As Chefs Replace Cooks, Paris Changes

by Alexander Lobrano

Writer Alexander Lobrano, author of the indispensable restaurant guide “Hungry For Paris” and a contributor to the New York Times, the Guardian, and Bon Appétit, among many other publications, argues that a shift away from fundamental cooking has altered the dining landscape in Paris, the city he calls home.

In Paris, a semantic redefinition of the culinary métier away from cook to chef is having a major impact on the way the city eats. Cooks in the past were happy to learn and master a repertoire of traditional French dishes and cook them day in and day out. In contrast, the new generation of chefs see the business of cooking as a permanent canvas for the imperative of their creativity, with the result that it’s becoming a challenge to find such classic French dishes as cassoulet or boeuf bourguignon anywhere but in bistros that cater to affluent international travelers who come to the French capital starry-eyed at the prospect of tasting the great gastronomic monuments of Gaul.

If I’ve been aware of this change for a decade or so, it wasn’t until a recent trip to New York City that I understood exactly where it was coming from. In a jet-lagged fog amplified by the couple of glasses of white wine that were the necessary nighttime medication following a transatlantic flight in economy class, I aimed and fired. The little glass screen at the end of my bed powered up to a shrieking advertisement for hardwood flooring, and I fled it immediately.

So I channel-surfed, alternately appalled and pruriently fascinated by the loud and often tasteless mediocrity of what I saw next during a couple of hours watching American food television — a dim-witted feast punctuated by cringingly detailed and shamelessly intimate ads for non-prescription drugs you wouldn’t find in any country with a functioning national healthcare system. But I felt it was something I had to do, since checking in with my homeland’s baseline is vital as an American food writer who’s lived in Europe for twenty-seven years.

This métier always runs the risk of being accused of being elite, effete or precious when billions of people go to bed hungry every night and will never know the luxury of connoisseurship, and common sense tells me that I should have a knowledge of mainstream American food culture in order to maintain some sort of editorial equilibrium for the newspapers and magazines I write for. So I watched an unappetizing stew of television programs that mostly broke down into cooking demos and cooking competitions. If the demos were heart-sinking for their general indifference to the locavore credo that’s at the heart of the food I love best, what really made me queasy were the cook-off shows. With the graphics and acoustics of race car competitions, chefs were pitted against each other to cook the best whatever as the clock dramatically ticked, with their efforts then being evaluated by judges who decided who “wins.”

Well, this being American television, there had to be a winner, since America loves winners and not whiners, and these hyped adrenaline driven shows disturbed me even more than demos. First, because I deeply believe that no one cooks to ‘win,” and even more so because these programs so facetiously glamorize the gastronomic métier as being all about creativity. Creativity is part of cooking sometimes, of course, but having worked in restaurant kitchens—like many Americans, I worked in restaurants during college summers, including one memorable one where I was a hotel “salad chef,” a job that involved making enough macaroni salad to feed 75 people everyday, a task I approached so carelessly that it’s a miracle I was never responsible for filling 75 hospital beds — I also know that cooking is ball-bustingly hard, frequently repetitive and very stressful work that’s light years from the cooked (coked?) up reality of television programming. What’s even more alarming, though, is that these shows, which also exist in France, of all places, along with most major countries around the world in some form or another, have perpetuated the cult of the chef, as opposed to the métier of the cook.

This veneration of the chef comes at the expense of the cook, and it’s having a serious impact on the gastronomic landscape of the city where I make my home, Paris, because a new generation of TV-cued gastronomic professionals now see themselves as chefs rather than as cooks. And in this war of words, there are important sociological resonances, since “chef” has the connotation of being an artististe, while “cook” sounds blue collar and flat-footed. Interesting, some of the better professional culinary schools in France have noticed this trend, too, and wisely attempt to dispel the illusions of prospective students before they enroll. Consider this statement from the website of the highly respected Ecole Ferrandi in Paris:

“Le métier de cuisinier fait rêver. C’est un métier alliant la créativité et le plaisir des sens ainsi que les traditions de notre patrimoine culinaire. La forte médiatisation des chefs étoilés et leur succès dans le monde y contribue aussi.

