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Paris Dining & Food Scene: How has it changed?

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First, let me say that it was a pleasure to meet you yesterday in Chicago. I think people who truly love to bake are just naturally generous not just with all of the fruits of their labor but of themselves. You are no exception.

Americas food scene has changed drastically over the past 30 years. Since you have been an occasional resident of Paris for so long, I'm wondering how food/dining may have changed there over the same time frame.

Jean Blanchard

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Jean, I was completely surprised and so delighted to see you yesterday in Chicago. It was terrific to meet you and your friends and it meant a lot to me that you were there. Thank you.

Your question about how the dining scene has changed in Paris over the past 30 years is a huge one and one that I may not be so qualified to answer, since for many of those early years that we were going to Paris, we could only afford to set our dining sights on simple neighborhood bistros, which, actually, remain my favorite kinds of dining places.

If I look back to the foods of restaurants in Paris in the 70s and compare them to the foods of today, I'd say that the changes are very much like those we've seen in America: the food is lighter, less bound to tradition and more globally influenced. In addition, the restaurants are more casual and the style of eating is less formal.

While home cooking seems to continue to stick close to the classics, in restaurants, exquisite French technique remains the backbone of everything, as do the regional dishes of the country, but food is more playful. Classics get lightened and there's lots of improvisations, so today you might just as readily find a pot-au-feu made with Chinese vegetables and flavored with soy and star anise as you would find one with the traditional assortment of meats and root vegetables.

Perhaps the greatest change is the way people eat in restaurants. While menus at the grand restaurants are still classic -- appetizer, fish course, meat or poultry course, cheese and dessert -- at bistros and more casual restaurants, it is acceptable to order a couple of appetizers rather than an app and a main course, to share dishes, to skip the apps and go directly to the main course, or -- and this is sad -- to skip dessert. And there are restaurants, like l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, where making a meal of small plates, dining in tapas mode, is encouraged.

This may not seem like such a huge change because it's what we are so accustomed to doing in America, but it represents a tremendous change in France, where a meal with a minimum of three course was a standard.

There's so much more -- the rise of gastrobistros -- bistros opened by chefs who had "fancy" Michelin starred restaurants; the new popularity of "foreign" cuisines -- sushi is huge, Italian restaurants are on the rise and Asian influences are everywhere; and the concern with how individual products are grown, raised and produced -- the 'bio' movement, which corresponds to our interest in 'organic' products.

This is just one observer's quick overview. As I said, you've posed a question that could be the basis of a book.

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