It is widely believed, and with reason, that, in the art of cooking, the French are supreme. France gave birth both to the techniques of the haute cuisine—its many ways to slice, peel, combine, heat, and the like—and to its repertoire: its basic sauces and traditional dishes. France produced the seminal theorist of the culture of food and taste, Brillat-Savarin, and the authoritative reference work of the culinary arts: the Larousse Gastronomique. The things themselves come from France, but so do the names for them. A consequence is that, as an air controller must understand English, however narrowly specialized the vocabulary, and an opera star must be able to sing in Italian, so a chef, ambitious to excel, ought to become fluent, if not in French, than at least in “Kitchen French.”

France’s leading position where food is concerned may be explained, at least in part, by the range and excellence of its natural produce. But the French themselves have found a more satisfying explanation of why they are the best at it. As a spokeswoman for Centre Ferrandi, a Paris culinary institute, recently remarked: “Mais c’est simple. Ici nous avons le goût.”1 But France was not always at the top. The omniscient Fernand Braudel tells us that “sophisticated cuisine, typical of all advanced civilizations, and found in China in the fifth century and in the Muslim world from the eleventh or twelfth centuries, did not appear in the West until the fifteenth century, and then in the rich city-states of Italy.” Catherine de Médicis, coming from Florence to wed the French king Henry II a century later, is said to have introduced Paris to the culinary wonders for which Italy was then known.

Other countries, too, made their contributions. From the sixteenth century on, France was open to food influences “from the four corners of Europe.” Braudel seems to concur in the common view that “great French cooking” appeared only in the eighteenth century. It may be no coincidence that in the same century the French invented the restaurant. The invention is believed to have occurred in the 1760s, though it had its roots in the past. For a long time, Paris shops had sold hot prepared foods to customers and passersby, but without supplying the premises in which to consume them—nor would the shopkeepers supply individual portions. Innkeepers supplied individual portions, but did so in the context of an entire meal in which choice and substitution were not allowed and in which everyone was seated and served at the same time. The new creation—restaurants—provided the benefits of both without the inconveniences of either. Writing in 1825, Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer from French Savoy, argued on behalf of restaurateurs that the “encouragement of this new profession, which spread from France all over Europe, is extremely advantageous to everyone and of great scientific importance.”

Thus, the restaurants that the European world initially encountered were exclusively French in cuisine and character. Hence, perhaps, the historical explanation of why it was stamped on the world’s consciousness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that high cuisine is by nature French. The rise of the Paris restaurants paralleled the rise of France’s reputation as the home of great food.

Restaurants made it possible for the first time for the many, who had no personal chef of their own, to enjoy the excellent cooking hitherto available only to the few. The quality and quantity of French restaurants seems to have taken a giant leap forward in the years beginning with 1789, as the French Revolution destroyed aristocratic households, throwing out of work the best chefs in the kingdom. They opened up restaurants to support themselves. There were fewer than fifty Paris restaurants in 1789; in 1820 there were nearly three-thousand. In theory at least, chefs now were serving the public the sort of food they formerly had served to the aristocracy.

But it could not be entirely so. That restaurant food has to be different became apparent with innovations introduced by the chef, restaurateur, and hôtelier Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935) who worked closely with César Ritz. Escoffier brought a division of labor into the restaurant kitchen—an assembly line of sorts—in which each member of the cooking staff has an assigned function, so that each dish prepared is the product of many hands—and can be produced swiftly.

According to the historian Theodore Zeldin, in volume two of his France 1848–1945, Escoffier

established principles of teamwork, so that whereas previously an order for “deux oeufs sur le plat Meyerbeer” would take a cook fifteen minutes to prepare, now the eggs were cooked by the entremettier, the kidney was grilled by the rôtisseur and the truffle sauce prepared by the saucier: the order thus could be fulfilled in a few minutes.

It was in Escoffier’s time that it became respectable even for women to frequent restaurants. But amongst a minority a prejudice against dining in public persisted. Some decades ago, I stayed for a week at a château in the Médoc, in the southwest of France. I wanted to repay my host’s hospitality, so I invited him to dine at the best restaurant in the region. He declined, gently, with a benign smile. Not wanting to hurt my feelings, he left it to a friend— later—to explain that it was a matter of privacy. He used his own bathroom, rather than the public lavatories in town along with the general populace. Similarly, he did not eat meals in a room filled with strangers engaged in the same activity. He dined only in his own home—his château—amongst friends and family, or in the château of a friend.

