French gastronomy is in crisis. "And crisis is just what we need," declares François Simon, food critic for Le Figaro, one of France's leading newspapers. He offers a signature fatigued smile, then explains: "Crisis might make us better understand who we are."
Anyone who follows food news knows that French cuisine is in a state of unprecedented upheaval that seems to mirror the country's current social turmoil. Stars are flying back in Michelin's face while celebrity chefs jet around the world chasing profits from satellite ventures. Rumors abound that le grand table is on its last legs, threatened by chefs who open bargain bistros instead of investing in extravagant cheese carts. And Brits like Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck and Spaniards like Ferran Adrià of El Bulli are stealing the headlines. "France has lost its culinary supremacy," Simon admits rather brightly. "But why do we always need to be first? Enough with this nationalist hauteur."
Simon enjoys the lofty title of Le Figaro's Grand Reporter, writing on a range of cultural topics. Mainly, he's known as the provocateur who uses his whimsically poisonous prose to shake up the ossified world of French haute cuisine, and the ferocious expense and acrid snobbery that goes with it. To some Simon is a heretic. To others, he's a revolutionary who's inspired a new generation of food criticism, such as Omnivore, a monthly newspaper dedicated to "young cuisine," and Le Fooding—an increasingly influential movement that promotes an irreverent, anti-elitist approach to dining through events like picnics that resemble performance art. Perhaps it's not surprising that food criticism wasn't Simon's early ambition; he wanted to be a music journalist à la Rolling Stone. Instead, in 1981, he fell in with Henri Gault and Christian Millau, the theorists behind the then-radical movement nouvelle cuisine. After working for Gault Millau, Simon joined Le Figaro nearly 20 years ago and he's been wreaking havoc ever since. "The exciting thing about France now," says Simon, "is the new openness in the way people talk about food." And he's played no small part in changing the rules.
Recently I caught up with the culinary rebel in Paris. Over three meals at three different restaurants, each highlighting a favorite Simon crusade, we discussed his likes and strong dislikes, and France's gastronomic future.
Celebrity Chef Picks and Pans
Though Simon dines out anonymously, he's hard not to recognize. He's that petit dandy scooting around Paris on a beautiful bicycle. That's him scribbling away with a calligraphy pen in notebooks custom-made by designer Peter Larsen in Nice. Then there's his sartorial presence: the velvet vests, the Prada jackets, the cravates in magnificent shades of silk. Does he see himself as a fashion icon? I prod when he shows up for lunch, at the hotel Le Meurice's two-star dining room, draped in a capelike black corduroy coat. "We only live once, why blend in with the walls?" he retorts.
Today Simon looks distracted and tired—too many deadlines, too much wine from Jura, near the Swiss border in France—one of his favorite wine regions. Yet he's full of vigorous praise for the palatial Restaurant le Meurice and its virtuoso 37-year-old chef, Yannick Alléno. He loves the gracious service and the "sharp, humane, always progressive" cuisine. About his John Dory cooked with an Asian accent of ginger, Simon says, "Alléno is open-minded, not blindingly proud in that xenophobic French way." But isn't globalization a threat to French values? Not so: "We shouldn't forget sauce Périgord, but cuisines must evolve."
Among Simon's favorite adjectives are gentle and genuine, in contrast with the "narcissistic machismo" and cynicism that plague French celebrity chefdom. He eats very little and talks—and writes—in provocative sound bites. I submit the names of France's top chefs and he responds. Alain Passard? Mister sublime $100 carrot. Marc Veyrat? A gentleman thief who steals ideas for fun; his famous foraging for wild herbs is "just for the cameras." Joël Robuchon? His hatred of Ducasse propelled him out of retirement and makes him great. Guy Savoy? The culinary equivalent of an Hermès bag (I'm still figuring that one out).
Simon's poster villain is Ducasse, who personifies, for him, the "xeroxed" cuisine of cloned restaurants remote-controlled by absentee chefs. "What happened to the notion of chefs as beloved community figures prowling the neighborhood shaking hands with suppliers?" Simon wonders aloud. French cuisine is losing its leaders in the kitchen, and this is dangerous. "Ducasse? He's a sleek atomizer—spritzing his brand over you from a plane on his way to New York or Hong Kong."
