In New York, high-end gastronomy was once the domain of guys named Henri, Andr and Jean-Jacques. But the great French chefs—their old-guard landmarks nearly extinct—were long ago surpassed by the stars they mentored. Even at the low end, French food has been on the ropes, with the neighborhood bistro increasingly giving way to pasta, burger and ramen joints.
But just as we knock another nail into Escoffier’s coffin, there’s a twinkle on the horizon that may be French cuisine’s comeback. Or at least some very compelling PR.
This summer—six years after the “freedom fries” flap—Meryl Streep catapulted Julia Child onto the best-seller list, her tome on French cooking in the No. 1 slot for the very first time. And this month, through serendipitous timing, a small battalion of visiting Parisian chefs is further making the case for a revival, exposing New Yorkers to a new idea of what French food can be. Last week, the Gallic culinary organization Omnivore, in collaboration with the French Institute Alliance Francaise, hosted a picnic in Central Park and a series of sold-out dinners at downtown restaurants. And the like-minded Le Fooding d’Amour, coming up this weekend, will continue the festivities, with two nights of food, drink and music at P.S.1 in Long Island City.
For the past few years, the two groups behind this invasion have been doing their part—not unlike Child herself—to bring their country’s stuffy cuisine down to earth. They are at the vanguard of a revolution in French gastronomy—dialing up creativity while diminishing the rigidity often associated with the French kitchen.
“The haughtiness, it’s just a misunderstanding of what French food is,” says David Chang, who this weekend will be cooking alongside the provocateurs at Le Fooding d’Amour. “Modern French cooking, most people don’t know what the hell it is.”
While cutting-edge cooking in Spain and the U.K. has been attracting attention worldwide, a quieter movement’s been brewing in France, with young chefs eschewing Michelin-star glory in favor of more modest labors of love—offering ambitious pedigreed food in low-key settings at prices you won’t need a second mortgage to cover.
The party in Queens on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27, the first of its kind outside Europe, will give New Yorkers the chance to taste for themselves what French food has become. The two-day extravaganza also marks the New York debut of the Parisian group—Le Fooding—that has spent the past decade working to undermine the French culinary establishment’s entrenched pomposity. It publishes a cheeky alternative to the Michelin Guide, and a few times a year hosts blowout parties that bring chefs out of their kitchens to mix with the masses.
“When we created Le Fooding it was enough to do something different from the Michelin guide,” says founder Alexandre Cammas, who has been in New York all summer planning the P.S.1 event. His efforts in France have helped transform the dining landscape and empower young chefs all across the country.
The Alliance Francaise has also been noting the gastronomic shift Le Fooding helped initiate. For the past few years, the organization has been inviting young chefs to New York as part of its annual Crossing the Line cultural festival; this year it joined forces with Omnivore, a Fooding competitor that publishes a restaurant guidebook focused exclusively on young chefs.
“For so many years we were just the invaders, the emperors of cuisine,” says Omnivore founder Luc Dubanchet. “It’s important to fight against that, to share, to learn from each other.”
If you missed the chance to learn from the chefs he brought in last week—Omnivore feasts held at Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 and the three Momofukus sold out immediately—many of them will also be cooking at Le Fooding. Tickets to the P.S.1 party, a steal at $30 apiece, offer access to dishes you’d be hard-pressed to try even if you flew to Paris. Although many of the participating restaurants are moderately priced, they’re as hard to get into as the New York hot spots that have also signed on to cook for the weekend (Minetta Tavern is serving its Black Label burger on Saturday, while David Chang’s Bo Ssm will be offered on Friday).
Only time will tell if the Fooding party and Omnivore dinners keep New Yorkers talking about the food they’ve snubbed for too long—and embolden chefs from both sides of the Atlantic to put French cuisine back on the tips of our tongues.
The away team
A crib sheet on the new Parisian players
Le Comptoir du Relais: The godfather of the new bistronomique movement in Paris—the closest thing France has to gastropubs—runs the modest Comptoir, a low-key bistro by day and an auteur-cuisine destination at night.
Le Chateaubriand: The most buzzed-about young chef in Paris, this Basque bad boy serves some of the city’s most creative (and dirt-cheap) food in a no-frills setting. Think of him as the Parisian David Chang.
Ze Kitchen Galerie: Ledeuil’s food fuses French refinement with flavors he picks up on travels through Asia.
La Bigarrade: This young talent combines Michelin deference (he has one star) with Fooding mischief, fashioning precise sculptural meals while at the same time snubbing luxury ingredients.
El Fgon: This Spaniard’s hyped Parisian restaurant—the chef isn’t French and nor is his food—reflects the polyglot influences transforming the Gallic dining scene.
L’Ami Jean: Inside this Basque chef’s once-traditional neighborhood bistro, you’ll find some of the most innovative rustic cooking in Paris, featuring big, meatcentric portions and top-notch charcuterie.—JC
The best French restaurants in NYC
Where to go Gallic.