Two centuries after Antonin Carême introduced grande cuisine, France is in the throes of a revolution. And – of course – it’s taking place on the streets of Paris. But this revolution is all about democratising the way the French eat. The masses are being organised by Le Fooding, a movement that’s ranged against old-fashioned restaurants, old-fashioned cooking and the Michelin Guide. In Le Fooding’s brave new world, the food of France will, once again, belong to the people. Allons, enfants de la patrie.
Le Fooding was founded 10 years ago by Alexandre Cammas and Emmanuel Rubin, two food journalists who were exasperated by the conformity and conservatism of French food culture. Every year it has published, from its Right Bank offices, a good-looking guide to the best restaurants of France. And it’s being seen as a direct challenge to the authority of Michelin. “Michelin inspectors look at the rugs in a restaurant” says Cammas, “and they measure the chandeliers. Two stars? Three stars? Who really cares?”
It was Cammas who came up with the name — “I intended Le Fooding as a mélange of ‘food’ and ‘feeling’.” And it was Cammas who came up with the idea to print the restaurant guides. They attracted a lot of press attention in the beginning for ignoring some of the great chefs of France, such as Guy Savoy, and choosing to honour others, such as Alain Ducasse, for their casual fusion places rather than for their grand restaurants. But now it’s a given – Le Fooding has its own position on things. And it doesn’t tend to share that position with Michelin.
Take Le Chateaubriand. It breaks the mould of top French restaurants serving haute cuisine by serving it in a bistro, complete with zinc bar, chalk boards and hard wooden chairs. Chef-patron Iñaki Aizpitarte always maintained he wanted to create a restaurant where his friends could afford to eat. So this is fine dining at its most democratic. It was voted the 11th in the 50 Best Restaurants in 2010. And it’s in the Le Fooding guide. But Michelin? Nothing.
Then there’s Chez L’Ami Jean. If you were to base your trip to Paris on the recommendations of the Michelin Guide, you wouldn’t bother to book. It looks like an unprepossessing neighborhood bistro – underlit, and in need of a lick of paint – but, once your eyes have become accustomed to the light, you’ll experience some of the most innovative rustic cooking that the city has to offer. The fact that it hasn’t been awarded a star has led some critics to say Michelin has lost touch.
Le Fooding loves the honest-to-goodness food of Chez L’Ami Jean. “Happiness is a simple thing” it says in the guide, which goes on to praise the bistro’s ‘basse’ cuisine – a direct counter to the ‘haute’ cuisine that Paris is famed for. The guide is full of a host of small places – places such as Chez L’Ami Jean – which have emerged to offer adventurous, cutting-edge cooking without the price tag; real French gastronomy that doesn’t break the bank. It’s the French new wave.
For a Michelin inspector, the tables at Chez L’Ami Jean are too close together. And they are missing crisp, white tablecloths. It’s why Chez L’Ami Jean was only deemed worthy of a Bib Gourmand – the award that Michelin give to restaurants which offers “good food at moderate prices”. But the menu – including a parmesan soup with whole, fat chestnuts, thinly-sliced Braeburn apple and a snip of fresh chives – is sublime. And to award it a Bib Gourmand looks like snobbery.
Le Fooding are getting round to street food, and have listed kebab shops in the guide. And a new breed of Parisian brasseries that offer something more imaginative than croissants and croques monsieur. They are selling “trickle-down” gastronomy. The capital’s brasseries, cafes and bistros are imitating the top restaurants, but cutting down on the ingredients and simplifying the preparation. Food is becoming more affordable again – and France is reclaiming its heritage.