Serious Reads: ‘Au Revoir To All That’

"Romance is as integral to French cuisine as butter, and any book on the subject would be soulless without it."

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Au Revoir To All That

Food, Wine, and the End of France
Author: Michael Steinberger
Get It: Hardcover on Amazon
Read It: Preview on Slate.com
Recommended Read? Yes

The sun is setting on the French gastronomic empire, Michael Steinberger contends in Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. Speaking ill of the French is tantamount to heresy in many gourmet circles, but Steinberger isn’t cowed. The kitchens of Paris and Avignon are not what they once were, and he wants to know why.

With a title that straddles the sentimental and the apocalyptic, Steinberger steers clear of both—neither weeping over madeleines past, nor pounding the last nail in the French culinary coffin, but instead delivering a sharp, clear-headed look at the increasingly dismal state of food and wine in a nation that prizes both so dearly. The center of the culinary world has shifted away from France, he believes, and sets off to figure out the reasons.

His path winds through the kitchens of Lyon, San Sebastián, and Tokyo, past Michelin and McDonald’s, celebrity chefs and labor laws and the Spanish culinary avant-garde. And the small bites of each chapter lead to an inescapable conclusion, one that settles uncomfortably in the pit of the stomach: French cuisine is not what it once was.

Steinberger does start from a place of nostalgia. His opening chapter recounts a meal so divine that he sat back in blissful contentment as the lascivious older chef coerced his wife into a kitchen tour. ("I swapped my wife for a duck liver," he laments.) He recalls childhood journeys through France, and the particular mille feuille with which, later in life, he would end each midday meal. But these reminiscences never slide into sentimentality. And in truth, romance is as integral to French cuisine as butter, and any book on the subject would be soulless without it.

What sets Au Revoir To All That apart is the speed with which it moves beyond a simple elegy. With no particular theory to advance or villain to expose, Steinberger begins with a simple question—what happened to the French?—and proceeds with genuine curiosity.

Just what has gone wrong? Steinberger points no one finger, but leads us down a dozen roads, spiced with rich personalities and sumptuous meals. He introduces us to the maddeningly capricious Michelin rankings and the chefs slavishly soliciting their stars, investing in gold bathroom fixtures rather than their own kitchens. He narrates the careers of chefs such as Alain Ducasse, a precocious chef who turns his talents to building a culinary empire—a move Steinberger questions, but never quite condemns.

Taxes, regulations, labor laws; he launches no ideological attack, but evaluates the implications of these lead weights on creativity and innovation. And tracing the attitudes of French chefs, critics, and winemakers, who believe that their cuisine is, a priori, the best in the world, it’s easy to see how confidence can slide into complacency.

In the end, Steinberger finds flickers of hope: the protection of raw milk Camembert, a renaissance in bread baking, the rediscovery of a single praline mille feuille. In the bleak culinary landscape he paints, these flickers are faint indeed. Yet in crafting such an elegant elegy to French food, Steinberger has created a loving, careful tribute to the cusine’s inherent possibility—celebrating what it has been, and, by extension, what it still could be.

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