In the closing hours of a whirlwind eating tour, thoughts turn like one's stomach after an overdose of foie gras:
Flowers and starched table cloths. Platters and straw trays filed with stunning arrays of cheese. Aromas wafting from casseroles and plates to jangle awake a supposedly dormant appetite. The proud mothers of the great chefs - Chapel, Girardet, Bocuse - dressed in finery but still performing the necessary managerial task of recording orders and adding up customers' bills. Fires in fireplaces and the artistry with which food is presented. The beauty of china, of silver. Fresh Cuban cigars.
Fine eating is a way of life in this country, something Americans - still in the infancy of sensual liberation - cannot comprehend. A favorite statistic of former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, that Americans spent only 16 per cent of their income on food, would be laughed at here. Even with the erosions in traditional lifestyles that have taken place, the French willingly spend far more than that on their food - they want to!
That is particularly obvious at the holiday season. Restaurants in this city were packed for the reveillon meal on New Year's Eve. A week earlier, on Chritmas Eve, there wansn't a place to be had in the dining room of the handsome Hotel du Parc in the tiny Alsatian town of Obernai. American visitors were able to eat Christmas turkey, with chestnut-and-sausage stuffing, as part of a four course meal at the cozy and low-key Winstub Gilg in the 16th century town of Mittelbergheim. Even the wines, full of character, were Gilg family products.
It is the season of game. There was venison and woodcock to be tasted, even wild boar. Modern transportation allows chefs to supplement the traditional winter vegetables and offer fresh fruists as well. Not that anyone shoudld object to the crisp and savory Brussels sprouts at the Hotel de Parc or the magically light purees of celery root and chestnut Paul Bocuse offered with a civet (saddle) of duck.
Theo overriding impression, however, is of the dramatic changes of styles within the great restaurants of France. Modernist and bold, the chefs grouped around Bocuse are busily creating traditions of their own.
They have carried the day. Their champions and imitators are many. Their detractors and antagonists are disorganized and aged. Nonetheless, there are problems. Some of these a la mode restaurants are sleek and priced for the JEt Set. The gleam in their kitchens comes from stainless steel instead of copper. They can be cold.
While the innovations in cooking that lessen the fat and starch in recipes and the amount of food served are in accord with current thinking, other experimental dishes are clearly fads of the moment.
These chefs have been justly praised for a lack of jealousy, for refusing t hide "secret" recipes and for exchanging talented young cooks. In addition, they borrow and improvise on one another's culinary creations. I tasted three variations on the theme of Michel Guerard's salade des gourmands, four dishes of shellfish in broth or beurre blanc with vegetables. Thin slices of rare-cooked duck become as familiar as truffles. Comparisions are interesting for a technician, but the universal menu can jade the palate.
The three-star restaurants startle you with white walls and relatively bright lighting. Paintings are in muted tones and may well be abstract. Menus are crisp and direct. All this is in marked contrast to the ornate, even rococco, menus and decor in fashion not so long ago.
Service has been streamlined. Only at two restaurants among a dozen and a half - Raymond Oliver's Grand Vefour in Paris and Alain Chapel's restaurant in Mionnay - was there a wine waiter. Often food is presented on plates rather than transferred from serving vessels. This follows the chef to orchestrate the arrangement of the food (something of great importance to the nouvelle cuisine chefs) and should shorten the time that elapses between range and table.
The serving staffs, in the country at least, tend to be quite young. Thus they are agile and often susceptible to gentle informalities that further the chefs' desire to deflate the image of the Michelin three-star as a tradition-bound gastronomic temple. Nonetheless, when used plates are scraped clen at tableside, as happened more than once, their version of informal elegance becomes bad manners.
They are rather like feudal barons, these three-star chefs, lords of separate manors they invest with their own senses of style and rule with their forces of personality. They are more widely travelled than their predecessors, more open to innovation, to new tools and techniques. To intimates they find fault with one another, but let an outsider criticize them and they quickly close ranks.
