Why Paris is the timeless capital of gastronomy

With all due respect to declinists of all stripes and other fans of "French bashing", the Parisian gastronomic scene is thriving

Why Paris is the timeless capital of gastronomy

With all due respect to declinists of all stripes and other fans of "French bashing", the Parisian gastronomic scene is thriving. Better than that, even! What gives legitimacy in this matter – more than classifications with obscure rules, more than guides with complex reading grids – is first of all the concrete and daily vitality of the scene in question. No one will take away from Paris its incredible capacity to renew its culinary offerings, year after year, since the beginning of the 21st century. The wave of new and excellent restaurants emerging at the start of the 2023 school year is an excellent illustration of this.

What also matters is the story. And, as Patrick Rambourg explains in his book History of Gastronomic Paris, from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, published a few weeks ago by Editions Perrin, the French capital has no equal from this point of view. It is even because of this extraordinary heritage that “Paris is more than ever the capital of gastronomy”, as he writes. Interview.

Le Point: You demonstrate in your book that the central role played by Paris in terms of gastronomy does not date from yesterday...

Patrick Rambourg: When I started to be interested in French gastronomy, during my studies, I very quickly realized that Paris was essential. Even if we can work on regional cuisines, we inevitably come back to Paris. The city had a central role in the evolution of French cuisine. But it's not just that. As a capital, it has had an international influence, well beyond cuisine, and since the Middle Ages. This central role has been there for a very long time and is linked to the history of the country. What I wanted to avoid, being French and writing this book, was being accused of chauvinism. So I set out to find testimonies from foreigners who spoke of Paris in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to support my point. Many people mention food Paris. They were amazed to see a city overflowing with so much food, in a peaceful context of course.

Funny thing, we also learn in your book that “street food” was in vogue in Paris from the 13th century…

It has somewhat disappeared over time, with the rise of restaurants, but for centuries, Parisians ate from what I call food service providers. You have to imagine the streets of Paris in the Middle Ages... Certain food professionals had shops open on the street, selling things ready to be consumed: pastry chefs, oyer cooks who roasted geese and meats... There were also street sellers, others who had mobile ovens, criers and so on. It was crazy modern and vibrant!

Among the major Parisian inventions, you detail those of restaurants. How were they born?

For a long time, it was said that the restaurant was created with the French Revolution, that chefs working for aristocratic families lost their bosses and opened establishments. I never believed this story. There are undoubtedly a few to whom this happened, but we see that the restaurant arrived in the 1760s, so well before the Revolution. To understand the success of the restaurant, you have to understand the history of food in Paris, all these food professions, this excitement that we have just mentioned. The restaurant does not arrive casually. We can even wonder if he could only have been born in Paris. There were also, for centuries, catering systems that existed: inns, cabarets, the first cafes. And, already, a whole speech on the new cuisine, wanted simpler, lighter, less greasy. The first restaurants were therefore called “health houses”. In the 18th century, they were aimed at an elite. But they will quickly become democratized. All this happens first in Paris, and then spreads throughout the country and globally.

Another element that affirmed the status of Paris: the theorization of cuisine, with the writings of Grimod de La Reynière in particular. Was it a niche phenomenon at the time or did it speak to a large part of society?

When he published the first volume of his Almanac des gourmands, in 1803, it resonated with the elites, but also more broadly. The book will very quickly become a sort of guide for tourists passing through Paris. It will have a real impact, so much so that it will be plagiarized abroad. The city's success as a capital of gastronomy is not only that of culinary practice, but also that of the intellectualization of the phenomenon.

There is, in your book, material to silence the detractors of Paris and France...

Often, those who have a critical view of Paris, particularly the Anglo-Saxons, tend to say that the city is not modern. I wanted to show the opposite. Culinary Paris has existed for centuries. This important heritage, this historicity, Paris has never denied them. They do not prevent innovation or creativity. On the contrary, they contribute to it. The last notable example is that of bistronomy at the end of the 1990s. At one point, chefs were fed up with the shackles of large starred establishments and decided to do their cooking in bistros, places closely linked to the history of Paris. It is one of the major developments since the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s. And it has had a worldwide response.

History of gastronomic Paris, from the Middle Ages to the present day, by Patrick Rambourg, Perrin, 398 p., 24 euros.