THE BIRTH OF FRENCH GASTRONOMY
Antoine de Baecque
(Payot, 240 pages, 2018)
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During the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, political passion was paralleled only by an equally radical and novel enthusiasm for food and dining. A new type of establishment, the restaurant, prospered right next to the guillotine. French gastronomy was born in these new temples dedicated to the goddess of gourmandise. Throughout the nineteenth century, restaurants continued to proliferate throughout the capital, adapting their fare to serve an increasingly diverse clientele. In retracing this culinary revolution, Antoine De Baecque shows how the pleasures of the table became an integral part of French national identity and France’s international reputation as the land of gastronomy.
Restaurants had already existed in London, but in Paris serving food to the public was governed by the maze of regulations and privileges of the Ancien Régime. Taverns and inns could only offer basic meals, served on collective tables according to strict schedules. Only nobility could employ personal cooks to honor their guests. The French Revolution marks a decisive stage in the history of the French cooking. The break with the old world should have condemned the manners and the staff of the Ancien Régime, or so one would think. But the cooks of the aristocracy, who remained behind as their masters fled abroad, began to set up their own businesses. This is partly how, De Baecque explains, culinary tradition and savoir faire—recipes, cooking techniques, food presentation, and table manners—were transferred “from the aristocratic table to the restaurators’ table.”
In twelve fluid and lively chapters, de Baecque draws portraits of the key actors who shaped the future of French gastronomy. Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau was the first restaurateur, and an early proponent of “the democratization of luxury.” Antoine Beauvilliers wrote one of the first classic memoirs of a chef. Alexandre Grimod de La Reynière can be best described as the first food critic. Antoine Carême was the first artist-chef, inventor of the toque famous for his incomparable craftsmanship. Brillat-Savarin was the first food theoretician and author of The Physiology of Taste; and Auguste Escoffier was the first modern chef who introduced martial efficiency to the kitchen. Escoffier’s association with the hotelier Charles Ritz gave rise to a French elitist cuisine served in the grand palaces of Europe.
De Baecque offers entertaining and illuminating anecdotes to explain why the evolution of the Parisian restaurant and the development of French food culture coincide with the deep social and political upheaval that marked the end of the eighteenth century and the decades that followed. A judicial battle over the “sauce poulette” (is it a mere sauce or a ragout?), pitting restaurateurs against roasters and caterers, exemplifies the decline of the Ancien Regime’s rigid corporatist system.
The Birth of French Gastronomy is both a highly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating book for anyone interested in the history of gastronomy and the origin of an institution as ubiquitous as the restaurant. The reader may even want to try the recipes offered at the end of each chapter: Escoffier’s famous Pêche Melba (an easy one), Alexandre Dumas’ Roasted Rabbit (not for the weak of heart), as well as other mind-boggling and painstaking recipes.
Antoine de Baecque is a historian and critic. He has been editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinema and, later, of the cultural pages of Libération. He is the author of many books on a variety of subjects; as a specialist in eighteenth-century France, he has published La Révolution terrorisée (CNRS éd., 2017) and Les nuits parisiennes: XVIIIe – XXIe siècle (Seuil, 2015). His earlier work, The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770–1800, was published by Stanford University Press in 1997. He is also a well-known film historian and has written extensively on the relationship between cinema and history. He has published biographies on François Truffaut, Andreï Tarkovski, and Jean-Luc Godard. Two of his film director biographies have been translated into English: Éric Rohmer: A Biography co-written with Noël Herpe (Columbia University Press, 2016) and Tim Burton (Phaidon Press, 2011).