Spice boys v soil boys

First it was their haute couture, now it's their cuisine. Will foreign upstarts alter the flavour of French cooking? Adam Sage on the great Parisian food row
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"IT'S AN eel," said Thierry Begue, as he played with a morsel of food at his Parisian restaurant, the Buddha Bar. "And this," he added with authority, "is marinated melon." Alas, no. A young waiter fidgeting nervously by the table finally gathered enough courage to reveal his boss's mistake. The "eel" was, in fact, cod in soy sauce, and the "melon", grated carrot. Begue pouted and eyed the fish and vegetables as though they were guilty of deceit. It was several minutes before his face relaxed to resume the serene look of man familiar with success and profits.

But many Parisians are not so forgiving about the Buddha Bar. Since it opened last September, the restaurant has become the focus of a row that has shaken French culinary circles. On one side are the traditionalist chefs. Known as the soil boys, they want their country's cooking to return to its peasant roots and concentrate on historic dishes such as pot-au-feu and cassoulet. On the other side are the modernisers, sometimes called the spice boys. They want French cuisine to break free from its conservative heritage, embrace global trends and borrow from India, Japan, the US and elsewhere.

Raymond Visan supports the latter. Like many critics, he believes traditional French restaurants have become tired, stereotyped and introverted, an attitude that he says can be found across much of French society. So, when he decided to switch from his original trade in the import-export business to found George V Restauration, the company which owns the Buddha Bar, he ignored his compatriots and looked across the Atlantic.

The restaurant has a Japanese-born chef, Kazuto Matsusaka, who worked in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, and the menu would not seem out of place in New York, featuring such dishes as crab salad with raw spinach and steak in curry and coriander sauce. The philosophy is all-American, too. "People do not just want to go out to eat," says Visan. "They want an evening's entertainment in a place with an atmosphere and a smile. And they don't want France to remain shut off from the rest of the world. For the younger generations, places like Maxim's don't mean anything any more."

Although, at 47, Visan is not so young, he is an example of what he believes to be the new Frenchman. He looks like George Best, has friends in Singapore, Hong Kong and California and does not drink wine. "Never," he says with emphasis. Did he decorate his bar with a giant Buddha statue and give it a Buddhist theme because he hoped to encourage meditation among his jet-setting customers? "No. It just looked good," he replies.

An anathema to the traditionalists, Visan even makes the modernisers feel uncomfortable. After all, they are interested in winning intellectual debate and he is interested in making money. They want to merge global tastes into French history, but the chef says he cooks "just the way I did in Los Angeles. I do my thing. No difference at all."

Yet, Visan's restaurant may prove decisive in the debate between the spice and soil boys. While critics and customers talk of a sharp decline in the quality of standard French cuisine, the Buddha Bar is a hit. Described by news magazine L'Express as one of the trendiest places in Paris, it draws up to 900 people a day, many of them from the fashion and film worlds.

Visan says its turnover will reach FF50 million in its first year of operation - the sort of figure that would seem unreal to most Parisian restaurants. He takes this as proof that French traditionalists are fighting a losing battle. "Paris is going to become globalised," he says. "And when it does, it will become the world's leading city again."

After overcoming his anger at mistaking cod for eel, Begue, the director-general, approved all the dishes on the restaurant's new summer menu, created by Matsusaka. All, that is, except for one - a slice of foie gras, which appeared before him to his apparent astonishment. He gazed at the chef. "The menu's great. But this," he said, looking back at what was once the liver of a force-fed goose, "this just won't do. It's far too French."

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