Here's a translation of the first part of a March 15 interview with superstar French chef Alain Ducasse, who has restaurants in France and in the U.S. He is asked about the rising number of diners who cite special dietary requirements when they go to restaurants.
Alain Ducasse: We must protect our cultural model
The star of French haute cuisine, a chef and restaurateur who has earned a total of 18 Michelin stars, says that the French “way of food” is the world’s best. But it needs to be protected.
“French cuisine now relies much less on oil and fat than it used to,”
says Alain Ducasse. “As a result, it has never been better!”
Photo credit: AFP/FRANÇOIS GUILLOT and L'EXPRESS
Q: Are you seeing a growing number of French restaurant customers who have special dietary requirements?
A: No doubt about it. Behaviors are changing. Until now, the only special requests we had to deal with in our restaurants were based on religious principles or weight-consciousness issues. Our staff was used to hearing questions such as: “What pork-free dishes do you serve?” or “Can you cook my fish without butter?”. But now we have to be conscious of other issues. Gluten-intolerance and meat-free diets are much more widespread.
Q: How do you explain this change?
A: For a certain customer segment, eating has obviously become a more source of stress rather than of pleasure! The desire to have control over what appears on one's plate sometimes goes to extremes; it is a direct reaction to food-industry scandals. It's also the result of the influence of the Anglo-Saxon countries, where Protestantism causes people to be more puritanical and individualistic when it comes to the foods they eat. In England, people are very accepting of other people's dietary requirements and restrictions.
Q: What effect might this new “dietary individualism” in France have on our national cuisine?
A: If these dietary restrictions continue to spread and grow, we will see, in the long term, the development of new types of “food ghettoes” and our national art de vivre will be seriously threatened. But that isn't the situation for the time being. In our U.S. restaurants, often when we serve a party of five, two or more of the diners will report having some food allergy, an intolerance, or a specific dietary requirement of some kind. For now, in our Paris restaurant Le Meurice, only one or two diners out of forty will raise such issues.
Fortunately, our food culture, founded on the principles of companionship and sharing around the dinner table, continues to hold its own. I don't know of any country besides France where people are capable of sitting down together and enjoying a meal composed of an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert while having lively conversation about what they ate yesterday, what they are eating at the moment, and what they will eat tomorrow...
People in the English-speaking world, in fact, joke about the French obsession with food and cuisine. They often consider us to be “foodies” who over-indulge and spend entirely too many hours around the dinner table...
Our way of eating is, nonetheless, one of the main economic and cultural advantages of France as a tourist destination. Last August when I walked into Benoît, our Paris bistrot, two Americans were there enjoying a dish of cassoulet and a nice bottle of Bordeaux wine together. They recognized me and thanked me for all I do to sustain the famous “French paradox” that keeps us all healthy.
If our food culture were to disappear off the face of the earth, Anglo-Saxons like these would be more disappointed than anybody! It's not for nothing that UNESCO declared French haute cuisine a winner of its world heritage award in 2010. To protect our “cultural exceptionalism,” we really must be very vigilant, but without becoming alarmist about it...
À demain, et bon dimanche...