Complacency killed the lunch of the great French restaurant
Who killed lunch at the Grand French restaurant? we really talk Murder on the Orient Express here: no mystery, rather, too many culprits. Prices. Ever-increasing labor costs. More regulation. A consultant-ridden office culture that ended the two-hour lunch break (with no demonstrable productivity gains). The replacement of native practices with foreign practices, by which I am not talking about immigration to France (in fact, it is mostly places owned by immigrants who still serve homemade food) but the disappearance small bistros run by a team of husband and wife who did not count the hours of work, replaced in all the streets by sad variations of sandwiches on the theme of Prêt à Manger.
And complacency: when chefs weren’t trying too hard (more on that in a minute), they weren’t trying hard enough, taking advantage of France’s reputation as their surly waiters served overpriced Brouilly and Boring grilled duck breast with infrared reheated baby potatoes for the price of a Paris-Marseille TGV ticket.
The deathblow was delivered by Covid and Putin. Losses due to lockdown were only partially compensated by state subsidies. With “silent shutdown” impractical in restaurants, only some furloughed staff have returned. Prior to the Ukrainian war, transportation costs had skyrocketed for similar reasons. And since February 24, all food prices have gone up. As a result, the French, affected by the rise in the cost of living, count their pennies and give up eating in restaurants: 40% of them say they are cutting back on restaurants significantly.
It is a toxic situation, which began long before the current crisis. French food, in recent years, has followed the unsatisfactory trajectory of many industries where instead of a gradation from cheap to reasonable to expensive, the market is increasingly split between industrial tat supplied in soulless chains and expensive brand name products, with next to nothing in between.
For years, France has had a reasonable attitude towards its professional cooks. The greats were admired but not adored; the rest were exempt from the cult of personality practiced in countries newer in food culture, such as Britain. You knew the names of the restaurants rather than the chefs. But over the past two decades, the temptation to become red carpet stars has changed the business. There would, after all, be an endless supply of Russian oligarchs to enjoy €400 lunches, and enough food fad victims to follow suit.
To cater to the rung below (and replace the old family restaurants), what you increasingly find are pretentious establishments offering “experimental” Instagrammable food on just about anything not not just a round plate – a piece of slate, a wire basket, elongated pieces of crockery that look like flattened Henry Moore sculptures. They are specially decorated to maximize noise (no rugs or tablecloths, hard surfaces, no partitions between tables, loud music) to ensure a faster turnover of diners.
If this sounds familiar to London diners, it’s because the same marketing gurus have presided over these changes.
The reaction of the cash-strapped French was to revert to age-old fundamentals. We know how to cook simple but good meals at home. Sales of kitchen equipment have skyrocketed over the past two years, with more kitchen utensils sold than the number of people in the country in 2021. Unfortunately, the time may come when for a real experience two-star gastronomy, we will have to come to London.