French gastronomy faced with globalization

French gastronomy faced with globalization

Pitte, Jean-Robert

Gastronomy (good food and good wine) is an essential component of France’s culture, her image abroad, and her offerings to tourists.

Its influence is based on an ancient moral tradition, surfacing in the Middle Ages, if not in antiquity, which made greediness and even gluttony one of the few licit joys of existence and of sociability. At no moment in history, except in the second half of the twentieth century, did Catholic moralists consider gluttony, which is today a mortal sin, anything more than a venial sin (Pitte, 1991). It is in the fertile soil of lawful pleasures that the French art of eating well and drinking well blossomed. Today, however, this art is confronted with economic and cultural intermingling resulting from globalization.


From the second half of the seventeenth century, especially because of the personal impetus of King Louis XIV, great cuisine and the arts of the table acquired a prestigious status and were a key part of the French cultural model that was destined to cement the French national unity which dazzled all of Europe. These arts expressed the glory and the refinement of the court, just as architecture, town planning, garden design, painting, sculpture, music, fashion, language, poetry, and theater also all did. Seventy-five titles, or about 100,000 cookery books, were printed with the king’s approval between 1651 and 1691. They all codified the new art of cooking in the French style, based in particular on the use of butter and cream, white meats, and tender fruits and vegetables, but excluding the excess use of spices and the sweet-and-sour flavors that survived in northern and eastern Europe, where they were attached to medieval culinary traditions (Flandrin et al., 1983). All the courts of Europe recruited French cooks, who were in such great demand that they could name their own salary.

At the end of the Ancien Regime, under the Revolution and during the nineteenth century, the great cuisine of the court became popular within the framework of a new institution, the restaurant, a refined place outside of one’s home where one could eat well. This institution inspired in part the establishment in England of what would become taverns and clubs (Pitte, 2000 and 2001). About the middle of the nineteenth century, great luxury hotels opened all along the coasts of Europe, at the foot of mountains, in health/spa resorts, and in large cities. Usar Ritz was one of the inventors of this new way of journeying outside of one’s home to take the waters, the sun, the view, and to enjoy the pleasures of life.

The cooking in these palaces was worthy of their comfort and of the services they offered. Auguste Escoffier advised a number of these establishments, in which he officiated wherever needed. He placed hundreds of chefs throughout Europe, in the royal courts, the restaurants, and the hotels, spreading the influence of French cuisine (Escoffier, 1985). Today, most of the cultured inhabitants of the planet, with the exception of the Chinese, continue to believe that France is the one country in the world where one eats the best. This perception is an indisputable success of French cultural communication. We will not discuss here the validity of this almost universally held idea.


Since antiquity, the inhabitants of Gaul and then France had access to foods coming from other regions of Europe, even from other continents (wines from Italy, spices from southern Asia, and cod from the North Atlantic, for example). Through its own evolution, in the seventeenth century the great cuisine of France renounced the massive use of spices, but it adopted the new products born of the great discoveries of the preceding centuries and the first colonization: corn, permitting the fattening of poultry and the development of the fatty livers of ducks and geese; coffee; tea; chocolate; sugar cane; wines of the Mediterranean, of the Atlantic, of South Africa; rum; and so forth. As in the domain of fashion, though, there is no gastronomy without evolution nor without the effect of surprise.

During the eighteenth century, regional cuisines emerged and intermingled in Paris, where they diversified the great cuisine and enriched themselves with new ingredients and new techniques. The restaurant of “Les trois freres provencaux” (the Three Provenqal Brothers) opened in Paris in 1786 and became very fashionable during the first Empire. There one was served dishes in olive oil, bouillabaisse from Marseille, brandade (salted cod puree) from Nimes, anchovies, and other new ingredients. Strange flavors continued to slip into the eating habits of good society: parmesan, soy sauce, vanilla, and so on.

However, evolution of cuisine was relatively slow, and gourmets were never totally disconcerted by what they found on their plates. From La Varenne to Antonin Careme, then to Auguste Escoffier, Fernand Point, Raymond Oliver, and Paul Bocuse, the change came gently, and certain dishes remained almost unchanged three centuries after their inception – for example, hollandaise sauce, hare royale, or sweetened chilled whipped cream (creme chantilly).


After 1945 the regional cuisines were very much in fashion because of the actions of Curnonsky during the interwar period and of a few other great chefs such as Raymond Oliver, who popularized the flavors of the Southwest (fatted duck liver, Armagnac) in his restaurant in the Great Vefour, the dining hall of Malraux, Cocteau, and Colette, and in his television broadcasts called The Art and Magic of Cooking.

The French embrace the exotic restaurants (Chinese, Vietnamese, Arab, Greek) that have opened all over Paris as a result of decolonization and immigration. Professional mobility and increasing leisure time also facilitate this opening up of tastes in all walks of life. But the mixing of tastes of both French and exotic products remains very limited.

