Bon Appétit, Messieurs

Never Trust a Critic

January 9, 2007By Paris UpdateBooks

A book by one of the most widely read restaurant critics in France that promised to dish the dirt on the country’s entire food scene was too appetizing a temptation to pass up.

Bon Appétit, Messieurs is by Léo Fourneau, the culinary nom de guerre of an investigative journalist, Thierry Wolton, who claims that he managed to preserve his anonymity for the 15 years he was Elle magazine’s food critic. The pseudonym is a double pun: a fourneau is a cooking stove, and les hauts fourneaux (a homophone for Léo Fourneau) is a blast furnace.

Fourneau gives the cozy world of French gastronomy a serious blast with his scattergun, first taking his confraternity of critics to task (unlike Léo, they don’t strive for anonymity and expect free meals and special treatment) and then giving the top chefs and their restaurants the full treatment. This is followed by a potted history of French gastronomy, a whistle-stop tour of the battlefield of the ancients and moderns, running right up to his wistfully envious description of the “hypermodern” cooking of chefs like Catalan Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli), Briton Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck) and American Thomas Keller (French Laundry).

The pioneering spirit of these chefs, he says, is absent from France largely because of the heavy hand of the French state, which organizes the competitions for the coveted title of “Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” which could be translated as “top artisan of France.” These difficult ordeals cover every trade from cabinet- to cheese- and chocolate-making, and the anointed wear their badges proudly, as well they might. But because the emphasis is on reproducing traditional methods, says Fourneau, the competition goes a long way to stifle innovation and imagination and discourage the mavericks who might produce breakthroughs. As a result, France is in danger of trailing behind the gastronomic vanguard, which no longer holds the French tradition in such awe.

But what about those wonderful French products, you say? A public relations myth, in many cases, according to Fourneau, especially in a country that officially endorses the mass production and processing of food under the auspices of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, which, along with the leading chefs’ money-spinning gambit of putting their names on ready-to-eat meals sold in supermarkets, is the co-villain of the piece.

Less than 10 percent of the 2 million veal calves raised for the table each year in France are reared in the traditional manner, and less than 2 percent of the pigs are bred to high quality standards, says Fourneau. And even then, in the case of pigs, a single breed (the large white) predominates, because it fattens quickly. Thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy, he adds, quoting food-quality advocate Jean Pierre Coffe, raising veal in indoor pens is up to 20 times more remunerative than raising them on their mother’s milk in the time-honored manner.

Or take that expression so beloved of the French, le terroir. It would take a much longer piece than this to peel away its many layers of meaning, but it pushes the same sort of buttons as “down home” and “traditional” when applied to food. If you like living dangerously, ask a French butcher the name of the person who raised the beef you are about to eat, and what breed it was. You can ask those questions and get (fairly) honest answers to them in most British shops and supermarkets today. The most you might get from your butcher, after he has thrown the cleaver at you, is that it is a produit de terroir.

As a self-proclaimed food critic, I was, of course, interested in what a long-time professional had to say about the job. How do you become a food critic? Serendipity. Do you need any special qualifications? No. How do you get ahead in the business? Here, the answer seems to be, “Blow your cover, make sure the restaurants know who you are, and never pay for a meal.” Fourneau, as I said, managed to preserve his anonymity, despite his 15-year stint at Elle. And he always paid for his food. I personally have no difficulty in emulating him, though perhaps not for the same reasons…

Irritatingly, Bon Appétit, Messieurs has no index – a common failing with Gallic publications, which galls les anglo-saxons no end – so one has to plow through the pages to find the names of the damned and the saved. Of the restaurant critics, many are called but few are chosen, which does make for entertaining reading. One who comes out squeaky clean is François Simon of Le Figaro, who writes elegantly and entertainingly, and can occasionally be quite generous in his praise.

For the higher-profile critic, of course, anonymity is difficult. In the recently published Heat, a riveting and highly-recommended saga of a non-professional’s experience in making and serving food professionally, Bill Buford describes the preparations at a New York restaurant for the visit of Ruth Reichl, the famed and feared former restaurant critic of The New York Times. The strategies used, he writes, “call to mind a coach preparing for a big game.” As the staff awaited the “anonymous” visit, the entire restaurant was in “a constant state of dress rehearsal,” and while there, she “had the most experienced waiter, plus a back-up waiter, a floor manager and two runners.”

This, Fourneau says firmly, is not what it is about; he describes a similar experience on the one occasion when his mask slipped. Anonymity ensures that the critic’s experience will be similar to that of ordinary customers, so that there is a decent chance that what you read is what you get. His bottom line, however, is: never trust a critic. I second that. Go see, taste and judge for yourself.


Richard Hesse

Heat, by Bill Buford. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 318pp. $25.95. Published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, £12.99.


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