My best and worst restaurant meals of last year were both eaten in France – within 10km of each other in the Seine-Maritime département of Normandy where I share a holiday home. The menu of the worst meal was like being frog-marched back to the 1970s, to a time when croquette potatoes, tinned Russian salad and garish crab sticks could be served without irony.
The bill for two – some €80 – defied what had just been served, but what was even more astounding was the fact that the restaurant was packed with apparently contented fellow diners. Michel Roux's description of a Lyons Corner House in 1960s London came to mind, of people hungrily eating British peas "fluorescent, the size of a quail's egg ... like a witness to a terrible atrocity, I told myself. I had to put this out of mind as quickly as possible".
Fortunately, I was able to do just that a few nights later, at Le Bistrot du Pollet in the fishermen's quarter of Dieppe, which was snugly packed on a biting-cold Tuesday night in November, while nearby owners paced the floors of their empty establishments. From a chalked menu (still a relative novelty in France), I chose a seasonal chestnut soup with scallops, followed by brill, fresh from the quayside, in a vibrant green chervil sauce. With a carafe of decent house white, the cost per person was less than the recent crab stick and Russian salad atrocity.
I probably dine out more across the Channel than I do in England, and for me this meal was the first chink of light in years of gathering gloom – of watching favourite restaurants go stale and then bust, of reading often gloating English-language newspaper reports about how the proud traditions of 'la grande cuisine' of Escoffier had stopped evolving, and had grown fetid with inertia and mindless repetition. Or how, in the memorable words of the Herald Tribune's Mary Blume, writing about the bid (concocted by such luminaries as Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse) to have Unesco formally add French food to its 'world heritage' list, the cuisine had entered "a gelid commemorative phase".
The national gastronomic decline was anatomised by American journalist Michael Steinberger in his 2009 book, Au Revoir to All That, which documented the baleful influence of the Michelin star system, the explosion in fast food consumption (by 2007, France was the second most profitable market in the world for McDonald's), the crippling labour costs of the 35-hour week, and the way that the baton of culinary innovation had been picked up by Spain, Australia, America and England.
Steinberger writes of the grim irony that, in the same year that Ducasse and Bocuse were launching their Unesco bid, Ferran Adria (then at El Bulli), Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) and Thomas Keller (The French Laundry in California's Napa Valley) were issuing a joint manifesto, 'Statement of the New Cookery', proclaiming that "we can choose from the entire planet's ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions... to explore what it is possible to do with food". I don't suppose they had salade russe in mind. Meanwhile, Gallic fine dining faces a further indignity –this year's San Pellegrino 'Best Restaurants in the World' list included not a single French establishment in its top 10.
Fortunately, the French themselves have decided to shake their native cuisine out of its lethargy and insularity. A coming generation of talented chefs of the kind who might once have aspired to Michelin glory are now throwing back their stars – or refusing to compete for them in the first place. These are the chefs of 'Générations C', founded by Gilles Choukroun (see right), dedicated to ridding the restaurant experience of over-formality by introducing the shocking idea that food could be (feel free to shout) FUN. Intimate and informal, their eateries were more bistros than restaurants, and in fact gave birth to yet another new movement – 'bistronomie' – (very loosely) a sort of Gallic equivalent of the rise of the gastropub that has done so much to improve eating out in Britain.
The cheerleaders for 'Générations C' are the young food critics like Luc Dubanchet (see overleaf), with his 'Omnivore' movement that celebrates global influences, or the former Libération journalist Alexandre Cammas, co-founder of 'Le Fooding' (a linguistic car crash between 'food' and 'feeling', that is probably easier on French ears), a guide that similarly seeks to free French cuisine from the museum.
This isn't just a Paris thing, either. The Bistro du Pollet in Dieppe happens to be one of only four establishments in the whole of Seine-Maritime to be recommended on the current 'Le Fooding' website. After my meal, I conveyed my compliments to the chef-patron, Xavier Héricher, and spoke about my previous favourite restaurant in Dieppe, the formerly Michelin-starred La Mélie, which had closed down three years earlier. The talented François Hue was in the kitchen there, while his Japanese wife was front-of-house, but most of the time we would be the only diners, the delicious food consumed in a sad silence. "Ah, the wife has returned to Japan, but Monsieur Hue has now opened a bistro," replied Héricher, and pointed me in the direction of the nearby Bistrot des Barrières.
