A couple of years ago, François Simon, the influential restaurant critic for Le Figaro, told me that French gastronomy needed a “crisis” in order to reinvent its doddering identity. At the time I barely listened. Who cared about a lot of sauce-struck whisks trying to remaster the art of French cooking when the rest of Europe was so exciting? Over the past decade, I had watched Spain flourish into a global food power as innovations sparked by El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià trickled down to more vernacular kitchens. For stripped-down urban style and multicultural street food I headed to London. But lately I’ve been wondering about Simon’s words. After years of soul-searching and struggle, could a new wave be loosening the grip of haute cuisine (without turning France into an outpost of Adrià mimics)? Was a nouvelle nouvelle cuisine really being born out of the crisis? For answers, I planned a week in France to listen—and eat.
In Paris, I found the mood determined and hopeful among forward-thinking chefs and critics. Sure, barbarians menace the gates (McDo at the Louvre—quelle horreur!). But for every Michelin all-star deserting his stove to oversee a franchise in Dubai, there are 10 top-trained converts to the low-key bistronomie movement. For each luxe five-figure dinner, there’s a cookout in a park staged by Le Fooding, the irreverent populist food guide bent on jolting the gastronomic status quo. In Gallic kitchens today, I was about to discover, freedom is the flavor du jour.
“A chef’s essential right to express individuality on a plate!” declared another Parisian critic, Luc Dubanchet. “That’s huge news in France after fifty years of homogenous dictatorship of haute cuisine.” Like the boys at Le Fooding, Dubanchet crusades against the establishment with Omnivore, which publishes the increasingly influential Carnet de Route Omnivore restaurant guide.
Many French food insiders I talked to stressed openness to other cultures as a new essential ingredient in the shift. “The task of the next generation is to make cuisine personal—to embrace the globality of meanings, references, generations, and styles.” This came from Gilles Choukroun, the mediagenic chef of the new MBC restaurant, in Paris’s 17th Arrondissement. Founder and former president of Générations.C—yet another French food movement for change—the boyishly handsome Choukroun is doing his part at the cool gray-and-fuchsia-accented MBC. Here, his sharp, streamlined menu—a bright-green pea velouté with a flourish of coconut and cloud of burrata cheese; a fabulous lamb-confit burger inflected with North African spices—exemplifies Esperanto bistro cooking for the 21st century.
Liberté, égalité…diversité? Yes, indeed: eclecticism now rules in Parisian kitchens. The fresh greenmarket flavors at the new crowd-pleaser Frenchie are inspired in part by the chef’s stint at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, while at the petite Yam’Tcha they’re vaguely Chinese. At the mod art–filled KGB (a.k.a. Kitchen Galerie Bis) I joined a worldly crowd for chef William Ledeuil’s zingy “zors d’oeuvres”: miso-and-citrus-slicked lacquered mackerel and a gorgeous cappuccino of strawberries spiked with wasabi. Have I mentioned that Ledeuil is one of my favorite Parisian chefs, and an inspiration for pretty much every progressive French food movement? At his flagship Ze Kitchen Galerie (a few yards from KGB), dinner was a lesson on everything that still goes right with French high dining. Ledeuil is a scholar of Asian flavors, grafting them onto impeccably French, impeccably modern technique. The scallop tartare shot through with Kaffir lime and multicolored shavings of radish delivered a perfect fusion of style, spice, and soul. And anyone who says high-minded French cooking is dead after tasting his panko-crusted foie-gras-and-rabbit croquettes, served alongside a fragrant Thai-flavored rabbit broth, should be condemned to stale frites and sticky demi-glace for the rest of his life.
Who knows, perhaps there’s even hope for the Michelin Guide, the tyrannical restaurant bible widely criticized for its disconnectedness to modern restaurant culture. The 2009 France edition arrived with the usual clatter of scandals: charges that President Sarkozy’s patronage helped Le Bristol, in Paris, land its third star; boos for the inexplicable two macaroons to Gordon Ramsay au Trianon, the bad boy chef’s white elephant in Versailles. Still, with rare insight, the red book awarded a second star to L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, a modest 35-seat restaurant in Arles with no written menu and a $67 lunchtime prix fixe. Rival Gault Millau had named Rabanel, the restaurant’s previously obscure fortysomething chef, its toque of the year in 2008. Remarkably, L’Atelier was France’s first certified-organic restaurant to be inducted into the pantheon. I couldn’t get to Arles (a 460-mile drive south from Paris) fast enough.