Mais attention, atteindre ce niveau demande beaucoup de travail et de qualités. Il faut connaître toutes les techniques de préparation des plats, maîtriser les règles de l’hygiène alimentaire, affiner sa sensibilité gustative…

 Pour ce faire, il est indispensable de faire ses classes sur le terrain et de passer par tous les postes que nécessite cet apprentissage : commis de cuisine, chef de partie et enfin chef de cuisine.”

Or, in other words, you have to know how to cook before you can become a chef.

In Paris, the long-running repudiation of traditional French cooking that’s occurred under the banner of “la bistronomie” is the corollary to the glamour so relentlessly bestowed on the gastronomic métier by the media, too. When the name for this new school of modern French bistrot cooking was coined by writer Sebastien Desmorand in the early nineties, the iconoclasm that’s at the heart of a culinary movement that rejected formatted recipes in favor of culinary self-expression and creativity injected a dizzying and welcome change to a gastronomic scene that had gone stale and cautious in reaction to the excesses of “La Nouvelle Cuisine.” Chefs likeYves Camdeborde, Christian Etchebest and others dazzled with dishes that were sexy miniatures of upstairs-downstairs irreverence. Trained by haute-cuisine chef Christian Constant when he was at the Hotel de Crillon, they applied the wiry technical exactitude of haute-cuisine to bistro cooking, which they took off its leash of tradition by using luxury garnishes like truffles and foie gras in otherwise homely preparations, borrowing seasonings from both foreign and French regional kitchens, and generally shaking up a rock of ages idiom with a bold gust of creativity — one that actually referenced the recently repudiated nouvelle cuisine through the use of jus instead of cream sauces, plus lots of fresh herbs.

Paris came out very much the better for it, too, in terms of acquiring a whole new layer of really excellent, affordable and appealing restaurants. Along the way, the popular success of these tables created the bistronomique boilerplate which has since become almost de rigueur for any ambitious young talent hanging out his or her own shingle for the first time.

During a recent chat with chef Vincent Deyres, who runs two very good Corsican restaurants in Paris and whose pride is serving the traditional cooking of the French Mediterranean island, I told him it was a pleasure to find a seriously good French regional table in Paris, since they’ve become so rare. “The problem is ‘la bistronomie,’” he replied. “The young chefs don’t want to cook traditional food anymore, they want to express themselves.”

The risk of privileging the creativity of the chef over the skills of the chef is that the gastronomic patrimoine of France is being sidelined. Beyond the prevailing disinterest in the traditional bistro genre, no one wants to cook the grand Escoffier vintage monuments of the French kitchen anymore at higher levels of the food chain, either. This is why a whole category of Paris tables that once specialized in la cuisine bourgeoise has become nearly extinct. To be sure, there were other reasons these formal fancy white tablecloth restaurants faded away. Since they were expensive and followed the often pleasure-wilting drill of the Michelin anointed fine-dining experience, many of them had become redoubts of expense-account dining. And as the dining habits of corporate France have changed, the long business lunches that once sustained the bottom-line at such places are now the midday exception to the rule, as many French office workers eat sandwiches and salads while sitting at their computer terminals. And a new if misplaced interest in healthy eating — there was nothing intrinsically unhealthy about this food — has dampened the ardor with which French businessmen and women once dined out.

What’s gone missing in all of this are such superb French dishes like Saint Jacques au beurre blanc or tournedos Rossini, beef filet topped with foie gras and truffles with a Madeira demi-glace, a dish that was allegedly created for the composer Gioacchino Rossini by French chef Marie-Antoine Carême.

The history of gastronomy is, of course, one of constant evolution and innovation, so the problem in Paris isn’t change in the kitchen per se. Rather, it’s the risk posed by the impetuous innovations made in the guise of creativity by young chefs who don’t abide by the famous dictum of the great French chef Edouard Nignon (1865-1934): “Le cuisinier qui connaît bien le passé, le comprend, s’en inspire, doit être à son tour un créateur” (“The cook who knows the past well, who understands it and is inspired by it, must in turn become a creator”).

Or, in other words, you must become a cook before you can be a chef, and the risk of not abiding by this dictum is an ambient culinary amnesia that damages the delicate equilibrium between tradition and innovation.

Illustration by Kristian Eskild Jensen