A phoenix from the Michelin ashes, at last Hue has found a wider audience for his delectable cooking. He serves many of the same dishes as at La Mélie, certainly the same sauces, but at a lower price. His €15 set lunch was a steal, and the locals obviously agree because the bistro was full. He has a new wife, a baby son, and he tops the TripAdvisor charts for Dieppe. "Je suis content," he tells me, although that was plain to see from the expression on his face. His smile was almost as big as mine as I contemplated the dawning realisation that reports of the death of French cooking may have been greatly exaggerated.
THE CHEF: GILLES CHOUKROUN
The initials MBC – standing for "menthe, basilica et coriander" (mint, basil and coriander) and the name of the Paris restaurant opened by chef Gilles Choukroun – may not sound radical until you understand the resistance of older French chefs to the use of coriander. "I can't stand the stuff," both Michel and Albert Roux told me recently. But Choukroun has been working with these herbs for a long time and he wanted to dedicate his latest restaurant to their use.
Coriander will be the last thing you notice at MBC, however; the artful graffiti on the restaurant walls being rather more prominent. "I see graffiti every day," he explains. "I have made it part of my establishment because I wanted to include things that I like – I want to express my personality in my restaurant."
Choukroun has been pursuing his desire for freedom of expression since opening Le Café des Delices in 2000, shocking clients by piping music into the dining room. Now everyone does it. His next opening, Angl'Opéra, featured blue water glasses, orange and pink shades and zebra-striped banquettes, and offered such culinary creations as crème brûlée of foie gras with peanuts – his equivalent of Heston Blumenthal's 'snail porridge', although it wasn't Blumenthal that Choukroun had in his sights. He wanted to prove a point that French cuisine could be as playful as the fêted cookery of Spain's 'nueva cocina'.
"I've always thought that, in Spain, there are extremely talented and intelligent chefs," he says, "but now there are hundreds of talented chefs in France, as well." Indeed, Choukroun believes that the Spanish are simply better at communication than their Gallic peers, which is why he set about publicising French cooks by founding 'Générations C', a group of the like-minded dedicated to putting the fun back into Gallic cuisine. "The idea was to create links between other chefs of more or less the same calibre," he says, "to share our experiences, our cooking techniques, our way of running our places." To which end he opposes the Michelin star system. "There's no humour, there's nothing that reflects what's going on culturally." And what is going on? "There is a revolution going on. The chefs and the clients want a cuisine that is fun."
THE HOME COOK: CATHERINE LIM
Every Saturday morning, retired doctor Cathérine Lim visits her local food market in Sèvres, 10km from the centre of Paris. "I shop once a week, when I buy all my fresh vegetables and my cheese, eggs and butter, my meat and my fish," she says. "I have favourite stalls."
And Dr Lim is not alone. Whereas in Britain, where food and farmers' markets tend to congregate in wealthier districts and where a minority of shoppers make exceptional purchases, the French will fill their baskets with everyday produce at the ubiquitous weekly or twice-weekly street markets. "I go to the supermarket only for coffee, sugar, oil... that's all."
In fact, the tired state of vegetables and fruit in many French supermarkets can surprise British visitors (the in-store butchers, by contrast, are usually excellent), but then many French people wouldn't dream of buying their fruit and veg at a local Shopi, Netto, Champion or a Super U. And while the younger generation are increasingly drawn to convenience, Dr Lim has noticed them trickling back to her local market in Sèvres. "We have more and more young people coming to the markets," she says.
Studying medicine in the late 1950s, Lim had no interest in cookery, but her first marriage meant she had to take a crash course in 'terroir', the over-used French word for sourcing local produce and recipes. "My mother came from the north of France, and she cooked the regional cooking – carbonnade flamande, tarte à la cassonade, stuff like that. But my first in-laws came from south-west France where the culinary traditions were also very strong and I had to learn the important traditional dishes." Lim taught herself using the recipe cards published in Elle magazine, whose slogan at the time – "if she reads, she reads Elle" – was pure Mad Men.
