Two centuries after Antonin Carême introduced grande cuisine, France is in the throes of a foodie revolution – and it's taking place on the streets of Paris.
At the vanguard of this revolution – which is all about democratising the way the French eat – is Le Fooding, a new movement that is taking on the old-fashioned restaurants and their outdated approach to eating. In the world envisaged by Le Fooding, the Michelin Guide will be ripped up and the restaurants of France will be reclaimed by the people. Allons, enfants de la patrie.
Le Fooding was founded 10 years ago by Alexandre Cammas and Emmanuel Rubin, two food journalists who were exasperated by the conformity and conservatism of French food culture. Every year, the movement publishes, from its dusty offices on the Right Bank, a good-looking guide to the best restaurants of France. With no grades or stars, it's very different from the Michelin Guide. "Michelin inspectors look at the rugs in a restaurant," says Cammas, "and they measure the chandeliers. Two stars? Three stars? Who really cares? It should all be about the food."
It was Cammas who came up with the name. "I intended Le Fooding as a mélange of 'food' and 'feeling'," he says. And it was Cammas who came up with the idea to print the restaurant guides. They attracted a lot of press attention in the beginning for ignoring some of the great chefs of France, such as Guy Savoy, and choosing to honour others, such as Alain Ducasse, for their casual fusion places rather than for their grand restaurants. But now it's a given – Le Fooding has its own position on things. And it doesn't tend to share that position with Michelin.
Take Le Chateaubriand. It breaks the mould of top French restaurants serving haute cuisine by serving it in a bistro, complete with zinc bar, chalkboards and hard wooden chairs. Chef-patron Iñaki Aizpitarte always maintained he wanted to create a restaurant where his friends could afford to eat. So this is fine dining at its most democratic. It was voted 11th in the 50 Best Restaurants in 2010. And it's in the Le Fooding guide. But Michelin? Nothing.
Then there's Chez l'Ami Jean. If you were to base your trip to Paris on the recommendations of the Michelin Guide, you wouldn't bother to book. It looks like an unprepossessing neighbourhood bistro – underlit, and in need of a lick of paint – but, once your eyes have become accustomed to the light, you'll experience some of the most innovative rustic cooking that the city has to offer. The fact that it hasn't been awarded a star has led some critics to say Michelin has lost touch.
Le Fooding loves the honest-to-goodness food of Chez l'Ami Jean. "Happiness is a simple thing," it says in the guide, which goes on to praise the bistro's "basse" cuisine – a direct counter to the "haute" cuisine that Paris is famed for. The guide is full of small places – places such as Chez l'Ami Jean – which have emerged to offer adventurous, cutting-edge cooking without the price tag; real French gastronomy that doesn't break the bank. It's the French new wave.
For a Michelin inspector, the tables at Chez l'Ami Jean are too close together. And they are missing crisp, white tablecloths. It's why Chez l'Ami Jean was deemed worthy only of a Bib Gourmand – the award that Michelin gives to restaurants which offers "good food at moderate prices". But the menu – including a Parmesan soup with whole, fat chestnuts, thinly sliced Braeburn apple and a snip of fresh chives – is sublime. And to award it a Bib Gourmand looks like snobbery.
In the trendy Oberkampf region of Paris, Le Fooding has delighted in uncovering some exciting new eateries including Aux Deux Amis, a 1950s-style bistro serving straightforward food – the horse sashimi is an acquired taste – without pretence. In the hidden depths of Les Halles, the movement has discovered food extraordinaires such as Grégory Marchand (Le Frenchie) and Adeline Grattard (Yam'Tcha) serving up some of the city's most unexpected dishes, at a price that everyone can afford to pay.
Down a tiny street in the 10th arrondissement, Le Fooding came across a tiny deli called La Tête dans les Olives. It's a pretty place that doubles as one of Paris's smallest restaurants – it has just the one table. Here, the handsome Cédric Casanova, a former tightrope walker, sells amazing hand-picked Sicilian olive oil, olives, and other unusual seasonal products. All the products on his shelves have a story. And Cédric is the perfect storyteller.
He manages 20,000 olive trees in Sicily. Now he's selling oil to the best chefs in Paris, including Ducasse. Cédric delights in making simple but exquisite food. In the corner of the room, he turns out roasted pumpkin with mint, a tapenade, and a roulade of carrot, coriander and mint, while he regales his guests with tales of his hunt for the wild olive called the piricuddara. He's interested in sourcing new olive oils from across the world – especially Chile and Nigeria. "But I've only got two arms," he says.
Le Fooding has listed kebab shops in the guide, hot-dog stalls, and a new breed of Parisian brasseries that offer something more imaginative than croissants and croques monsieurs. It is selling "trickle-down" gastronomy. The capital's brasseries, cafés and bistros are imitating the top restaurants, but cutting down on the ingredients and simplifying the preparation. Food is becoming more affordable again – and France is reclaiming its heritage.
The country has a noble cooking tradition. It started with Les Délices de la Campagne, a cookery book written in 1654 by Nicolas de Bonnefons, a valet at the court of Louis XIV. Before the book, cooking in France was medieval, and all about grand gestures. But Bonnefons emphasised simplicity, with clean, complementary flavours. "Let a cabbage soup be entirely cabbage," he wrote. His countrymen duly put down their nutmeg and stepped away from the larks' tongues.
France's culinary reputation grew and grew. From Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin to superstar chefs such as Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon, France was always known for its way with food. But along the way something went wrong. The chefs of France stopped innovating. Their approach to food became more and more prescriptive – with techniques set in aspic – and they didn't bother to keep in touch with the changing tastes of a younger generation.
It's no accident that Tokyo and London are on the rise, or that New York is now the city where you eat better than anywhere else in the world. Food there is evolving. "French cuisine was caught in a museum culture," says Cammas. "The dictatorship of a fossilised gastronomy. And this dictatorship has been enforced by tourism: you have tourists packing in to experience gastronomy in a kind of perpetual museum of edification."
The end result is that France is no longer the home of the best food in the world. And the Michelin Guide has been part of the problem. Food in France was all about winning – and holding on to – Michelin stars. In 2003, the French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide amid rumours that he was losing his three-star rating. Some of the top French chefs pinned the blame on Michelin. Then a Michelin inspector published a tell-all book alleging that inspectors play favourites with chefs and don't visit reviewed restaurants as much as they let on.
To make matters worse, Michelin then got caught trying to pull a fast one in Belgium. It very favourably "reviewed" L'Ostend Queen restaurant for the Benelux guide, which came out on 26 January. Trouble was, the restaurant hadn't yet opened for business. The Brussels daily newspaper, Le Soir, promptly caught Michelin with its bib down, and it had to pulp 50,000 copies. The Michelin Guide to New York wasn't well received. Le Fooding, meanwhile is looking to expand. As they say, revolutions never go backwards.
How to get there
Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance .co.uk) offers return fares from London and the regions to Paris from £119, and has an online guide to the city at airfrance.co.uk/paris.
Le Fooding (lefooding.com).