French cooking: Outdated and overrated?

By Luke Nicholls

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: French cuisine, France

Restaurant magazine hosted the panel debate at The Restaurant Show on Tuesday (8 October)
Restaurant magazine hosted the panel debate at The Restaurant Show on Tuesday (8 October)
A panel debate at The Restaurant Show earlier this week got all the big chefs talking. France may have influenced and defined the terms of virtually all western cooking, but does it continue to impress?

Or has the rise of other international cuisines made it obsolete; a bygone phenomenon of what was once fashionable food? Six of the best chefs in the UK certainly don’t think so. In fact, everyone involved in Tuesday’s discussion, hosted by Restaurant magazine, concluded that French cuisine and cooking techniques continue to be a cornerstone of the majority of progressive kitchens here in Britain.

Two French chefs – Eric Chavot, executive chef of Brasserie Chavot in Mayfair, and Bruno Loubet, the chef/owner of Bistrot Bruno Loubet and Grain Store - were quick to express that point of view, claiming that their nation’s food will always have its place in kitchens around the world.

Also involved in the debate at The Restaurant Show were Ben Tish, chef director of Salt Yard Group; Philip Howard the chef-proprietor of The Square; Alyn Williams, head chef of his eponymous restaurant at The Westbury; and Henry Harris, the chef-patron of Racine.

Here’s what they all had to say…

brunoloubet

Bruno Loubet - chef/owner, Bistrot Bruno Loubet & Grain Store

I wouldn’t say French cooking is outdated. Different ways of cooking have risen from around the world but that doesn’t make it outdated. A lot of the basic cooking techniques come from France - most big-name chefs have trained in French cooking one way or another.

When you have nice things in your backyard, you don’t really look anywhere else. We might not open ourselves up to what’s happening elsewhere, but do we need to?

But one thing to mention is the recent changes in the laws in France, with the introduction of a 35-hour week. This has made it very difficult for the French to operate restaurants - they have to cut corners and adapt themselves and become more commercial. Sometimes you can end up in a restaurant in a little place in France and you are very disappointed – but I think that’s a result of the weak economy and the resultant changes to the law. 

Eric-Chavot

Eric Chavot - executive chef, Brasserie Chavot

Bruno and I both came here to London when we were 18. I actually spent more time in London than I did in France. I’m doing exactly what I want to do now in Mayfair, it’s taken me 30 years to get here.

But it’s not just France that has influenced me. French cooking is there and I think it’s there to stay. It’s no better than British cooking or other international cooking, but it will always have its place.

Of course, you can’t just keep your head down thinking you’re the best at what you do. But as long as you put your heart into it, it doesn't matter what techniques you use. You stick to what you know and you just move forward with it.

Phil-and-Rebecca

Philip Howard - chef-proprietor, The Square

There’s absolutely no two ways about it: French technique is still an integral part of the vast majority of progressive kitchens, at any level. But it’s popularity has been diluted now, perhaps because of the upsurge of interest in global cooking.

There is a very particular way that French food delivers pleasure. It has a style and sustenance that is very special. For that reason alone, it will never die. Other fads might come and go but I’m a believer that consumers go back to restaurants that give them great pleasure. French cooking does exactly that.

The modern chef has, unfortunately, decided to see the French classical repertoire as old-school; redundant, not cool anymore. But those classic French combinations of flavours were the result of generations of people cooking. They would have tried cooking duck with everything under the sun, but the reality is that the distillation process of all those generations of cooking brings out just a few ‘perfect’ combinations. They’re there for a reason; they are the ultimate, harmonious flavour marriages.

However - I don’t think I would be the first to say that there’s a bit of arrogance rooted in the French over their cooking. There can be an element laziness about what’s going on, or a lack of progression.

Henry

Henry Harris - chef-patron, Racine

Over the past 10 years, you can count all of the different fads that have come through, and they all slowly disappear. There will be a newspaper article every few years claiming that French food is outdated followed by another article some months later stating that there’s a resurgence – French cooking is always coming back into fashion, but never going out of fashion.

As Phil says, French dishes have been developed over centuries. You’ve only got to look at cookbooks 50 or 100 years ago and the cookbooks are the same, we’ve just adapted things slightly to suit our palates now. But we’re certainly not 'reinventing' it. 

I do agree that, here in England, we’re probably more able to eat consistently well than we are in France. But if you said that over there, they’d take you out to the guillotine. France’s greatest enemy was the way the economy took a nosedive and the various constraints they have since put on employers.

They are of course conservative about the way they do things, but that conservatism has to be there to protect the heritage that the French are so famous for having with their cooking.  

Ben-Tish

Ben Tish - chef director, Salt Yard Group

There’s a bit of a stigma attached to French restaurants being a bit stuffy and not very relaxed. But places like Bruno’s and Eric’s are really changing those perceptions.

My training and grounding has come from cutting my teeth in French cooking, working with the likes of Jason Atherton and Stephen Terry. All of the techniques and skills I have learnt are from a French background. I don't think this will change over time. 

Alyn-Williams-chef

Alyn Williams - head chef, Alyn Williams at The Westbury

When I was young, the obvious route to take as a chef was always France. Now, if I ask a commis where they want to go or what they want to do, the answer’s almost never France. But I don’t think that’s a reflection on French food.

I think this conversation ultimately falls a bit flat. Go to France and see how it’s evolving now - the directions that they’re going in now is actually evolving quicker and better than anywhere else, it’s just unfortunate that it’s stereotyped.

I think it’s a bit unfair to ask the question about it being outdated. Historically, French cooking goes back for centuries and we haven’t really got a national cuisine here in Great Britain. We have dishes, we don’t have what the French have.

We’re very quick to shut the door and criticise something that we think isn't as cool as somewhere else. You can’t dismiss French cuisine or the influence that France has had on world cuisine because without France there wouldn't be a world cuisine.

For full highlights of the other discussions and events that took place at The Restaurant Show, click here. 

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1 comment

French cooking over rated and out of date

Posted by Chris Hayes,

No it isnt that's the end of that debate

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