French chefs get back to the nation’s rich culinary roots

Special to the Los Angeles Times

In France, food is an art. Even UNESCO seems to agree, having named French gastronomy part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage” last year. Yet unlike other cultural contributors, great French chefs, the artists of the business, say they suffer from an unflattering and undeserved reputation. The nose-in-the-air, slave-mastering perfectionist, who thinks traditional, butter-dripping French cuisine is the be-all and end-all, is one image that comes to mind.

French chef Frédéric Vardon is one of many who would like the public to give them a second chance. His luxurious restaurant, the 39V, tucked away on the sixth-floor roof of a Haussmann-style apartment on Avenue George V, is all modern elegance, and with its glass walls, feels as if it could float over the Paris rooftops to the Eiffel Tower seen in a distance. But Vardon wants you to feel right at home. Never mind that his version of home may be fabulously different from yours.

“Above all, we give bonheur [happiness] to people. Our job is to share and have people discover cuisine,” Vardon said. “I just wish we could stop showing this bad side of our job — one that we see on television,” he said.


In part of his effort to improve their rep (and gain a few new customers in the long run), for a week Vardon offered a free, full meal (worth about $118) with every one purchased, during a festival called Tous au Restaurant (or “everyone to the restaurant”), which has latched on to a broader, new government-organized annual festival celebrating French gastronomy at the end of September.

The national gastronomy festival includes about 2,000 events ranging from cooking classes to DJ’ed, late-night parties centered on culinary themes, such as this year’s “the land.” The event coincides with a growing return to simple, “naturally” grown produce that is affordable and at the heart of regional French culinary tradition. Similar to the “bistronomy” trend that brought three-star-quality food to a wave of reasonably priced bistros, organizers hope to show that eating well is an ever-evolving French hallmark accessible to anyone interested.

“The idea is to be more open to the masses, less arrogant,” said French chef Alain Ducasse, lifting his nose in the air and flicking it with his finger. Ducasse runs a culinary empire of his own and initiated the Tous au Restaurant weeklong event after a similar program in New York.

For unlike other art forms, the restaurant business is made to please, meaning Vardon spends a good amount of time with his ear locked to the trends, lifestyles and habits of his customers. “At the end of the day, it’s a customer service job, and it’s hard work. You have to like other people. They bring their problems here, but also their joys, and it makes for a cocktail of life,” Vardon said.

Vardon’s popular recipes respond to a robust demand for simple, traditional French cooking, done “perfectly,” he says, and modernized to be lighter and butter-free. Such as his traditional picked crab starter with a light, bubbly bisque-vinaigrette, twisted with an avocado and apple salad, or his popular rabbit chasseur (hunter’s rabbit) and tagliatelle. He has studied traditional techniques under French culinary maestros such as Ducasse and Alain Chapel, and uses only the best ingredients. “We make beautiful what is already really good. I don’t invent anything,” he said. He even admits being open to other cultural influences, if the cooking technique “is intelligent.”

Vardon has hit on a trend for a return to simple, natural products. Even in France, mass consumption has taken its toll on culinary tradition, and by the 1960s and ‘70s, French families resorted to packaged goods at industrialized supermarkets, shopping less at local, small distributors and farmers markets.

But on Sept. 23, the country’s first national Gastronomy Day, young foodies celebrated their love for local produce with recycled paper plates piled with organic vegetarian cuisine at its finest by French chef and all-natural guru Arnaud Daguin. With electro tunes blasting in the background of a hip, new restaurant, Les Grandes Tables on the Ile Seguin, many agreed: They were going back to more “natural” foods in a way their parents had neglected.

“You’d think France is where all this starts, but no,” said 26-year-old chef Benjamin Darnaud, who was at the party. Compared with New York or northern Europe, “Paris is not as motivated to go more natural,” he said. “Small producers have disappeared over time, and fewer French chefs work directly with farmers.”

Now food culture was finally shifting in France. “Everybody wants to find a really good carrot now. It’s like buying caviar,” he said.

Darnaud agreed chefs should reach out more to customers. “Being a chef doesn’t mean just being a chef. It means talking to people and about food today. We can do a lot better,” he said.

At the same party, Anne Metrard, 37, said it wasn’t until she was an adult and started shopping at farmers markets, cooking large meals every day and looking for local foods, that she really began to understand how to cook, an effort she makes because otherwise “we’ll end up eating plastic if things continue in the current direction,” she said, referring to the effect of the supermarket industry.

“We live in tiny apartments and can’t choose the space we live in — we bear with that. But we can’t bear with bad food — that’s the limit,” Metrard said.

Metrard also agreed she’d be thrilled to give luxury dining a try more often, but there was the obvious cost issue — though she felt the two-for-one Tous au Restaurant deal was tempting.

At L’Assiette, a top French bistro in the Left Bank’s 14th arrondissement, which also participated in the two-for-one festival, chef David Rathgeber makes a point of greeting his guests from the open door of the kitchen near the entrance. Most of them are regulars he knows by name.

Regular 9-year-old Cannelle Lacombe gave Rathgeber a kiss on both cheeks before sitting down to a steak whose diameter was larger than her face. “It’s her favorite,” explained her father, Serge Lacombe, 46. “She just really likes meat. And once you start with the best, it’s hard to switch back.”

Nevertheless, despite examples such as Rathgeber, and as with many clichés like that of France’s culinary royalty, there’s often a grain — or a fistful — of truth to them.

At the decadent, 18th century Grand Vefour restaurant, a two-star historic landmark off the Palais Royal gardens, a request to speak to the chef on the day the nation was supposed to be celebrating its gastronomic heritage “in the streets,” was met by the receptionist with raised eyebrows, an inhale, a roll of the eyes and a “non.” Speaking to the chef was “emposseebl.” An appointment would have to be made for some time in the distant future. “Au revoir, madame,” she said.