Tucked away in the center of town, L’Atelier has a casual urban vibe and a flat-screen monitor showcasing the action in the kitchen. Although Rabanel’s cooking evokes botanist chefs like Michel Bras, in Laguiole, and Basque genius Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz, outside San Sebastián, he has a vision all his own. Call it techno-terroir—powered by his seven-acre biodynamic farm growing 100 types of heirloom fruits and vegetables. Bright explosions of flavor are what shine here: icy jolts of sugarless sorbets from vegetables at their seasonal height; the hyper-Mediterraneanism of figs roasted in black olive oil. The daily menu might feature a faux yogurt of haricots cocos loaded with spongy bits of morel mushrooms, followed by a pintade (guinea fowl) baked in a salt crust. “I welcome progress in my kitchen,” he said, “but in the end I go back to the casserole!” How about the relationship young French chefs have been forging with Spain’s innovators? “Génial,” he approved. “But eventually we’ll find our own way.” In Rabanel’s case, he’s already there.
Next we headed west into Aquitaine, past plump hills and sunflowers and village shops crammed with Armagnac and foie gras. We were en route to the sleepy hamlet of Astaffort for a Gascon breakfast—for dinner!—at Une Auberge en Gascogne. The restaurant’s 38-year-old chef, Fabrice Biasiolo, had been recommended for his reinventions of regional flavors.
“Molecular, terroir… My food has been branded with all sorts of meaningless labels,” Biasiolo chuckled. “I call it simply libre [free] and ludique [playful].” Sure enough, the petit déjeuner turned out to be a trompe l’oeil, while the term auberge doesn’t quite capture the chic, modern feel of the dining room. The breakfast’s “tea” was a gauze sachet of dried, pulverized Bayonne ham, garlic, celery, and burned bread, infusing a rich duck broth into which we dipped a tartine layered with a foie gras carpaccio. Orange juice: a glass of delicious citrus and spice-infused liquefied carrot. Silky ham mousse spooned into an eggshell represented the oeuf à la cocotte. Playful indeed.
Biasiolo grew up nearby and worked briefly under Michel Bras. Over Armagnac he reflected on the situation in France: “Spanish chefs proved creativity has no limits. Us, we’re still burdened by tradition, authority, closure.” But like others, Biasiolo believes the next generation will set itself free “while keeping French flavors alive.”
“French flavors! Does it mean anything anymore?” The iconoclastic chef Thierry Marx wanted to elaborate when I met him the following day in Bordeaux, but a TV crew interrupted, impatient to film him. France’s answer to Spain’s Adrià, Marx helms the kitchen at Château Cordeillan-Bages, a two-starred restaurant in Pauillac owned by Lynch-Bages winery. His reputation as both tireless innovator and spiritual leader of the region’s food renaissance lured me to the hotel’s sedate dining room.
A high-wire blend of opulence and edgy conceptualism, the meal strung together a succession of “wow” moments while upholding Establishment values. The “risotto,” truffled and moistened with oyster jus, was composed of crunchy soybean sprouts instead of rice. Marx’s signature “saucisson virtuel” called for the waiter to puncture a bubble of edible plastic so that warm bouillon oozed out onto the plate, miraculously transmogrifying the whole into something deliciously recognizable as earthy lentils and sausage.
I recalled the first thrill of eating such food over a decade ago at El Bulli. Spanish experimental bravado has since settled into a more minimalist post-molecular style. But complacent Gallic taste buds, I figured, still needed shocking. I left hopeful that French haute cuisine would never be fusty again—and that was worth the hefty price of the dinner.
Marx, I later found out, grew up in a Polish-Jewish family in a proletarian Paris quartier, worked with the likes of Joël Robuchon, and spends lots of time in Japan. He was also a paratrooper in Lebanon and has a black belt in judo and a laboratory in Paris where he develops new dishes with scientists. Oh, and he’s about to launch a new Parisian venture: inexpensive, populist, and devoted to global street food. Vive la révolution.
Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.
Château Cordeillan-Bages Route des Châteaux, Pauillac; 33-5/56-59-24-24; dinner for two $365.
Frenchie 5 Rue du Nil, Second Arr., Paris; 33-1/40-39-96-19; dinner for two $98.
KGB 25 Rue des Grands Augustins, Sixth Arr., Paris; 33-1/46-33-00-85; dinner for two $146.
L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel 7 Rue des Carmes, Arles; 33-4/90-91-07-69; lunch for two $132.
MBC Gilles Choukroun 4 Rue du Débarcadère, 17th Arr., Paris; 33-1/45-72-22-55; lunch for two $87.
Restaurant Bras Route de l’Aubrac, Laguiole; 33-5/65-51-18-20; dinner for two $207.
Une Auberge en Gascogne 9 Faubourg Corné, Astaffort; 33-5/53-67-10-27; dinner for two $146.
Yam’Tcha 4 Rue Saval, First Arr., Paris; 33-1/44-58-10-10; dinner for two $160.
Ze Kitchen Galerie 4 Rue des Grand Augustins, Sixth Arr., Paris; 33-1/44-32-00-32; lunch for two $114.