RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As this nation heads into the heavy eating season, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg is back from a country where it was once impossible to get a bad meal. Then things went downhill. Now, says Susan, great French food is coming back.
SUSAN STAMBERG: Americans who were lucky enough to go to France decades ago never forgot their first encounter with great French cooking. For Michael Steinberger, it was some peas he ate in the Loire Valley in 1980.
Mr. MICHAEL STEINBERGER (Author): They think, you 13-year-old American kid, what the hell do you know from peas? But that was the thing; the peas were so absolutely delicious. I've never tasted anything this good.
STAMBERG: Some 30 years later, in a book called "Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France," Steinberger says those pea epiphanies are long past for various reasons.
Mr. STEINBERGER: France is now McDonald's second most profitable market in the world.
STAMBERG: And McDonald's is the largest private sector employer in the country. A McDoh's(ph), as they call it, will open in the food court of the Louvre. Sacre bleu, what happened? Well, working families have less time for home cooking; young people aren't raised on great food; French wine, cheese and bread-makers have had all kinds of problems. Plus, running a restaurant is hard work in France: high taxes, loads of bureaucracy, stifling rules…
Mr. STEINBERGER: You've seen a lot of young chefs, very talented ones, leave to open restaurants in New York and London because it was a heck of a lot easier to open a business in these cities - and to run one and to turn a profit.
Unidentified Man #1: (French language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (French language spoken)
STAMBERG: But there is a mini revolution under way: a rethinking and reviving of classic French cooking. The heck with the demanding Michelin rating system that awards coveted and stress-producing stars to formal, fortune-charging temples of food. The new way, Michael Steinberger says, is called bistronomie.
Mr. STEINBERGER: Bistronomie is this idea that's taken root here in Paris - young, very talented chefs who have decided, you know what, we don't want to have anything to do with this Michelin system. We don't care about winning three stars. We don't want to have these luxury palaces where you've got five or six people in penguin suits hovering over you. We don't want to do that, and the clientele doesn't want it anymore. What they want is good food at a price they can afford.
STAMBERG: Their guru is a cheerful, scratchy-voiced dynamo named Christian Constant(ph).
Mr. CHRISTIAN CONSTANT (Chef): (French language spoken)
STAMBERG: Fifty-nine now, Constant began apprenticing in kitchens when he was 14. For eight years, he was chef at the Crillon, one of Paris's top hotels.
Mr. CONSTANT: (French language spoken)
STAMBERG: He walked away from a pretty certain third star there and opened a small place near the Eiffel Tower. Leave the Crillon? Constant's Scottish wife, Catherine(ph), tells why.
Ms. CATHERINE CONSTANT: He had the impression that he was falling asleep in the kitchen. He was getting a bit stagnating.
STAMBERG: So he left, and encouraged a generation of marvelous young chefs who had apprenticed with him over the years to do the same.
Mr. CONSTANT: (French language spoken)
Ms. CONSTANT: (French language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: (French language spoken)
STAMBERG: Now, Christian Constant has four small and lively restaurants, all on the same Paris streets. One serves mostly fish; another, casseroles. The French president ate there. A third is a corner café. And the fourth is an upscale bistro. On a recent Saturday night, Parisians began arriving at 7 - for them, a decidedly un-chic hour - o get tables and terrific food at reasonable prices.
Mr. CONSTANT: (Through translator) Now we have this restaurant where everybody enjoys working, and we love the relationship that we have with the clients now. It's much more relaxed but still professional.
Unidentified Woman: I am eating a scallops and then (French language spoken).
Mr. CONSTANT: (French language spoken)
STAMBERG: Constant's kitchens are tiny and jammed with soups and stocks and sous chefs. It's like a rugby team, he says. Playing alone, you are nothing but together, it's really back to bon appetit.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, with recent memories of scallops in butter, and oranges and peas and endives.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Alas, there are no nibbles, but you can get a list of restaurants and pictures and menus at npr.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Fine French cuisine doesn't have to mean waiters in tuxedos ferrying trays of oysters or silver-domed serving dishes. Chef Christian Constant is leading a mini-revolution in Paris; he's opened four small, lively restaurants that are comfortable, welcoming — and delicieux.
Think of "fine French cuisine" and you imagine pressed linen tablecloths, a lineup of wine glasses, tuxedoed waiters ferrying trays of oysters or silver-domed serving dishes. It's an experience that has persisted for generations: formal, classical and expensive.
But the definition of the quintessential French dining experience is evolving, thanks in part to one Paris chef. For eight years, Chef Christian Constant ran the kitchen at Crillon, one of the city's top hotels, where he earned two coveted Michelin rating-system stars. But at the height of his success he left the hotel restaurant to branch out on his own.
"He had the impression that he was falling asleep in the kitchen," Constant's wife, Catherine, says. "He was getting a bit stagnating."
Constant now has four restaurants, each one small and relatively inexpensive, but still focused on quality food. (Take a look at one of the menus.) He's leading a mini-revolution that's reverberating in a small-but-devoted segment of France's culinary community.
For author Michael Steinberger, the revolution has arrived just in time. Steinberger has a new book called Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, in which he laments the decline of the French culinary tradition.
It's not that you can't still get great food, but something essential has changed, Steinberger says. Working families have less time for cooking at home, so French children aren't raised on great food. Bread, wine and cheese makers have all faced problems, and high taxes and bureaucracy make running a restaurant so difficult that many of Paris's top young chefs have defected to London or New York.
For Steinberger, France's culinary slide is a loss that neither the stuffy, rigidly designed, Michelin-starred restaurants nor the hugely popular McDonald's chain — a location is planned for the food court at the Louvre — can make up for.
But he says that a generation of young French chefs, trained by Constant, has started cooking classical French food and serving it in simpler surroundings, for reasonable prices.
"Bistronomie is this idea that's taken root here in Paris," Steinberger says. "Talented chefs have decided, 'You know what, we don't want to have anything to do with this Michelin system. We don't care about winning three stars. We don't want to have these luxury palaces where you've got five or six people in penguin suits hovering over you. We don't want to do that and our clientele doesn't want it anymore. What they want is good food at prices they can afford.'"
Judging from the lines outside his restaurants, Christian Constant seems to be giving the people what they want — no more complicated place settings, hovering wine stewards and uptight staff. Constant's staff — which he likens to a rugby team — manages to produce small wonders from tiny kitchens, in a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that seems to please everyone involved.
"We have this restaurant where everybody enjoys working," Constant says, his wife Catherine acting as translator. "We love the relationship that we have with our clients now. It's much more relaxed, but still professional."