Zeldin tells us that “France’s international renown as the home of good food was acquired only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and what was understood by French cooking then was not the same as what it came to mean in the twentieth century.” The restaurants, with their fine and rich foods, were confined in those days mostly to Paris, Lyon (center of delicious “home” cooking), and other large cities. They catered to the well-off: the middle classes and professionals. The rest of the peasantry of rural areas ate poorly. In the nineteenth century (Zeldin tells us), cooking in the French countryside was done largely in cauldrons hanging in the fireplace, and the food consisted of vegetables and old bread boiled slowly. Soup, porridge, and bread were the staples of diet. “Peasant bread,” Zeldin claims, “as it is now esteemed, is a recent invention, not a traditional food; the old bread was seldom wholesome or pure.”

Restaurants in Paris and the gastronomic capital of Lyon continued their glorious career into modern times; what changed fundamentally in the first half of the twentieth century was the flourishing of the French countryside. It came with the automobile age, and was accompanied by the appearance in 1900 of the first compact Guide Michelin. (Purchasers of the Michelin Guide Rouge in 2000 were given replicas of the 1900 edition.) Michelin, a French tire company, provided information in its guidebook about towns all over France in an effort to encourage car trips. The development of high quality in country inns and restaurants was rewarded by ratings in the Michelin guidebook and the other guidebooks that sprang up to rival it.

The fashionable folk, Zeldin tells us, “who indulged in the new amusement of motoring and who therefore gave the provincial hotel and restaurant trade a vastly increased clientele,” created something of a myth. “Regional cooking took on a new importance. . . . The impression the gastronomes spread was that there was a vast variety of remarkable dishes to be found all over France like a neglected treasure.”

In retrospect it seems evident that conditions were right for the development of the countryside. Granted that the centralized structure of the French food distribution system assumed that the best local produce would be sent to the wholesome markets of Les Halles in Paris, there now was a strong incentive for country chefs on the spot to keep the best back for themselves so as to be able to serve their clients produce fresher than anywhere else. Rents, wages, and overhead of all sorts would be much lower than in Paris. All costs and all energies could be concentrated on creating and serving the best food in the world— made possible by the discovery that in one category after another, French produce is either the best or close to it. The availability of affordable labor enabled chefs to serve fresh hand-churned butter and home-baked bread—and to provide enough waiters to ensure proper service.

At the highest end of the economic scale, a certain structure began to impose itself in the wake of the First World War. It was oriented towards the south of France. To the British, who always had patronized the Riviera in the winter, were added the Americans, led by the Gerald Murphys and the Scott Fitzgeralds, who made it glamorous in the summer. To get there, they disembarked from ocean liners and channel steamers or set out from Paris hotels, and settled in the backs of their limousines as their chauffeurs drove them to the Mediterranean coast, with stops en route for meals and to spend the night.

Success awaited the establishments that became the standard stops along the way. On this golden highway, the young chef Fernand Point, when both he and the century were in their mid-twenties, established supremacy. His restaurant was at Vienne, a small town south of Lyon, on the Rhone river road to Provence. A Roman structure close by gave him the name of his restaurant: the “Pyramide.” There, until his death in early 1955, he presided over the leading restaurant in the world and was acknowledged to be the world’s greatest chef.

Midway on the highway from Paris to Point’s restaurant in Vienne falls Saulieu, in Burgundy. There, in 1932, Alexandre Dumaine—“Alexander the Great”—opened the Hôtel de la Côte d’Or and earned a reputation as second (if at all) only to Point.

André Pic, of Valence, on the other side of Vienne, briefly (1936–1950) formed a third to Point and Dumaine. Their establishments were recognized as the three centers of French cooking in the countryside during the several decades when French cooking in the countryside was known to be the best in the world.

This was where America came in. This was the scene when our compatriots entered upon it.

The reprinting of two books of essays by Joseph Wechsberg (1907–1983) on the arts of living serves as a reminder of how recently Americans were introduced to French culinary culture.2 Many of Wechsberg’s pieces, a number of which were written for the New Yorker, appeared in the decades immediately following the end of the Second World War. These were the years in which mass tourism was born. The dollar was strong. Europe had not yet fully recovered from the war’s devastation. American tourists could easily afford the best the Old World had to offer. All that tourists asked was to be told what the best was—and how to get it.

