than a sensational meal in Paris. I refused to entertain the possibility that French cuisine had run aground; I didn’t see it then, and I still didn’t see it when Emile Jung took off with my wife two years later during that Lucullan evening at Au Crocodile. Sure, I knew that it was now pretty easy to find bad food in France if you went looking for it. I was aware, too, that France’s economic difficulties had made it brutally difficult for restaurants like Au Crocodile to keep the stoves running. In 1996, Pierre Gagnaire, a three-star chef in the industrial city of Saint-Etienne, near Lyon, had gone bankrupt, and the same fate had almost befallen another top chef, Marc Veyrat. I also recognized that I was perhaps prone to a certain psychophysical phenomenon, common among France lovers, whereby the mere act of dining on French soil seemed to enhance the flavor of things. Even so, as far as I was concerned, France remained the first nation of food, and anyone suggesting otherwise either was being willfully contrarian or was eating in the wrong places.
It was the swift and unexpected demise of Laduree just after the turn of the millennium that caused the first Doubts to creep in. Laduree was a Paris institution, a charmingly sedate tea room on the rue Royale, in the eighth arrondissement. It was famous for its macarons and pastries, and it also served one of the best lunches in Paris. I usually went with the artfully composed, perfectly dressed salade nicoise, which I chased down with a glass or two of Marcel Lapierre’s violet-scented Morgon (a Beaujolais) and a deliciously crusty roll. At some point, I discovered Laduree’s praline mille feuille, which was also habit-forming: I would finish every lunch with this ethereal napoleon consisting of almond pralines, praline cream, caramelized pastry dough, and crispy hazelnuts. Of all the things that I routinely ate in France, it was the praline mille feuille that made me the happiest.
But returning to Laduree, after a year’s absence, I walked into a restaurant whose pilot light had been extinguished. The first sign of trouble was the lack of familiar faces: The endearingly gruff waitresses who had given the restaurant so much of its character had been replaced by bumbling androids. Worse, the menu had changed, and many of the old standbys, including the salade nicoise, were gone (so, too, the Morgon), replaced by a clutch of unappetizing dishes. The perpetrators of this calamity had the good sense to leave the praline mille feuille untouched, but I had to assume that it would soon be headed for history’s flour bin. While Laduree was an adored institution, it had no standing in the gastronomic world — no famous chef, no Michelin stars, no widely mimicked dishes. Even so, I now began to wonder if the French really were starting to screw things up — if French cuisine was genuinely in trouble. You might say it was the moment the snails fell from my eyes.
A few days after my dismaying visit to Laduree, I was in the Macon area, this time with my wife and a friend of ours. As the three of us kicked around ideas for dinner late one afternoon, I felt pangs of curiosity. Did it still exist? If so, was it still any good? I quickly began leafing through the Michelin Guide, found Thoissey, and there it was: Au Chapon Fin. It was now reduced to one star, but the fact that it still had any was mildly encouraging. Several hours later, we were en route to Thoissey. By then, however, my initial enthusiasm had given way to trepidation. For the dedicated feeder, the urge to relive the tasting pleasures of the past is constant and frequently overwhelming. But restaurants change and so do palates; trying to recreate memorable moments at the table is often a recipe for heartache (and possibly also heartburn). And here I was, exactly two decades later, hoping to find Chapon Fin just as I had left it.
Well, the parking lot hadn’t changed a bit — it was as expansive as I remembered it, and most of the spaces were still shaded by trees. Sadly, that was the high point of the visit. One glance at the dining room told the tale. The grandeur that had left such a mark on me had given way to decrepitude. Those thick, regal tablecloths were now thin, scuffed sheets. The carpet was threadbare. The plates appeared ready to crack from exhaustion. The staff brightened things a bit. The service was cheerful and solicitous — perhaps overly so — but they were doing their best to compensate for the food, which was every bit as haggard as the room. The evening passed in a crestfallen blur. What the hell was going on here?