When I tell her that many of the best meals I have eaten in France have been in private homes – often quite humble homes – and not in restaurants, she is not surprised. "Sometimes it's nice to go to restaurants because you are fed up with cooking, but I should not say the food is better. When cooking at home we use very good ingredients... chosen ingredients. And we have the knack."
THE CAMPAIGNER: LUC DUBANCHET
"Unconventional and open-minded... really focused on the food rather than curtains and silver forks or knives or waiters." Luc Dubanchet is trying to summarise 'Omnivore', the movement that for the past 10 years has been campaigning – with a restaurant guide and an annual festival – to drag his native cuisine out of its rut of complacency. Dubanchet, a 39-year-old former editor of the Gault Millau food guide (founded in 1965, the main competitor to the Michelin guides) wants to inspire a new generation of free-thinking chefs.
"Food is alive, but we try to make museums rather than gardens," he says, before going on to name just some of the twentysomething chefs busy reinvigorating the Parisian dining scene. "Bertrand Grébaut at Septime – a modern bistro in the 11th arrondissement – he's young, he's travelled a bit; Sven Chartier at Saturne in the 2nd arrondissement, Gregory Marchand at Frenchie... I could give you 10 more."
Marchand, aged 27, named his tiny Paris bistro Frenchie after the nickname he was given by Jamie Oliver, while working under the latter in London, a fact that points to wider receptiveness of the coming generation of French restaurateurs. "I wasn't optimistic when I founded Omnivore but we now have a new generation of really inspired and open-minded chefs," says Dubanchet. "Thanks to Spain, thanks to London, thanks to the Nordic countries, little by little we French learnt that we weren't the only ones on this wonderful earth who are able to cook."
Slower to react to the younger chefs were the Michelin inspectors. "They don't have a Michelin star between them, but this new generation just don't care about those," says Dubanchet. "They still cook in a good way – they don't do stupid things just because they are free. But, anyway, I hate Michelin. I hate absolutism. They behave as if they were God, so it's very hard for them to change their way of thinking."
Omnivore's annual festival this year has hit the road – the 'Omnivore World Tour' – taking in Geneva, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Moscow, Shanghai, New York, Montreal, Rio, Istanbul, San Francisco and Sydney, with master-classes called 'Fucking Dinners' to puncture any pomposity. "It's important not just to stay in your own country," says Dubanchet. "It's too easy to be jailed in your own kitchen."
THE EX-PAT: RAYMOND BLANC
It now looks almost certain that France is going to wait another five years before Raymond Blanc considers opening a restaurant in his homeland. While Nicolas Sarkozy claims to have been undermining the 35-hour-week, he didn't repeal it – and the controversial labour law seems destined to remain under Socialist successor François Hollande, the new French president.
"The 35-hour week is the killer," says the BBC TV star and the chef-patron of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, which has earnt two Michelin stars since he opened it in 1984. "It is the main reason that French cooking is at the moment losing its innovation... its creativity. Everything we do is handmade... to make bread alone takes six hours. How can you run a place with 35 hours a week?"
For Blanc, the solution to France's culinary woes is not philosophical or creative, but purely political and economic. Get rid of the restrictive labour laws and there will be a gigantic reversal of the diaspora that means that there are now 300,000 of his fellow countrymen living in London alone. In fact, he envisages a great homecoming, speaking in almost Messianic tones of the day when entrepreneurial French men and women return to the sunny uplands of 'la patrie'.
"You wait," he says. "What is going to happen when they relax the rules is that Frenchmen who moved over here because there's more freedom, there's more ability to create... Frenchmen in New Zealand and Australia working with the winemakers... these guys will come back. I really believe that. It's still an amazing country to live in. It's mind-blowing what we have – it's a paradise."
Another great expatriate French chef, Albert Roux, who also believes restrictive labour laws are killing French cuisine, recently told me: "It's going to get further messy if they elect the socialists. Having a restaurant in France? No way". But unlike the staunchly Anglophile Roux, Blanc also blames "the ills" of globalisation and fast food, and believes that the conditions – the climate, the produce, the small producers, the regions in all their glorious diversity – are simply waiting there for his countrymen's return.
"The foundations are still all there," he says. "All that we need is a little bit of spirit of enterprise."