The great chefs were invited to Japan (Raymond Oliver was the first in 1964, on the occasion of the Olympic Games), then to Hong Kong and to Singapore. They brought back from these trips products, culinary techniques, and presentations that they then introduced into their own dishes. This was one of the components of the phenomenon known as the Nouvelle Cuisine (new cooking) that began about 1968. This new style introduced the use of steaming (Jacques Maniere), crunchy vegetables (Michel Guerard), raw fish (the brothers Minchielli), and the introduction of soy in whipped butters (Alain Senderens). Presentations in the Japanese style became widespread because of their vibrant colors, their asymmetrical arrangements that allow vertical piles, the placing of sauces directly onto the plate and under the product rather than covering the food, and so forth.

Other aspects of the Nouvelle Cuisine also display foreign influences that can be characterized as neopuritan, coming in part from northern Europe and from the United States: health concerns (conserving vitamins, rejecting marinades, the hanging of meats), weight issues (reduction of the intake of fats), authenticity and visibility (rejection of crusts, pastry– wrapped foods, and disguised foods). Humble products, formerly banished from good restaurants, were rehabilitated and served at the price of rarities: potatoes (mashed or even French fries), bell peppers, carrots, cod, whiting, and ox cheek among others. The Parisian chef Alain Passard even decided in 2000, after the Mad Cow disease crisis, to abandon meats and fish and to no longer serve anything but vegetables, a move that was saluted as a stroke of genius by a unanimously servile press.

The components of these new dishes must not only be visible, but named in the wording on the menu. This practice became a sort of pedantic literature that gave rise to dishes whose names were perfumed with mystery: peach Melba or the chocolate– coated whipped-cream concoction known as “negre en chemise.” Thus, the Violon d’Ingres in Paris has “bass filet encrusted with almonds in an acidulous ravigote sauce with capers”; Michel Bras in Laguiole has his “lobe of duck liver roasted over the embers sprinkled with swollen bladder campion sprouts”; or Alain Chapel in Mionnay offers “dried apricots with a light chocolate mousse and mascarpone cream on roasted polenta.” Such dishes have provoked the insistent praises of certain critics for the poetry of their litany, and they are by no means the longest titles in the repertory.

This movement, anchored in the millennium culture, is not exempt from contradictions. In reality, the butter-rich sauces were never totally abandoned. Joel Robuchon built a part of his renown on his mashed potatoes containing 50 percent butter! And above all, certain of the new-style chefs have succeeded in creating a surprising effect by playing the “hyper-regional” card, using a majority of local products, including the herbs and wildflowers issuing from a new-age-styled harvest. While tasting certain of Michel Brass or Marc Veyrat’s creations, one has the impression of being transformed into a sheep or a cow grazing in a high pasture.


The destructuring and the provocative character of all aspects of contemporary culture reveal themselves not only in the new novel, the plastic arts, architecture, music, and fashion, but also in cooking. To agreeably surprise the gourmet no longer suffices. It is necessary to rattle all his certainties and to shock him; that is what he asks, at least if he belongs to a certain segment of the population devoted to keeping on top of the latest fashions. As much as possible, chefs must leave the beaten path and abandon the idea that they should be limited to perfecting classic recipes or respecting the taste of exceptional primary ingredients.

The harmony of flavors is no longer appropriate because it is no longer a question of mixing or associating the components on the plate, but rather of juxtaposing them. Certain recipes seem inspired by the style of Marguerite Duras. Diverse ingredients occupy isolated spaces on a vast plate, and the sauce is reduced to a few vague trails of calligraphy in the voids of the porcelain, accompanied by a few carelessly sprinkled grains of salt, pepper, sugar, or cocoa. It is very graphic and therefore photogenic, even if the result does sometimes give the impression of a dirty plate. But in any case, this style is without interest for those who are truly interested in what they are eating and therefore in the synthesis of tastes. Fashionable women’s magazines fight over the privilege of receiving transcendental messages from the chefs who participate in this new genre, as do certain editors of beautiful coffee-table books. The critics are divided. Some fawn over the lesser nobility of this circle of influence, while others simply mock or ignore them. The gastronomic guides that are, in general, written by multiple authors, give no direction. Such is unfortunately the case with Michelin, long reputed and sometimes gently mocked for its classicism without fault and, for some, without imagination.

An entire school of thought in the culinary world rejects, therefore, the heritage of the seventeenth century, revisited by Careme and Escoffier, without any other aim than to destabilize. This school is rehabilitating the medieval flavors such as sweet-sour, salt– sugar, multiple spices, dried fruits, bitter herbs, and both acidic and clear juices, even though it is not at all certain that they are better for the health. The other practice and this one is of interest to the geographer – consists of mixing the ingredients and culinary preparations originating from all parts of the world, if possible all in the same meal. Mexico, India, China, Japan, the United States, and Australia all find themselves alongside France on the menus of certain restaurants. They are even there in the wines and the mineral waters. The critic of the Figaroscope, Franqois Simon, put it nicely when he referred to this jumble of ingredients and styles not simply as a “melting pot” but a “melting popote,” playing on the French word for a homestyle meal (5– 11 January 2000).

