"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Food for Thought

Bistros and cafés in Monmartre

In the past couple of weeks my friends, both foodies and non-foodies, both full-time Parisian residents, and part-time Parisian residents but all ex-pats have been discussing food, and the evolution of food in Paris. Some of these debates have been sparked by the many magazine articles and blogs about food in general. All-in-all very informative exchanges of thoughts and ideas that I I’d like to share:

Before I get started, I want to take you back to when we first moved to Paris in 2008. I’ve always thought of myself as being very lucky to have a very acute sense of taste, and in addition having been to culinary school and that I have literally eaten myself around the world, I consider myself a pretty big experienced “foodie”.  With that said, when we first moved to Paris, I was anxious to find and explore the cute little bistros or brasseries and hopefully experience wonderful simple French food. I wasn’t expecting the service to be like the US service, but I was expecting, at minimum very good food, because friends have told me that when they visited Paris they never had a bad meal!

In the first month we were here, we tried several bistros and brasseries, and each one was one disappointment after another. I couldn’t understand why. Granted we never went to any of the Michelin star residents, because they are beyond our means for our retired budgets, but we spent a considerable amount of money for meals none-the-less. Still no such luck.  Then a revelation struck me:

1.    Bistros and Brassieres are pretty much left to the tourist.  Paris is the most visited city in the world, I think it’s around 8 million a year.  Because tourist frequent these establishments, and the wait-staff know how to “work it,” since Americans like to tip, the overall experience was delightful, but trumped the so-so food, they report back telling their friends of their wonderful experience. Plus the Bistros and Brasseries will probably never see these customers again, their friends will come in their place.  I actually had a fight in one such place. The wait staff couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful, but when the bill came, they figured we’re dumb tourist and charged for each separate dish rather than for a pre-fix menu. We later compromised, by splitting the difference but in France especially Paris, the customer is always wrong, and the proprietor is always right. David Lebovitz recently did a blog called "Bistro Bummer" a lot of what he and other “foodies” says rings true for me.

2.    Kitchens are quite small in the Bistros and Brasseries, so much of the food is basically heated food, and oftentimes comes from “metro” a sort of Costco for Chefs and people who have business licenses. I know of kitchens where they don’t even have refrigerators. They only have a stove top, and what they do is order what they believe would be enough e.g., steaks for the evening. All they serve are steaks and fries and a salad, and desserts from a patisserie. In a way, this is good since it specializes in a specific dish.

3.    I’ve been eating at tourist areas. OK, granted our first year we lived in Montmartre and yes, it’s very touristy, but I avoided the tourist traps by ignoring all the restaurants at the Place de Tertre. But we also ventured out around the Les Halles and the Latin quarters. I even got food poisoned at a bistro in the 9eme eating boeuf tartare, to this day I will not eat steak tartare. In a recent interview done by The Paris Kitchen with Patricia wells www.thepariskitchen.com Patricia states, "I have given up on brasseries where the food is always disappointing..." and I’m not far behind.

4.    And, finally I had a revelation, I like ethnic food, I grew up with ethnic food, Paris has a large ethnic population, so why not explore/discover the ethnic cuisines of Paris.

In 2009, we literally started exploring the more ethnic side of Paris. We discovered a world of great, fresh and sometimes spicy food.  Granted some were better than others, but at the affordable prices it gave us an opportunity to explore.  We ate at “couscous” places, one in particular we liked was in the 18eme; owned and run by a family, the best kind. We ate at a Senegalese restaurant where the waiter’s wife was the cook, and he was the cashier, waiter and everything else. I was talking to him in my bad French, and I think at one point I may have proposed to him by accident, but he was a good sport and just laughed it off. And, with a good friend, we started an ethnic dinner club. Basically, an informal club of mostly French people, yes, French, getting together once-a-month to explore a new ethnic restaurant.

Our very first Ethnic restaurant outing, a Maurtian restaurant in the 15eme. The owner forced all of us to get up and start dancing. Lots of fun. Food was akin to Indian food.

Our second outing, an Ethiopian restaurant in the 11eme. It was delicious, but could've been more spicy. FYI..., most spicy foods in Paris are toned down.

