Foodies are looking beyond the pandemic to a revolution in French gastronomy

Chef Yannick Alléno served a € 395 menu consisting of langoustines and foie gras in his three-Michelin-starred restaurant near the Champs-Elysées.

But as France prepares to allow restaurants to reopen for outside service next week after six months of closure, it will instead serve burgers in its wine bar for a fraction of the price.

That a superstar chef like Alléno, whose stable of high-end restaurants from Courchevel to Marrakech hold more than ten Michelin stars, change his strategy underlines France’s difficulties. great restaurants as they seek to recover from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have to inspire people to come here by arousing their curiosity,” he said of Pavillon Ledoyen, the neoclassical building that houses several of its restaurants, including the three-star Alléno Paris.

These temples of French gastronomy have long welcomed wealthy foreign tourists, who will gladly pay over € 1,000 for a meal for two as long as they experience it. the French art of living. But with international travel being severely curtailed by the pandemic, these customers are not expected to return for some time.

Yannick Alléno operates upscale restaurants from Paris to Courchevel and Marrakech which hold a dozen Michelin stars combined © Francois Durand / Getty

Attracting locals is the new challenge, as well as retaining employees, many of whom have left the industry and its notoriously difficult working conditions. Many restaurants are also struggling with large debts after taking out state-guaranteed loans to get out of the crisis.

“I have three years of struggle ahead,” said Alléno, adding that half of the group’s 4 million euros in cash reserves had been spent. “For three-star restaurants, there will be many victims.”

Its flagship restaurant generated more than three-quarters of the income of foreign diners, mainly from Asia and the United States. Since there is no point in reopening without them, the doors will remain closed until September. Alléno will for now be experimenting in a less formal place as he prepares a redesign that seeks to bring gastronomy into the 21st century.

“Everything has to change,” he said, citing the title of the book he co-wrote during the lockdown. In it, he called for an overhaul of everything from the style of service (warmer, more personalized) to staffing (more flexible and more family-friendly).

French high gastronomy dates back to visionary 19th-century chefs such as Auguste Escoffier and Marie-Antoine Carême, who created cuisine based on rich sauces and meticulous service – often theatrical. For decades he was considered the best in the world and has become a key part of French identity.

But its popularity has waned in recent decades thanks to competition first from the glitz of molecular gastronomy, then from the clean Nordic style. Like French haute cuisine lost ground, it has become much more expensive, putting it out of reach of many.

“The pandemic has revealed that the business model of high-end restaurants in France simply does not work without tourists,” said Joerg Zipprick, co-founder of the La Liste group, which ranks the best restaurants in the world.

“It’s a relatively new development. That was it. . . a doctor or local manager would come to these places to celebrate a special occasion. Not anymore.”

Zipprick said that for top chefs, many of whom had spent the last year experimenting with take-out and meal kits, success hinged on their willingness to adapt.

A customer picks up his order at Baieta in Paris

Restaurant Baieta in Paris. Many great chefs have experimented with take-out and meal kits over the past year © Franck Fife / Getty

Diners wouldn’t want difficult and experimental dishes upon their return, he predicted, but would instead want to eat good food at a good restaurant in the company of friends and family.

“No more technical stuff or food that needs a long explanation from the waiter on the fermentation process. People don’t want their meal to be a work of art, ”Zipprick said.

The last time French cuisine reinvented itself was in the 1970s, when chefs such as Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers created new kitchen. The movement, less opulent and calorific than the gastronomy which preceded it, put forward fresh and quality ingredients and the service became less formal.

Alléno believes that the best restaurants should aim to personalize experiences by discussing with customers beforehand about their dinner occasion, guests and their tastes.

This “concierge” approach would make it possible to better plan the menus, improve the customer experience and the profitability of the restaurant.

“If I know I only have three people who will be eating lobster on any given night, then I don’t need to order six pounds just in case,” he said. “It really makes a difference for the kitchen.”

Others are even more radical. Daniel Humm’s three-star Eleven Madison Park in New York City will no longer serve meat and seafood when it reopens next month, as the Swiss chef seeks to show that food is sustainable and eco-friendly. he environment can be compatible with luxury.

However, Eric Fréchon, the three-Michelin-starred chef behind the Epicure restaurant at the five-star Le Bristol Paris, downplayed expectations for a radical change.

“Things will come back to normal,” said Fréchon, noting that the hotel’s restaurants had a large local clientele. “People have missed the experience of high gastronomy for so long they will be eager to come back.

Fréchon said it would keep some innovations from the coronavirus era, including the € 1,390 “eat and sleep” package, marketed as an overnight destination for locals that includes dinner in their suite or bedroom. hotel.

“For New Years Eve, we had 60 servers coming and going in the rooms, it was really difficult,” he said. “But it allowed us to reach new customers who might not have dared to come to a three-star restaurant. Now we have to keep them.

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris

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