Au Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine

Steven Shapin writes:

The cooking revolution in France was fuelled by the évènements of May 1968 and it shared the anti-authoritarianism of student radicalism, rebelling against the idea of doing things ‘by the book’. Yet, as Steinberger notes, while the student radicals were trying to bring about revolution from the outside, nouvelle cuisine was cooked up from within, by some of the best-bred and most influential practitioners of classic French cuisine – such chefs as Michel Guérard, Alain Chapel, Jean Delaveyne, Jean and Pierre Troisgros. And it was betrayed, Steinberger says, by the media-savvy chef Paul Bocuse, wrongly identified as a leader of nouvelle cuisine. The new cuisine revolution needed its Trotsky, but what it got in Bocuse was its Stalin. What Bocuse did was to erode culinary creativity by taking its human source away from the stove. He established a new conception of what it was to be a successful ‘executive’ chef: abandoning the kitchen, launching frozen food lines in France and Japan, and turning himself into a global brand. The model was followed by a younger generation of star chefs, such as Alain Ducasse. Researching his book, Steinberger went to Bocuse’s still three-star-rated restaurant near Lyon: ‘The food was awful … Every dish was overwrought and plodding,’ especially the centrepiece filets de sole: ‘a piece of tasteless fish submerged in a cream sauce thicker than plaster of Paris and flanked by a small pile of gummy noodles’. Nouvelle cuisine was the light that failed, or that was prematurely extinguished, and, while there are notable exceptions, from the 1980s French cuisine settled back into its tired traditions.