En route back to Paris, my wife and I stopped in the somniferous village of Saulieu, at the northern edge of Burgundy, to eat at La Cote d’Or, a three-star restaurant owned by Bernard Loiseau. He was the peripatetic clown prince of French cuisine, whose empire included the three-star mother ship, three bistros in Paris, a line of frozen dinners, and a listing on the Paris stock exchange. Loiseau’s brand-building reflected his desire to emulate the venerated chef Paul Bocuse, but it was later learned that it was also a matter of survival: Business in Saulieu had become a struggle, and Loiseau was desperate for other sources of revenue. The night we had dinner in Saulieu, the food was tired and so was he. It was another discouraging meal in what had become a thoroughly dispiriting trip. Maybe the muse really had moved on.
In 2003, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story declaring that Spain had supplanted France as the culinary world’s lodestar. The article, written by Arthur Lubow, heralded the emergence of la nueva cocina, an experimental, provocative style of cooking that was reinventing Spanish cuisine and causing the entire food world to take note. El Bulli’s Ferran Adria, the most acclaimed and controversial of Spain’s new-wave chefs, was the focus of the article and graced the magazine’s cover. Lubow contrasted Spain’s gastronomic vitality with the French food scene, which he described as ossified and rudderless. “French innovation,” he wrote, “has congealed into complacency … as chefs scan the globe for new ideas, France is no longer the place they look.” For a Francophile, the quote with which he concluded the article was deflating. The Spanish food critic Rafael Garcia Santos told Lubow, “It’s a great shame what has happened in France, because we love the French people and we learned there. Twenty years ago, everybody went to France. Today they go there to learn what not to do.”
But by then France had become a bad example in all sorts of ways. Since the late 1970s, its economy had been stagnant, aflicted with anemic growth and chronically high unemployment. True, France had a generous welfare state, but that was no substitute for creating jobs and opportunity. By the mid-2000s, hundreds of thousands of French (among them many talented chefs) had moved abroad in search of better lives, unwilling to remain in a sclerotic, disillusioned country. France’s economic torpor was matched by its diminished political clout; although prescient in hindsight, its effort to prevent the Iraq war in 2003 struck even many French as a vainglorious blunder that served only to underscore the country’s weakness.
A sense of decay was now pervasive. For centuries, France had produced as much great writing, music, and art as any nation, but that was no longer true. French literature seemed moribund, ditto the once-mighty French film industry. Paris had been eclipsed as a center of the fine-art trade by London and New York. It was still a fashion capital, but British and American designers now seemed to generate the most buzz. In opera and theater, too, Paris had become a relative backwater. French intellectual life was suffering: The country’s vaunted university system had sunk into mediocrity. Even the Sorbonne was now second-rate — no match, certainly, for Harvard and Yale.
Nothing in the cultural sphere was spared — not even food. The cultural extended into the kitchens of France, and it wasn’t just haute cuisine that was in trouble. France had two hundred thousand cafes in 1960; by 2008, it was down to forty thousand, and hundreds, maybe thousands were being lost every year. Bistros and brasseries were also dying at an alarming clip. Prized cheeses were going extinct because there was no one with the knowledge or desire to continue making them; even Camembert, France ’s most celebrated cheese, was now threatened. The country’s wine industry was in a cataclysmic state: Declining sales had left thousands of producers facing financial ruin. Destitute vintners were turning to violence to draw attention to their plight; others had committed suicide. Many blamed foreign competition for their woes, but there was a bigger problem closer to home: Per capita wine consumption in France had dropped by an astonishing 50 percent since the late 1960s and was continuing to tumble.
This wasn’t the only way in which the French seemed to be turning their backs on the country’s rich culinary heritage. Aspiring chefs were no longer required to know how to truss chickens, open oysters, or whip up a bearnaise sauce in order to earn the Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle; instead, they were being tested on their ability to use processed, powdered, frozen, and prepared foods. France still had its outdoor markets, but hypermarchés — sprawling supermarkets — accounted for 75 percent of all retail food sales. Most ominously, the bedrock of French cuisine — home cooking, or la cuisine familiale — was in trouble. The French were doing less cooking than ever at home and spending less time at the dinner table: The average meal in France now sped by in thirty-eight minutes, down from eighty-eight minutes a quarter-century earlier. One organization, at least, stood ready to help the French avoid the kitchen and scarf their food: McDonald’s. By 2007, the chain had more than a thousand restaurants in France and was the country’s largest private-sector employer. France, in turn, had become its second-most-profitable market in the world.