Wechsberg was a survivor: a man who knew his way around. He was born in Moravia in the dying years of the Habsburg empire. His homeland changed hands several times. His family owned a bank, but it collapsed. He obtained a law diploma, but did not practice. He made his living as a violinist until journalism called. In his periodical pieces, he often was a memoirist of his life’s ups and downs: the ups frequently had to do with the pleasures of the table. He was knowledgeable in these matters and fell into the role of instructor for Americans learning what Europe still had to offer. Parallel to Julia Child and the others who set out to teach us how to cook like the French, Wechsberg, and such colleagues as Ludwig Bemelmans—another refugee from the Habsburg decline who wrote for The New Yorker—taught Americans to eat like the French.

In a way, Wechsberg and Bemelmans were doing much the same thing as a generation of British novelists whose subject was Britons in the Mediterranean. Taking their lead from Norman Douglas in South Wind (1917), these were escapists who told and retold the story of inhibited Englishmen learning to indulge in sense pleasures in the sunny southlands of the Italian Mediterranean. The implicit message of Wechsberg and Bemelmans to Puritan America was that hedonism was a good thing.

Bemelmans, who also was an artist, novelist, and restaurant owner, wrote with more humor and charm. The trencherman A. J. Liebling—he, too, writing for The New Yorker—wrote what is probably the most seriously good book about French eating in the English language: Between Meals. As you read it, it will make you hungry. (Liebling was inspired to write it by the publication of Waverly Root’s The Food of France, the bible of regional French cuisine.) These are books with qualities to which Wechsberg did not aspire. They were intended for the experienced; he wrote for beginners.

The implicit message of Wechsberg and Bemelmans to Puritan America was that hedonism was a good thing.

Nor did Wechsberg engage in investigative reporting, as did George Orwell, whose experiences in restaurant and hotel kitchens resulted in Down and Out in Paris and London, an exposé that can put you off dining out for good. Wechsberg accepted the house hand-out uncritically. Thus of the Tour d’Argent, a Paris restaurant that traces its origins to 1582, Wechsberg, noting that it was crowded in early days as well as today, tells us that “A cavalier who had neglected to make his reservation would pull up his horse, walk in, challenge one of the guests to a duel, kill him with sword or lance, and take his place.” In the words of the Duke of Wellington, “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.” But, perhaps, he did not mean for us to believe it.

Wechsberg had a firm grasp on what he wanted to tell his readers. First, he wanted them to know that French cuisine was unique and supreme, and that its exemplars were Point of Vienne and Dumaine of Saulieu.

“Last year at Point’s I had the best lunch I’ve had since Escoffier left the Ritz.” An old man told that to Wechsberg, and it inspired him (he said) to find out for himself. The restaurant was physically beautiful. In those days it had an open garden; and if in early summer you chose to lunch or dine there, despite the inconvenience of falling leaves and the occasional insect, you could sense the southern softness in the air.

Point was a large presence and had an enormous thirst for champagne: it is still hard to believe that he consumed as much of it as people said. He was an outstanding showman for his restaurant, and evidently a first-rate organizer, able and willing to delegate. His students—Paul Bocuse and at least a half-dozen others—became the leading chefs of the next generation.

Dumaine in his simple country inn in Saulieu was much different. He was always in his kitchen. With a handful or less of assistants, he cooked everything himself. An announcement on the wall of the reception room encouraged the client to order in advance, and listed dozens of mouth-watering dishes that he could prepare to order— personally. One evening a small group of us lingered over a post-dinner cognac. Mme. Dumaine asked us to go to our rooms. She said that at night her husband locked up the outer doors himself—it was, after all, his house—and he could not do so until we were in bed. Dumaine was a loner. He left no disciples, even though he was admired by François Minot, the immensely talented and highly intelligent chef who bought the Côte d’Or when Dumaine retired.

Like other chefs, Dumaine was particularly known for certain dishes. But he focused on the menu as a whole, seeing it as similar to a work of music in which each element played a role. Once I overheard him proudly describing to a colleague the birthday dinner that he had created for me the night before. It was summertime, and the heat was intense. Lightness was called for. He had served me and my friends a perfect and unadorned melon; a poached trout with herbs; a steamed poularde de Bresse, the best chicken in the world; and a dry, light nut cake with a splendid champagne. It was purity itself. And Dumaine had conceived of it as a whole.

