Fast Food & the French. Part two.
I was first proud, and then terrified, to be invited recently on Monocle 24 Globalist show for an interview with Tyler Brulé himself. The subject, a recent survey showing that fast food in France had overtaken meals eaten in traditional sit-down restaurants.
I prepared myself to the hilt but, as usual, nerves got the better of me (I find phoners particularly difficult) and I contradicted myself and “you knowed” my way through most of the interview.*
Anyway, part of what I MEANT to say, was that the French are still confident enough in their cuisine to embrace all cuisines. Within the Unesco protection listing they were so ridiculed for, is a clause stipulating that, although the ritual of the meal is strict (number of courses, serving cheese, apéritif and digestif) the food itself stays open to all influences, and not just French dishes. This, to me, is why the love of food thrives in France, it is the understanding of the importance of ritual, and that cultural identity is in the ritual as much as in the plate, and this at all levels of society. They want it all, and they take it all.
And if French workers are eating more on the hoof at lunchtimes these days, it sure doesn’t mean they’re lugging litre cups of Coke and 250G bags of chips down the street and stuffing themselves with stinky tacos in their outsize seats at the cinema when they leave the office.
The French still work less than other countries, yet they remain one of the world’s most productive nations and, apparently, now even look set to stave off recession.
This is infuriating to many other countries. And baffling. Combine it with the continuing irritation so many UK visitors feel when they do not enjoy the Downton Abbey deference they feel they should from French waiters they treat as servants, and taking a “ha, French cuisine is DEAD.” potshot is very tempting. Then, when a survey like this one comes out, it’s blessed water to their insecure mills.
If you look more closely at the survey, you get an idea of what the French consider Fast Food. This is far from being all burgers, chips and kebabs. In times of recession, most takeaway lunches are now hot, fresh pasta dishes. (198 pasta dishes to 23 hamburgers, to 8 kebabs, to be precise.)
Much of the increase is in bread-based lunches. Sandwiches are on the up. This figures in a country where the same agency provides an annual survey on the price of a jambon beurre as a sort of national moral barometer. In Paris, anyway, this is very obvious as boulangeries add a few small tables or a counter here and there and start offering formules, panini, bagels alongside the usual baguette sandwiches and quiches. Also in Paris gourmet sandwich bars are arriving. Labour costs, shortened lunchtimes, the arrival of international chefs have seen great places like CheZaline, L’Epicerie du Verre Volé, Verjus Sandwicherie, and Abri opening within the last year.
Favourite Parisian épicerie Da Rosa got a makeover by Jacques Garcia, still going strong with his luscious reds.
At lunchtime in St Germain en Laye, my children can take out fantastic gourmet burgers and hand made chips for fractionally more than a MacDo menu at TV chef Abdel Alaoui’s burger joint, Burger and Co.
If I were a young, creative chef in 2013, I’d be headed, not to Brooklyn, where property is now more expensive than in Manhattan, but to Paris’ 10th arrondissement to feed more people French fast food at lunchtime and something more exciting in the evenings. Although some of the new joints like Abri are too lacking in Keith McNally type banquettery to keep my ancient derrière as comfy as I like it to be, you know?
*I am in total awe of people who can speak in public without going to pieces. People who can speak and communicate information, their point of view, stimulate reflection and inspire whilst being amusing in public are pretty much demi-Gods in my eyes. Forget food porn, mine is Ted porn.