There are only 17 three-star restaurants in France (the awards are conferred by the Guide Michelin, a publication sponsored by the Michelin Tire Company) and about half of these are tied to Paul Bocuse in a business arrangement or in the looser alliance called the nouvelle cuisine. If there is to be a new third star this coming year, the odds-on candidate is the restaurant at Eugenie-lesBams in the Landes run by Michael Guerard, another Bocuse crony and father of the dietitic cuisine minceur.
It was Michelin's most visable rivals, the journalistic team of Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who coined the term nouvelle cuisine and who would like to be thought the more "with it" guides to restaurants. But restaurant raing has become such a popular sport that some chefs just shrug their shoulders and dismiss the critics. Alain Chapel, a great favorite of Gault and Millau and a Michelin three-star chef at age 36, endorses the Michelin as a "bible" that is "useful to prevent fads from being carried too far."
To him the two chief culinary contorversies of the moment, how to define nouvelle cuisine and whether women can be great cooks, are - pardeon the expression - creations of the media. "There's only one cooking: the good," he said, explaining that to him "good cooking" means no more than using top quality products intelligently. As for women: "Cooking is an act of love," he declared. "Women are as capable of it as men. Their only problems in a restaurant kitchen are physical."
Not as publicized as others of the Bocuse band, Chapel has recently become something of a celebrity due to an affectionate and witty book called "Croqueen-Bouche" by Fanny Deschamps. It paints a vivid picture of his professional artistry and personal vitality and how these qualities link Chapel with his comrades. It's the fashion these days to put stars' names up in lights and, inevitably perhaps, the name of his restaurant is being changing from "Chez La Mere Charles" to "Alain Chapel." Yet the chef is enough of a traditionalist to want people to know that the women for whom the restaurant was named hasn't been around since 1937 and the change was made only after prolonged polling of customers and friends.
The three-star chefs face one immediate challenge and another, more subtle, that may make itself felt in the future.
The immediate challenge is economic. The French government's austerity measures alreay have deepened the winter gloom in Paris. The great Michelin restaurants are national monuments, but they also are small family family businesses. Customers willing and able to spend $40 to $60 a person, or higher depending on wines, are essential. There is little room for belt tightening between the chef's insistance on quality at all levels, inflatikon and the continued dependence on manual labor (kitchen machines such as the Robot Coup, big brother of the Cuisinart Food Processor, are used, but each meal is still handcrafted to order).
The other question is how long these restaurants will remain favorites of the press and public. The possibility of a reaction against them occurred t me only as I thought back on the three-star restaurants and on several two-star and one-star establishments visited en route.
One facet of the complex French character is a wife streak of romanticism. These "lesser" restaurants (Aux Armes de France in Ammerschwihr, des Vannes in Liverdun, Lameloise in Chagny, Greuze in Tournus are the most vivid examples) have a bourgeoise comfort and warmth to them that is immensely attractive. They tend to be "old-fashioned" in decor and may even be worn about the edges. But their menus are reflective of the regions in which they are located.American visitors who came to love France and its food through the works of writers such as Samuel Chamberlain and Waverly Root will feel at home in them.
The food they serve may not be nouvelle but it is marvelously well prepared. Among the most memorable dishes of the tour were the home-cured ham at des Vannes, a dish of sole and noodles at Aux Armes de France as well as the best marjorlaine (a hazelnut and chocolate cake) in the Free World, the pate and a sorbet at Greuze. The cooks have talent, too. One of Chef Pierre Gaertner's aides at Aux Armes de France was selected as the country's best apprentice this past year.
To visit them as well as the ultra-modern newcomers can produce an effect not unlike that I sensed after touring the daring concrete La Corbusier chapel at Ronchamp and the Strasbourg Cathedral. One stimulated the intellect; the other stirred the emotions.
These restaurants tend to be, though not always, less expensive than the three-stars. With their multiple appeal, with a public that may be less excited by innovation and newness than the nouvelle cuisine chefs, with others susceptible to the same waves of nostalgia I experienced, a counterwave might develop that could swing public patronage and even journalistic attention away from the modernists.
For the moment, happily, to balance the new with the old is to broaden the mind as well as the waistline.