A French Food Revolution?


Photo by Jeffrey Tastes/Flickr CC

The French love to talk about food. What they're eating, what they'll eat next, or the meal they've just finished. But the discussion seems always to begin and end with French food. Other cuisines don't deserve such serious consideration.

A few days ago I was having dinner with friends. After H1N1, the economic crisis, French politics, and the Christmas sales, the obvious subject was food. While the French can no longer mock the American president, their usual critiques of American food remain a favorite source of amusement.

But the truth is that I've had some of the best meals of my life in the United States. Of course, I value French food, both on sensorial and historical levels. Having a strong food culture is a blessing--but it becomes a curse when combined with conservatism and chauvinism. The average French restaurant is now often disappointing, and the "exotic" options offer inauthentic cooking reflecting what the French think this cuisine should be.

Le Fooding is shaking French gastronomy from its serious traditionalism.

Most windows of Chinese restaurants in France advertise Chinese and Thai and Vietnamese and even sometimes Indian food. A metaphor of this: most people here will say On va chez l'Asiat--"Let's go to the Asian." The inherent racism here aside, the food served there is the standard deep-fried spring rolls, flavorless soups, and sautéed chicken, beef, or shrimps swimming in bland sauces--reflecting French taste and, when it comes to spice, the lack of it.

A handful of food lovers are trying to inject a bit of youth and openness into the veins of French food culture. Tired of formal and dusty French gastronomy, Alexandre Cammas and Emmanuel Rubin have been promoting since 1999 a more casual approach to food, one that doesn't only worship educated palates and famous chefs but rather encourages a less serious and more playful attitude toward food. In other words, one that makes us curious and inspires a simple desire to eat, to explore new cultures and food as a universal pleasure.

But what to call their movement? Anything to do with gastronomy was inadequate, its etymology pointing to the art of ruling the stomach. How can you rule pleasure? From food and feeling, the word "fooding" was born. Needless to say, the Le Fooding movement was mocked for the first years--until the vast popularity of its events proved that the philosophy it was endorsing resonated throughout the Parisian, and then French food world.

Among other things, Le Fooding is a restaurant guide accessible on the Web, as well as a printed one updated every year (now in magazine stands throughout the country for 9.50 euros). The reviewed restaurants are not only restaurants serving French cuisine but international cuisine as well. Among the Japanese restaurants, you find classic sushi places and also jewels like Momoka, a minuscule restaurant that serves an exquisite traditional Japanese food.

Since 2000, Le Fooding also organizes public events to promote its philosophy. La Semaine du Fooding is one of them, and this year's theme Les Incorrects, which loosely translates as "The improper ones," will explore that age-old French notion of propriety in food. What is improper exactly? A spa where couples are taught how to massage each other with foods made of butter; chefs invited to cook what they never dared to, hidden behind a mask; a prestigious champagne served with the most improbable foods, and so on.

Le Fooding is no panacea to sclerotic French gastronomy. Some of it is a bit absurd--all flash and no substance. One might argue that between food and feeling, the focus is more on the latter, that there seems to be little attention paid to important questions like the challenges of our food system, that food has to be good, but also clean and fair, to quote a voluble Italian food-lover.

But at least Le Fooding is shaking French gastronomy from its serious traditionalism. It tries and desecrates food. It offers a broader vision of it. It makes fun of it, while all the time maintaining a genuine respect for it. And I'm planning to go--and report--on a few of this year's improper events.