23 March 2014

Are people's special dietary requirements changing French food?

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!”

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...


  1. This made me chuckle!
    I can't help thinking that it's the French "like it or lump it" philosophy that's allowed "special dietry requirements" to be ignored until lately!

  2. I have noticed in our local tabac/librairie....
    over the last ten years of regularly visiting France...
    that the food/diet/health/"psychosis" section of her magazine display is becoming wider and more cramped at the same time....
    pushing the magazines on DIY, Photography, Environment,etc.... sideways.
    The same is happening on the shelf above...
    the car mags are being pushed along by the increase in the French versions of Hello and OK magazines!
    Fashions are set by the big consumerist lobbies...
    and I have noticed that, in the past couple of years, that even the local papers have started having sections!!
    It is a shame, really, because not only does it erode the values that make France so wonderful...
    but all over the world, so it seems to me, it makes people with real food allergies....
    like Elizabeth's gluten allergy... seem almost faddy, rather than genuine...
    conversely, the spread of acceptance of dietary requirements will mean that genuine sufferers....
    like Elizabeth... can find things more easily in a foreign country.
    For instance...
    the Bio-coop in Chatellerault has a very wide selection of gluten free produce!!
    That can only be good...
    once restaurants take the genuine allergies properly into account and create French dishes around those....
    it can only increase the enjoyment of eating out...
    in a "food culture, founded on the principles of companionship and sharing around the dinner table."
    There are all too many "fish"etarians in the world...

  3. I was mega-impressed by how our local Michelin star place dealt with the information that my brother-in-law is coeliac. No problem at all -- in fact, everything on the menu was gluten free that night, except some of the desserts. I wouldn't be surprised if they had enjoyed the challenge, and I doubt if any of the other diners realised. The restaurant was full, and we had booked in person the day before, which of course is necessary if that sort of response is to be forthcoming. John said to me recently though, that being coeliac in France if you don't speak the language is hopeless. Even though I had given them a card to show restaurants explaining what he can and can't eat he said he had a terrible time everywhere except when they were with us and I dealt with the restaurant. Mainstream supermarkets here offer a more or less non-existant range of GF. Only Bio-coop takes it seriously.

    I do know a couple of properly vegetarian French people. One of them I see regularly and I notice he is extremely vigilant about asking exactly what is in something if he is offered food. He also doesn't drink alcohol.

    I like Ducasse's attitude -- very balanced and realistic, recognising that dietary requirements are valid, but wanting to work with that and still maintain French culinary heritage.

  4. In the last few years I have become soy-sensitive. It is not easy to navigate dining out in the US. Big business does strange things to our food. It is over processed. Just as an example they remove the peanut oil from peanut butter and replace it with soybean oil. You cannot go through the center of a grocery store and find a product that does not have soy of some form in it. Only when I started cooking from scratch did all my symptoms go away. I would hate to be a chef in a restaurant and have to deal with the public's problems - some real and some imagined.

    1. Food regulations don't help either...
      my wife bought me a box of M&S sugared almonds as a filler for Christmas one year...
      on the label it said...
      Allergy warning: May contain nuts.
      I should bloody hope so!!

      I have also seen the same warning on a large jar of Skippy peanut butter from Costco...
      although it seems to have vanished from the small jar I looked at last week in the Intermarché.
      And a bottle of real peanut paste...
      my term for something that is at least 95% well ground roast peanuts and no damned sugar...
      that is currently in the larder...
      just says "huile vegetale"...
      could be anything!!

  5. My mother has severe food allergies. When she came over here in the mid-1990s, already, we found cafés and restaurants very understanding of her needs (no tomatoes, potatoes, grapes, apples, berries, olives and their oil, and on and on, plus the derivatives — wine or cider vinegar, for example — of these foods). Like you, Jean, I had little hope that Paris restaurants would be cooperative, but they really were. I just had to explain everything when we ordered our food.

    1. Okay, no more complaints from me. That is a lot to have severe allergies.

  6. How can I not agree completely with Alain Ducasse?

    Excellent translation, BTW!

    1. Thanks, CHM. I've never had a chance to have a meal in an Alain Ducasse restaurant. Maybe one day I will. Walt and I had dinner Chez Allard once, a few years ago, but that was before Ducasse became the owner. It was a restaurant I used to hear about in the '70s but back then it didn't fit into my budget!

  7. Very interesting! I never think of us (Americans) being Anglo-Saxons, or of U.S. Protestantism (of which I am not a member) and Puritanism causing this kind of thing (I think that's a bit of a stretch *LOL*). Actually, I think of Puritanism as an extremely, "like-it-or-lump-it-do-as-we-say" kind of thinking, that would not actually tolerate deviating from whatever is the established way of doing things.

    Still... nice to know that there are more options out there for vegetarians (like my sister and her husband) when they are in France. They recently got back from a wonderful trip to a ski area near Annecy, and had soooooooooo much cheese --they loved it, but it was usually about their only option on the menus. They had fondue Savoyarde, of course, and Raclette, and, I believe, found a Tartiflette without lardons.

  8. Oh so much I could add here.
    I eat it all and have no issues, but living with two Celiacs (not the band waggon kind), I can tell you from experience that France (rural in particular) is light years behind the rest of the world, Never mind Anglo Saxon countries who always put customer first, but even in Spain and Italy, two neighboring countries with similar cultures, it is so much easier to enjoy that meal out together without any issues and full acceptance of dietary issues..

    Why, if one dislikes Anglo Saxons ( What am I actually, Teuton?) as picky eaters, does one open so many restaurants in those countries? Could it be that it's there where those grand chefs actually generate massive profits as compared to France, which in his words is turning into a Dining Disney?

  9. H.P., I do have to wonder why you chose to live in France rather than Spain, Italy, or Austria.

    Judy, it's obviously hard to eat in restaurants in France if you want to stick to a meat-free diet. I wonder how easy it would be in other countries. Did your sister and BiL find any pizzerias in Annecy? Any places specializing in salads or omelets? Do they eat eggs or fish?

  10. Yes, Ken, they did and do! I think that the small resort town they were in (La Clusaz) was probably the area with the least variety, because most restaurants there wanted to be sure to offer the regional ski-town-expected favorites. They are very easy-going vegetarians who always adapt to whatever is available. And, since they live in Vermont, they love cheese, and loved being in the European land of cheese fondue and were reallllllly looking forward to Raclette and Fondue and Tartiflette.... they had a GREAT time (as they always do in Europe). They just joked about how they had to put a day or two in between those major cheese feasts :)

  11. Both food and weather are always changing. It's gluten problems that are really popular now and our long cold winter/spring.
    The French food culture has always appealed to me.

  12. No gluten and so much kale, n'est-ce pas, E.? BTW, I harvested another batch of collard greens this past week and put five more pounds in the freezer. We are going to have green complexions...

  13. The very first time I went to France, in the early 80's I was a vegetarian. Lucky I was ready to add fish back into my diet, otherwise I would have starved. The fish was fabulous, and I missed it anyway. It was a great re-introduction to fish, as we cycled through Loire Valley....

    Ken, I made a batch of "Ken's collards" yesterday, harvested from mon jardain. Even A was drooling over them. Not enough left to freeze!


  14. Hi Christine, I'm glad you like the greens. The cooking method is really not mine, but my mother's. Hi to A. too.

  15. Your blog has given me that thing which I never expect to get from all over the websites. Nice post guys!


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