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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
19 Sep 2002
 

Nicholas Lander, an unashamed Francophile, writes an open letter to President Chirac of France over his concerns about the present, and future state of French food.

Dear President Chirac,

Newspaper articles probably rarely cross your desk but two recent reports - one from a very widely read British national, the other carried by many French regional papers - go so directly to the heart of everything that France stands for, particularly abroad, that I would like to bring them to your attention.

The first, in The Daily Telegraph, argued strongly that eating out in France is no longer as exciting as it once was. Although this sentiment has often been voiced in the past, what was different on this occasion was the lack of a vociferous, concerted response from France.

A fortnight later the French press carried several reports from your country's hoteliers, chefs and restaurateurs about just how bad their business has been this year with various explanations: the poor weather; the sluggish economy cutting back discretionary spending; and the introduction of the euro and higher apparent prices.

As someone who was initially turned on by French food and wine 25 years ago, who still finds this combination exciting on occasion and who has chosen to spend the last 13 summers in la belle France I would argue that these two reports are very closely connected. The French restaurant industry is finding life tough simply because it has failed to adapt to a changing world, to meet its customers' new and more exacting demands.

Before turning to specifics, let me make two general points. The first is, of course, a long overdue thank you. Not just for all the pleasure which French food and wine have given the rest of the world for the past two centuries but also for the invaluable knowledge and expertise France has exported. Restaurant-goers in New York, Sydney, Los Angeles, London and Hong Kong would not be as knowledgeable as they are today if so many French chefs, restaurant managers and sommeliers had not chosen to work overseas.

And I do think that there is a very strong connection between the crisis facing French food today and that which began to threaten French wine supremacy 20 years ago. Obviously if you had not inspired the rest of the world so well, neither winemakers nor chefs outside France would have learnt or been inspired to outperform their mentor.

But in one very important way the problem is very, very different. The crisis in the French vineyards is being addressed, admittedly far too slowly, and the right way forward is being sought by various routes: the cutting back of over-production; new investment and new equipment; adapting wines specifically for various markets; and the gradual awareness that the general public most easily understands what a wine tastes like from knowing its grape variety rather than trying to fathom the vague concept of terroir.

No, the solution to the crisis facing French food is perhaps more difficult because it is not as clear cut. French chefs and produce are still amongst the best in the world. It is not so much a question that what is on the plate is disappointing as how the plates reach the customer and how, in delivering the food, French restaurateurs still choose to treat the customer. Let me turn to specifics.

The first point I would ask you to acknowledge is that there is a problem. I am aware that as President of a country which has assumed culinary supremacy for the past 200 years that this will not be easy but it is crucial.

It is vital because unless France acknowledges its current crisis the future will, I fear, be much worse because so little of what is on offer to the youth of France today is actually French.

Your Prime Minister, M Raffarin, has sensibly instructed his Cabinet to spend at least one week a month outside Paris and on their travels they cannot fail to notice the ubiquity of non-French fast food: hamburgers, whether American via McDonalds or Burger King or via a French interpretation, Buffalo Grill; pizzas - unquestionably the most common sight in France today - and occasionally paella or cous-cous. Gastronomically, the future looks distinctly non-French.

Moving slightly upmarket there is no question that many French restaurants offer inexpensive, good value prix fixe menus but how many still continue to offer the regional dishes that once excited the world's food and travel writers? Too many offer formulaic menus based on trips to Promo Cash or the nearest major cash-and-carry and a large freezer. In insisting on meeting the wave of fast food via price points they have abandoned value, originality and distinction.

Italy, by contrast, has shown the way forward, establishing and then galvanising the Slow Food Movement to offer an alternative to fast food, producing guides which only list those establishments that offer local, fresh produce and emphasising regional differences. France must follow suit.

One factor which unhappily unites French restaurateurs and their customers are the implications of the 35-hour week. Many hoteliers have responded by cutting the opening hours of their restaurants - for example the less busy lunchtimes at the beginning of the week - but in my experience this is also affecting the standard of service when restaurants are open. Restaurant managers are having to double up as cashiers; the amount of staff training appears to be shrinking, sacrificed to keep staff on the restaurant floor; and too often, I discovered this year, the waiting staff have disappeared whilst the diningroom is still full as they cannot work any longer.

It would obviously be impossible to repeal this legislation for just one sector of the economy but perhaps the demand from the hotel and restaurant lobby that the sales tax on meals be reduced from the 19.5 per cent to the new band of 5.5 per cent - about which chefs paraded down the Champs Elysées earlier this year - could be effected to boost business that would in turn lead to more effective training, more user-friendly opening hours and more satisfied customers?

Over this summer I have had the good fortune to eat at a couple of two-star Michelin restaurants and several one-star establishments. The food was invariably good, the equally important factor - the price:quality ratio, invariably impressive. What was unforgettable and unforgivable was the attitude of so many staff. It was a combination of arrogance, indifference, surliness and sloppiness (and this in the otherwise excellent hotel owned by the President of Relais & Châteaux) and bad manners (at L'Aubergade in Puymirol the sommelier interrupted our conversation on five separate occasions!).

This is the upper end of the restaurant market, where France has chosen to hang its culinary reputation, so may I, on behalf of the many, request that your Government consider the following:

 

  • that French maître d's acknowledge that pleasure is an integral part of the experience. A warm welcome is not an admission of defeat,
  • that French sommeliers wear their knowledge more lightly and acknowledge that wines lists that are easy to read and navigate are not a threat to their job security. And, more specifically, if a woman orders the wine the bottle should be shown to her rather than any man at the table.
  • that 213 years after the revolution in the name of egalité, isn't it time to outlaw the sexist, but still widespread, custom of unpriced menus for the 'ladies'?
  • that if legislation is necessary, could you also please abolish the ridiculous practice of restaurants insisting that desserts are ordered at the beginning of the meal? It too is out of date, unnecessary and, I believe, implies that the dessert section is poorly organised,
  • and finally, insist that the most ridiculous practice of all - waiting staff reciting the precise contents of each dish after serving it - be outlawed immediately. Customers are not stupid, they can (usually) remember what they have ordered not that long ago, and they have come to talk to each other not to be spouted at.

In his forthcoming book, The New France, wine writer Andrew Jefford argues that the new generation of French winemakers have abandoned the chauvinism of their fathers. It is high time for French restaurateurs, chefs and restaurant managers to follow suit.

Yours sincerely,

Nicholas Lander