Traumatized in Toulouse
September 4, 2015
Here are a few sentences you will never hear in a French restaurant:
“Hi, my name is Emile and I will be your waiter for this evening.”
“Have you dined with us before?
“May I explain our menu to you?”
“How are you guys doing?”
“Are you still enjoying that?”
“Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“Here is your check – when you’re ready…”
The French waiter/waitress is a professional. He is such a well-known character that when one dines in a French restaurant, he (or she) becomes an important part of the experience.
Whether haughty or cool or professional or negligent, the French waiter is never like an American server and that’s how I became traumatized in Toulouse.
Someone I trust a lot, a colleague here told me that Christian Constant had opened a restaurant on the Place du Capitole in Toulouse; so when I checked into my hotel, nearly on the grand place itself, I took a walk in the city and inevitably found myself near the restaurant – somewhat too early for dinner in Europe but not too early for a drink.
Christian Constant is an admirable person, a transformational person on the French culinary scene. He was the chef of the magnificent Crillion Hotel on the Place de la Concorde where he trained a generation of chefs who went on to reestablish a simple, ingredient-based, seasonal cuisine. It borrows from other cultures but is thoroughly grounded in French cooking.
One of his protégés, Yves Camdeborde has gone on to great glory in his restaurant, Le Comptoir and his hotel, Le Relais Saint Germain; and another Tierry Breton is the chef/owner of Chez Michel, another restaurant I like a lot.
I had no thought that Le Bibent in Toulouse would be anything other than wonderful and when I arrived at the restaurant I was sure it would be. I intended to sit outside on the soft evening facing the stunning Place but when I saw the inside, I couldn’t stay outside as wonderful as that would have been. The interior was too magnificent.
Baroque, Art Nouveau, this restaurant goes back to 1882; and that it had been taken over by a chef I admire so much made me happy to be there. I wanted to be in that room. I wanted to watch the food pass on its way to other tables. I wanted to see the service.
I wanted simply to stare. I wanted to have a pastis and drink it and drink in the sights, the ornate walls and ceiling. That’s permissible in a French restaurant. Unlike American restaurants no one ever rushes French diners. I had been eating alone during my stay in Bordeaux and in Auch and my dinners had been tranquil evenings of two and half hours and more.
An attractive young server arrived at my table and I smiled. She didn’t. “Avez-vous choisi?” she asked.
I was surprised and I told her that I didn’t have a menu. She brought one.
It was 7:50 PM, an unfashionably early hour for dinner in Europe and only two other tables were occupied. Nevertheless, after three minutes, the waitress returned. “Avez-vous choisi,” she asked again?
Now I was irritated. I told her that I wanted an aperitif. Even before it arrived she returned and asked a third time whether I was ready.
I was – for her. I told her that when I was ready I would let her know. I ordered a second pastis just to spite her – and calm myself.
My appetizer was delivered to my table almost immediately after I ordered it and my main course came just as quickly. I was given my check before I asked for it.
There I was – on the main square of Toulouse on a beautiful summer night, my one dinner in that city – and I might have been at Mon Ami Gabi in a northern Virginia shopping mall. The restaurant was still largely empty. My dinner – even with the delays I had imposed – was 75 minutes long.
Restaurant service in France has rarely been warm but it has always been proper. I was getting in this beautiful restaurant in Toulouse, the restaurant of a great contemporary chef, service that would have embarrassed him.
It made me think about what is happening to food in France.
My son Philippe pointed me to a study by the French Union of Hotel Skills and Industries that claims 85 percent of the restaurants of France, without telling their customers, use frozen, vacuum-packed, partially, even foods wholly cooked in advance somewhere else.
Some unsuspecting diner (like me) could order tête de veau (prepared in a factory) followed by steak au poivre (cooked in a sous vide factory) accompanied by sauce bernaise (packaged in plastic bags by a factory), frozen vegetables, desserts made by a big supplier, and so on.
Eighty-five percent seems like a very high number but whether it’s literally 85 percent or not those practices have been adopted widely by French restaurants whose customers have no suspicions that they are eating food factory-made.
At the beginning of this year a new law gave restaurants that make food on premises permission to advertise that. Can you imagine? French restaurants having to advertise that they make their food?
Many, many years ago I did a stage in a little bakery in Paris. It was/is a wonderful bakery that makes huge loaves of crusty, mixed grain bread. I worked through the nights there learning the rustic pastries of that bakery. I had hoped as well to learn by working there more about Viennoisserie. But I didn’t.
As it turned out the bakery bought frozen croissants from a big manufacturer of frozen pastries. We removed from the freezer the number needed for the next day, let them defrost and proof and then we brushed them with egg and baked them.
The owner of the bakery told me as we worked that he could offer a better, more consistent croissant by buying than he could by making his own. I believed him but it seemed wrong.
How naïve I was! How persnickety I was! The croissants my friend made (didn’t make) were good, really good even though they weren’t fait maison. The croissants I saw in France last month were nothing like those of my friend. They were pretty shocking.
What’s going on? What is happening my beloved French food?
Some people say labor laws make impossible the kind of intense work that French restaurants always did when they made their own food.
Others say that Common Market standardization has doomed some of the food-making practices that were followed for ages.
Still others say that the industrialization of food that in the U.S. has been the norm for 70 years is now coming to dominate France too.
But none of that accounts for the service in that beautiful restaurant in Toulouse.
France has lots of treasures: Paris, Mont Saint Michel, Provence, the Louvre, countless treasures. But certainly no treasure has been more important in France – and to France – than its cuisine and dining culture. In variety and quality, no cuisine other than Chinese has been that good (in my opinion). In service no food culture has been as good.
What happens to all of us if they are now in decline?