In the past, Simon's attacks on the Michelin guide—which he says often bestows stars for political reasons on unworthy chefs—have caused so much controversy that even Le Figaro had to ask him to backpedal a little. Is the Red Book that evil? I ask. Well, no, he says, comparing the guide to an annoying old aunt who embarrasses you with her outdated opinions. Three Michelin stars function like "a wedding picture that implores chefs to stay frozen in time." Once you get them, Simon believes, there's nowhere to move, nothing but fear of losing status.
The Three-Star Scene
For our next lunch, Simon chooses Gaya, a casual fish place from three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire. Since it opened last fall, Gaya has become a canteen for journalists and politicos—that gray-haired guy across from us is Lionel Jospin, France's former prime minister—and it's one of Simon's favorite lunchtime spots. Simon's initial reviews of Gaya were rather glowing. Today, prodding his puzzling entrée of scallops with creamy corn sauce and popcorn with a fork, he seems less sure. "Complicated cuisine reflects complex times," he says, shaking his head. "The problem with France," he goes on, "is that our chefs are no longer content just to cook something delicious. They want to be celebrated as intellectuals and artistes." But he's not condemning Gagnaire. Although Gagnaire can be overly cerebral at times, Simon thinks of him as a genuine innovator—not a marketing machine like some others. And for that Simon forgives him an occasional lapse. In fact, in Simon's opinion, Gagnaire is one of only a tiny handful of chefs who deliver a sublime eating experience that's actually worthy of Michelin's three macaroons. Also in the elite group: Olivier Roellinger of Maisons de Bricourt in Cancale near Mont-Saint-Michel, whose cooking Simon describes as being in harmony with the surrounding Breton landscape, and Franck Cerutti at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, whose boss happens to be Alain Ducasse.
The Future of France's Restaurants
Our last meal together is dinner—steak frites and fried breaded pig's feet—at the cramped, lovable and militantly traditional Le Bistrot Paul Bert. Here Simon is happy and mellow. "This room, this food, this is France," he enthuses. A devotee of classic bistros like Paul Bert and wine bars like Le Baratin, Simon also applauds the trend of bistronomie: the new breed of bistros run by creative young chefs with formidable haute cuisine training who serve honest food at gentle prices instead of reaching for Michelin stars. The leader is Yves Camdeborde, who launched the movement when he opened La Régalade 14 years ago. Recently he started the cozy Le Comptoir, where the stellar $50 prix fixe is Paris's best bargain.
So, after bistronomie, what's next for France? Tough question. Simon believes French gastronomy is going through a "centrifugal machine," a whirl of competing movements and trends. What about France's young innovators called "Generation C"—C stands for cuisines et culture—who experiment with foreign flavors and deconstructive cooking techniques? Among Generation C, Simon singles out Alexandre Gauthier, who puts a delightfully eccentric global spin on local ingredients at La Grenouillère, a riverside inn restaurant near Montreuil-sur-Mer in northern France. He also praises the inventive, terroir-based cooking of Jean Marc Boyer of Le Puits du Trésor in Languedoc-Roussillon, the subject of Simon's best and most enthusiastic review.
Still, Simon insists that life is hard for emerging young chefs, many of whom are traumatized by the arrogant older celebrities and by the dramatic ascendance of Spain. To Simon, this might be a blessing. Experimenting modestly, away from the spotlight, the next generation can regroup and create something valuable.
Le Bistrot Paul Bert's owner pours us some Arbois Pupillin from Jura. It has the color of strawberries and a nose that hints of haystacks and manure. "Hurray, France is no longer the leader," Simon toasts. "Let's relax, laugh and enjoy this fabulous funky wine." But, I press him, does he have a wish for the future? Yes, to see an end to male domination and more female stars in the French kitchen. (The signs are promising: A Japanese woman named Fumiko Kono was just named chef de cuisine at Paris's hyperelegant food store Fauchon.) "Imagine," he hoots, "one day we might produce the first Brigitte Bardot of cuisine! Then France will no longer be the king of gastronomy. It will be the queen."