Mid-2009 we moved to the 15eme arrondissement. The 15eme is still in Paris, but is a more residential area, and tourist rarely venture out here, unless they get lost looking for the Eiffel tower.  Then we discovered through our good foodie friend who's opinion I truly value, that good French food can be had, and as luck would have it, most were in the 15eme.  We were introduced to such places as Jadis, Le Grand Pan, Les Petits Plats, which by the way is our current favorite. And, we discovered on our own other lesser known restaurants reserved for the locals. Since these restaurants are a bit farther than the areas tourist would stay, the majority who frequent these places are “locals."  I guess we can be considered locals. So, the restaurants depend on repeat customers. 

Les Petits Plats, our new favorite restaurant

Now this is where it gets interesting for me. The food community with the exception of few  writers, bloggers etc., is a very small tight knit community in Paris. Most, if not all, are American bloggers, or French bloggers who blog in English. I find it extraordinary that when a new restaurant is opening, that they all herd like cattle to be the first one to write about them. Each "feeding" on each other’s frenzy and excitement, like a pack of lions waiting to chow down on newly killed wildebeest.  And, all seemingly sensitive about each other’s opinion. As if a different opinion would harm their credibility.  It’s a pack mentality, who wants to be an outcast? There’s only a very few, like John Talbot wherein I value his honest critique http://johntalbottsparis.typepad.com/  for one, if he doesn’t like the food at a restaurant he’ll say so, whereas so many other writers, it’s all about the hype and being in the foodie “elite” crowd.

As a result of all the hype, these restaurants sometimes have a 6-month minimum waiting list. In fact, restaurants like Frenchy’s won’t even pick up their phone.  You have to physically go there, and write your name in their little reservation book. If that is not arrogant, I don’t know what is. With all the wait and PR blitzes, it makes you wonder if the food is really worth it or is it a great PR strategy?  Like with spouses or friends, you're not always going to agree on everything, that's human nature. And, I also understand that restaurants will not always be on their "game." I recently went to La Regalade (see my review) and had to ask the question, “did we eat at the right/same restaurant?”  Yet, all the reviews, thus far, were all glowing! So, it made me doubt my own taste-buds, but I later realized, I am tasting food at a particular point in time, and they were definitely not on their "game" that night.  But I can see how it feels not to be in the majority, sort of like Kathy Griffin on the “D” list. My pet peeve is also when I write a review and someone will say to me, “I approve your assessment”, excuse me, I’m not asking for your approval or blessing!

In San Francisco, my hometown, most would not put up with these long waits and unanswered phones, you just go to a different restaurant. At minimum, and it’s not a French or American thing, you expect some decent courtesy like having an answering machine, which would not cost much. Some of my foodie friends say, that it’s getting harder and harder to find a good affordable restaurant in Paris, that’s why they’re willing to wait like puppies for a hand out.  Do I blame the tourist, no, I blame the owners of the bistros and brasseries for being complacent and no longer caring about the quality of their food, since they can make a quick euro.

Food for thought, 
“What is hard to attain, becomes most desired” ~ rd

The other issue I have it’s well known that most French are resistant to change. Certain things are done a certain way, any deviation is viewed as just plain wrong. So, there are still a lot of French that expect a dish to be prepared as it was prepared in time and eternity.  Much of culture, whether it be food, language, or societal mores evolve. Food for thought, the country with the most Michelin stars is Japan. Hmm, now I know they didn’t get this by cooking traditional Japanese cuisine.  I say to the Chefs here, explore, evolve if you are going to keep up with the “food” globalization.

France certainly is changing though. The youth are starting to explore and be more experimental with food.  So, who knows, maybe in time the small bistros and brasseries will once again care about what they make and evolve with the rest of us.  Because if not, I’m afraid they won’t exist.  And, I say to the food writers or critics, go into a restaurant with an open objective mind, do not follow the crowd, everyone’s opinion counts. I hate it when I get sneered or jeered that I didn’t think a restaurant was as good as a so called “expert’s” assessment.

I once read an article, “Is French food dying?” I personally don’t believe it will, but it needs to change if it is to regain its stronghold in the culinary world. As a foodie, I will continue to explore with an open mind all that Paris has to offer. As in life, I know there will be good and bad and can’t wait to explore more…

Anyway, these are my food for thought.

1 comment :

  1. Paris is great place and it is hot topic in food category.Monmarte in paris is famous for cafe.There are also several restaurant in this belt which is center of attraction for food lovers.Vietnemese menu in weekdays fetch lots of customer who are either fan of vietnem food or are experimental.

    Eating cheap in paris