Food had always been a tool of French statecraft; now, though, it was a source of French humiliation. In July 2005, it was reported that French president Jacques Chirac, criticizing the British during a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, had harrumphed, “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.” In the not-so-distant past, Chirac, simply by virtue of being France’s president, would have been seen as eminently qualified to pass judgment on another country’s cuisine — and, of course, in disparaging British cooking, he merely would have been stating the obvious. Coming in the summer of 2005, Chirac’s comment revealed him to be a man divorced from reality. Was he not aware that London was now a great food city? Just four months earlier, Gourmet magazine had declared London to be “the best place to eat in the world right now” and devoted an entire issue to its gustatory pleasures. As the ridicule rained down on Chirac, his faux pas assumed metaphoric significance: Where once the mere mention of food by a French leader would have elicited thoughts of Gallic refinement and achievement, its invocation now served to underscore the depths of France’s decline. They’ve even lost their edge in the kitchen.
French cooking had certainly lost its power to seduce. Several days after Chirac’s gibe made headlines, members of the International Olympic Committee, despite having been wined and dined for months by French officials, selected London over Paris as host city for the 2012 Summer Games — fish and chips over foie gras.
There were other indignities, less noted but no less telling. In October 2006, New York’s French Culinary Institute marked the opening of its new International Culinary Center with a two-day extravaganza featuring panel discussions, cooking demonstrations, and gala meals. The FCI was one of America’s foremost cooking schools, but it was also a wellspring of French cultural influence — a culinary consulate of sorts. Its faculty included Jacques Pepin, Andre Soltner, and Alain Sailhac, three expatriated French chefs who had helped unleash America’s food revolution. To assure a suitably splashy debut for its new facilities, the FCI brought ten eminent foreign chefs to New York. Amazingly, though, the list was headed not by a Frenchman but by three Spaniards: Adria, Juan Mari Arzak, and Martin Berasategui. Not only that: the other seven chefs were Spanish, too. The French Culinary Institute threw itself a party and didn’t invite a single chef from France.
All this was a reflection of what was happening in France. Twenty-five years earlier, it had been virtually impossible to eat poorly there; now, in some towns and villages, it was a struggle to find even a decent loaf of bread. The France memorialized by writers like M. F. K. Fisher, Joseph Wechsberg, Waverley Root, and A. J. Liebling; that inspired the careers of Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Elizabeth David; that promised gustatory delight along every boulevard and byway — that France, it seemed, was dying. Even those epiphanic vegetables were harder to come by. When Waters started regularly visiting France, she would smuggle tomato vine cuttings home to California; now, she smuggled vine cuttings to her friends in France.
It saddened me to see this way of eating, and being, disappearing. In France, I didn’t just learn how to dine; I learned how to live. It was where my wife and I had fallen in love, a bond formed over plates of choucroute, platters of oysters, and bowls of fraises des bois (Laduree pastries, too). When we began traveling to France as a married couple, great meals there weren’t just occasions for pleasure; they were a way of reaffirming our vows. The calendar indicates that our children couldn’t have been conceived in France, but from the moment they were able to eat solid foods, they were immersed in our Francophilia. They became acquainted with creme caramel before they ever knew what a Pop-Tart was. But it now appeared that the France I grew up knowing would no longer be there for them.
Were the French really willing to let their culinary tradition just wither away? Did they no longer care to be the world’s gastronomic beacon? What did eminent French chefs and restaurateurs such as Alain Ducasse and Jean-Claude Vrinat have to say about all this? And what of the almighty Michelin Guide, long a symbol of Gallic supremacy in matters of food and wine — was it still a force for good in French kitchens, or had it become a drag on progress? Even as France’s culinary influence was waning, the country continued to churn out talented young chefs; what did they think needed to be done to get French cooking out of its slump? As signs of France’s decline continued to accumulate, these and other questions began to weigh on me, and I eventually decided to seek some answers.