Americans bored with the range of canned foods can take heart. France's top chefs evidently believe there's money to be made exporting packaged versions of "la cuisine franc,aise" to the United States.
The latest Paris restaurant to join the scramble to enter the great American food market is Tour d'Argent. Long celebrated for its numbered ducklings, which it has served to the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mick Jagger, it is now getting ready to put its food in ceramic pots for sale in American gourmet stores.
Armed with surveys showing that Americans are becoming much more appreciative of fine food, Tour owner-manager Claude Terrail is planning to begin marketing his products in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Among the exotic delights under the Tour d'Argent label that will soon be gracing American tables are canard a la pe che, canard a l'orange, canard aux olives, confit d'oie et cuisse and various wild mushrooms, plus specialty foods already widely available in America, such as foie gras, moutarde au poivre vert, escargots a la bourguignonne, various confitures, vinegars, wines, honeys, spices, teas and coffee. Plus of course the famous pressed duck.
"It's not just food that we're exporting," said Tour commercial director Jean Boisselier, "but the whole art of French living. It's inextricably linked with tradition, something specifically French."
In addition to the food, the Tour plans to sell accessories like plates, cutlery, a silver serving dish for the foie gras, glassware, carafes for water and wine, and tablecloths.
"Eating food is like making love. You need a certain climate. All of the five senses have to be happy," explained Terrail, an extrovert Frenchman who said he learned everything he knows about cooking from his American first wife.
The first Paris restaurant to attempt to break into the steak-and-potato society was Maxim's, which launched its products in New York, Washington and Houston three years ago. Business was slow at first, but sales have picked up remarkably over the past year and Maxim's is trying to extend the operation to the West Coast.
"Of course there's an element of snobbery about it, but we have a lot of middle-class clients too," said Olivier Gougot, who is in charge of the project. Macy's provides the biggest outlet for Maxim's food in the United States. But a lot is sold by catalogue.
Terrail's marketing study also reveals that over the past five years Americans have become much more interested in buying well-prepared, quality foods rather than any old frozen or tinned quickies. The French confess, however, that they are still skeptical about the extent and depth of American culinary knowledge.
"For example, do Americans know that cre me de cassis is not the kind of cre me you get from a cow?" asked Boisselier with a straight face. He will no doubt find out when he markets it, along with other such alcoholic drinks as cre me of bilberry and cre me of raspberry.
To clear up any misunderstanding over what to do with the food, each Tour product will come with a little booklet explaining its background, a few anecdotes, and a recipe or two. The idea is to to give Americans not just something to eat but also a sense of the culinary history and tradition that have kept the Tour in business for four centuries.
Among those who have eaten at Tour d'Argent was the Russian Czar Alexander II, who joined the king of Prussia and German Chancellor Bismark for a meal there in 1867 during the world's fair. More recent guests at the restaurant, which claims to have introduced the use of the fork into France, have been Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II and Andrei Gromyko.
Americans interviewed while eating lunch at the Tour said they felt the cuisine would go down well in the United States.
"The U.S. needs gourmet products," said Estella Johnson, a Texan whose family has patronized the Tour for years. "If Americans could cook like the French we wouldn't come to Paris."