With their many differences, Dumaine and Point between them defined the heights of French cuisine in the first half of the twentieth century: it’s a point Wechsberg made repeatedly, and he was right. There is one other such point that he made, and it is illustrated in the course of the 1949 wine auctions at the medieval charity hospital, the Hospices, in the Burgundy wine center of Beaune. These annual auctions of wines in barrels—the year’s production from vineyards donated by benefactors over the course of centuries, and now owned by the Hospice—tend to set price levels for the year’s crop. Hospices de Beaune wines enjoy especial prestige. In 1949 the two great French chefs, Point and Dumaine, joined forces to bid on the Beaune first growths known as the Cuvée des Dames Hospitalières. They invited Henri Soulé, owner of the Pavillon restaurant in New York City, to join them and form a third— of course Soulé accepted. Soulé was a maître d’hôtel, not a chef; and, though French, he lived and worked in the United States. Point and Dumaine had honored him.

Wechsberg saw the symbolism of it. It meant that the United States was being recognized; that at least one restaurant in the new world was being placed on some sort of plane of equality with the two greatest restaurants in France. And indeed Soulé, one-time manager of the French pavillon at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, did play the role of a bridge between the two countries. After years of training under Soulé, his staff members spread throughout Manhattan to open restaurants of their own in the 1950s and afterwards.

Today Wechsberg’s writings on French cuisine exert a period charm. The world about which he wrote and the world for which he wrote have disappeared long since. In the 1950s, France (outside of Paris) was an essentially agricultural country, peasant and traditional in character, with strong and longstanding local cultures. In 2001 it is an industrial nation with a fast-disappearing countryside. Its managerial class is, to a significant extent, weight-conscious and abstemious. Since the 1950s, two courses have disappeared from the standard French meal. No longer is there a fish course between the first course and the main course of meat or fowl. Nor, in many restaurants and households, is there a cheese course between main course and dessert: a choice is sometimes given, cheese or dessert.

Nowadays restaurants cannot afford to let customers linger over their meals. Economic pressures beget time pressures.

It is true that with wealth and tourism, restaurants of quality continue to proliferate in France. In 2001, the Michelin guide awards twice as many three-star ratings as it did half-a-century ago. But a large proportion of them startle rather than please; blown to success by the winds of fashion, they offer exotic, rare, or hitherto unknown produce and strange new combinations. Sky-high rents and labor and social costs (which in France come with the labor costs) compel restaurants to charge exorbitant prices, which in turn force them to serve a cuisine that seems to justify such prices—for example, by employing foie gras, truffles, and other ingredients known to be expensive in as many recipes as possible.

The reverse was true in Dumaine’s Côte d’Or. He made every effort to keep prices down. He wanted his customers to be happy with the food, but also with the bill presented at the end of it. Time and again, his wife would urge me to forego a high-priced wine and order instead a simple, inexpensive Fleurie or Morgon Côte du Py which she assured me would be every bit as good with the food.

At the Pyramide in Vienne I once arrived at noon and rose from the table at 5:30 PM. At the Côte d’Or in Salieu I routinely was seated for dinner at 8:00 PM and finished my cognac not long before midnight. Nowadays restaurants cannot afford to let customers linger over their meals. Economic pressures beget time pressures.

Wechsberg’s essays evoke the pleasures of a vanished world: a simpler and less sophisticated world, so far as food and drink are concerned, in which Americans, not yet the knowing folk that we have become, enjoyed the excitement of experiencing Europe’s offerings for the first time. Today, as we are hustled out of restaurants aiming to achieve three seatings a night, Wechsberg’s writings can serve to remind us that though the twenty-first century gained us a new thrill —speed—it also lost us an old pleasure: leisure.

  1.  Quoted in Amy Trubek’s Haute Cuisine: How The French Invented the Culinary Profession (University of Pennsylvania Press, 200 pages, $24.95).
  2.  Trifles Make Perfection: The Selected Essays of Joseph Wechsberg, edited by David Morowitz; David R. Godine, 320 pages, $24.95. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure, by Joseph Wechsberg; Academy Chicago, 288 pages, $16. See also the out-of-print Dining at the Pavillon (1962).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 7, on page 72
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now