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La cuisine française: complaisance, manque d'orginalité, déclin? Ou prête pour un renouveau?
The best French wines still command prices to match their reputations. But complacency and lack of innovation has seen many French producers overtaken by wines from the New World as well as from other European growers.
The world’s leading restaurant guides have confirmed that the same thing seems to be happening to French cuisine.
The 2012 Michelin guide again declared Tokyo to be the culinary capital of the world, awarding three stars to two more restaurants, taking the Japanese capital’s total to 16, compared to Paris’s 14 three-star establishments. Japan overall also leads the country league tables for Michelin, with 32 three-star restaurants compared to the 25 listed in France. The great Joel Robuchon still remains the most starred individual chef in Japan with a total of seven stars for his three Tokyo restaurants, but French cuisine is just no longer seen as the global benchmark, with 70 % of Japan’s three-star restaurants winning their award by focussing on their own country’s gastronomic traditions.
Supporters of French cuisine criticise the Michelin approach and say that it is just not possible or reasonable to compare a ‘local’ style with the internationally-recognised merits of the French culinary style. They are equally critical of the conclusions of the ‘Top 100’ review published by ‘Restaurant Magazine’, suggesting that it is too much in thrall to faddishness and short-term trends. So both Michelin and Restaurant Magazine, and the expert critics worldwide who contribute to their reports, must be wrong.
Restaurant Magazine’s recently-published accolades awarded first place, for the third year running, to a Danish restaurant , ‘Noma’ and its 32-year old chef, Rene Redzepi . His focus is very much a new take on local dishes using in-season ingredients, an approach which is now so popular and apparently well-established that it can surely no longer just be considered to be a passing trend. Joel Robuchon is again the highest-ranked French chef in this list coming in at 12th place with ‘L’Atelier’. Four other French chefs feature in the top 20 of Restaurant Magazine’s list.
Robuchon is, however beaten by Heston Blumenthal, who came in at 9th position with ‘Dinner’ , his new Knightsbridge venue (Blumenthal was also placed 13th, just behind Robuchon, for the ‘Fat Duck’ at Bray ). To add insult to French injury, ‘Dinner’ focuses on the British culinary heritage through the ages, reinventing dishes from past centuries with each dish dated according to its origins. The menu includes meat fruit ( c 1500), savoury porridge ( c1660), spiced pigeon ( c1780) , cod in cider ( c1940) and taffety tart ( 1830).
West London residents will also be pleased to hear that their favourite local, ’The Ledbury’, came in at number 14, just behind the ‘Fat Duck’, confirming the rise to prominence of Brett Graham, its Australian chef.
Clearly, all is not lost for French cuisine. Robuchon remains an acknowledged master. A new French generation is beginning to make its mark. But this new generation has to recognise that standards have risen hugely elsewhere and continue to rise , driven by innovation and local styles. Even though ‘El Bulli’ is no more, for example, two Spanish restaurants have risen to the challenge to take its place, coming second and third in the ‘Restaurant Magazine’ list ( ‘El Celler de Can Roca’ in Gerona and ‘Mugaritz’ in San Sebastian ).
One award which was won by the French does offer encouragement in this context. ‘Restaurant Magazine’ gave its ‘One to Watch’ award to a young French chef, Alexandre Gauthier , for his work at his restaurant ‘ La Grenouillere’ in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil in the north of France. If Robuchon can maintain his standard for excellence and the likes of Alexandre Gauthier continue to forge ahead all may not be lost for French cuisine after all. But they may need to re-invent the French gastronomic tradition to save it.
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