Alain Ducasse is the current champion of the fused and globalized trend, which is in constant and rapid evolution and is associated with prices that are reaching unequaled heights. The New York and Californian influences are very strong with him (his glace au malabar – the “malabar” is a sweet, pink chewing gum for children – and his Coca-Cola chicken served in his restaurant, Spoon, are two examples), and they blend with his more or less sincere concern with rehabilitating Mediterranean cuisine in general, and Italian cuisine in particular. His perfectly mastered style attracts a wealthy clientele, who are preoccupied with affirming his originality and his apparent disdain of conventions. This is the triumph in cooking of the “bourgeois-bohemian” trend that was carried so well into the milieus of fashion, publicity, and the media (Brooks, 2000). Alain Ducasse more or less directly controls the cooking and the finances of numerous restaurants: a dozen in Paris, about fifteen on the French Riviera, about twenty throughout the rest of France, another ten in Europe, fifteen in the United States, two in Japan, and one each in Singapore, on the Island of Mauritius, and in New Zealand (Simon, 2000; Sachez and Chayet, 2000).

Patrick Jouin, the young decorator of the room taken in 2000 by Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee in Paris for his three-star restaurant, found the style and words necessary to aptly describe the fused and confused gastronomy of France: “The historical and majestic aspect of the place was far from my universe …. I therefore tried to slide things around, to shift them around. The master idea came quickly: in effect I had to impoverish the space … to wash it of all luxury” (Cauhape, 2000). “The metallic organza,” intended to hide the crystal chandeliers, reassures the gourmets enamored with simplicity, but does not preclude an autumn menu in November 2000 priced at 1,489 francs (approximately $215), wines not included. The tables are reserved by an international clientele several months in advance, and the establishment is permanently booked.


his gastronomic pidgin, invented in New York and in Paris, has spread rapidly to all the major European, North American, and Japanese cities. Its success, however, is fragile because one eventually wearies of everything, including continual surprises. The enormous investments of certain chefs and certain chains are therefore risky. Moreover, the consequences on tourism could prove themselves important if the movement should continue and if the phenomenon should spread throughout the world. In effect, the gastronomic experience is one of the engines of tourism in France, but what interest would there be in visiting Paris if the contents of the dinner plates were the same as in the United States or in Singapore?

At the moment when the industrial-agricultural production of many foods is collapsing, a reflection on the relationship between food and identity imposes itself, but not simply to defend the often insincere domain of ethnic foods. The smart thing would be to promote regional specialty foods and drinks that echo their natural and cultural environment and that emanate from quality landscapes; they are agreeable to look at and sample.

In a more general sense, in cultural terms the globalization of cooking offers enhanced opportunities for mutual exchanges and enrichments, but it may also lead to Babel and the inability to communicate from the moment that our unique cultural identities are rejected.


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signe de la modernite” (Two Parisian Restaurants Under the Sign of Modernity). Le Monde, 11 November 2000, p. 32.

Escoffier, Auguste. Souvenirs inedits (Unedited Souvenirs). Marseille: Jeanne Laffitte, 1985.

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“Histoire et geographie du restaurant.” Histoire et Nourritures terrestres: Les Rendez-vous de l’Histoire, Blois 1999 (History and Terrestrial Foods: The Meetings of History, Blois 1999). Names: Pleins Feux, 2000, p. 65-73.

“Les espaces de la bonne there a Paris a la fin du XVIIIe siecle” (Spaces of Good Fare in Paris at the End of the Eighteenth Century) in lain Black and Robin Butlin (eds): Place, Culture and Identity: Essays in Historical Geography in Honour of Alan R.H. Baker, Quebec: University of Laval Press, 2001, p. 133-142.

Sanchez, Anne-Cecile. and Stephanie Chayet. “Alain Ducasse, un chef-cuisinier conquiert le monde” (Alain Ducasse, a Master-Chef Conquering the World). Le Point, 1455, 4 August 2000, p. 52-60 (also the cover of the magazine).

Simon, Fran;ois. “Alain Ducasse, l’etoile polaire” (Alain Ducasse, Polar Star). Le Figaro, 30 September-1 October, 2000, p. 18.

Jean-Robert Pitte teaches historical and cultural geography at the Universite de Paris-Sorbonne. His research domain is history of landscape and planning, geography of food and wine, and sensorial perceptions (smellscapes, for example). He has published various books: History of French Landscape, Men and Landscapes of Chestnut-tree, French Gastronomy (translated in English), and Philippe Lamour, the Father of Land Planning in France. He is preparing a Bordeaux-Burgundy essay and a world geography of wine.

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