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.