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The Precious Few : French Haute Cuisine Is Hanging In There--Barely


AUCH, France — Diners are few and far between in the mirrored dining hall of the celebrated Hotel de France. Under soaring ceilings--circa Napoleon III--a visitor from Brittany quietly enthuses over a plate of duck: "I thought I'd eaten duck before, but never like this!" His comment carries across the room because there are so few other voices.

"I could fill this room every day if I served steak and fries, but I'd rather have it like this and continue to do what I love," says chef and owner Andre Daguin, who pioneered a revival in upscale regional French cuisine.

"This restaurant has never been profitable," he adds. "But I earn a good living doing other things, and I can do my work the way I want to. The great restaurants that remain [in France] have owners who do the same."

Daguin, along with other great chefs of France, is bucking a trend toward cheaper, faster, more standard fare that threatens the survival of the nation's top restaurants.

"France has the most renowned agriculture and the most renowned chefs in the world. The two go together," he says. "McDonald's serves beef and potatoes. Unless we keep up our close association between quality chefs and quality products, we'll go the same way."

Alexandre Lazareff, chairman of the Paris-based National Center of Culinary Arts, an organization that aims to revive traditional French cooking, agrees. "Twenty years ago, you could count from 50 to 100 great restaurants in France that were prospering; today, you could name only 12," he says. "And you'd have real problems quickly citing the next great chefs among the 20- and 30-year-olds."

French haute cuisine is becoming more like its haute couture: a very small number of great chefs making very fine food for very high prices, he adds. Like the great designers, the great chefs put on a gastronomic show in their restaurants, but many are making their money by the food equivalent of "ready to wear"--opening lower-priced bistros and exporting products abroad.

For Daguin, along with his restaurant and hotel, there are a mail-order business and boutique that sell this southwest region's signature foie gras and confits, along with tableware, wines, his own books on Gascon cooking and a videocassette of 14 recipes, including a 2,000-year-old technique for making confit.

Not all gastronomes have taken kindly to such diversification. Last month, an article critical of the extracurricular activities of France's top chefs was widely reported by the international press before its author explained that the story was a hoax.

The article by leading food critic Perico Legasse in the French weekly "L'Evenement du Jeudi" falsely reported that the 1996 Michelin Guide to hotels and restaurants would award its first-ever fourth star to Claude Peyrot, chef-owner of Paris's Le Vivarois--effectively demoting all the other great restaurateurs. The reason: Peyrot had not exploited his name for media hype.

"He could have stood up with the other stars of the stove, but he preferred to work, sometimes with existential anguish of the artist, as a worker, a peasant, an artisan . . . that is, as a cook," Legasse wrote.

Perhaps the "existential anguish" part should have given away the hoax, but the point of the satire--that the great chefs of France had lost something of their art on the way to television spots and their own lines of cookware--seemed at least plausible to the wire service and international newspapers that picked up the report.

"This was an April Fool's Day prank intended to shake the world of gastronomy out of its doldrums," Legasse later told reporters.

In Paris, Vivarois owners shrugged off their brush with immortality. "The mode is changing," Jacqueline Peyrot says. "You're seeing more and more McDonald's, even in Paris. Those of us that remain in high-quality cuisine must have much tenacity and courage."

Few foods exemplify the assault on the traditional French palate as clearly as the hamburger, which routinely appears in French political speeches to evoke the dangers of external threats to French culture.

Some chefs say that changing family lifestyles are to blame for dumbing down the national cuisine.

"It's all a question of taste," says Patrick Martin, chef of chefs and international vice president of the Paris-based Cordon Bleu cooking school. "Once the salary of one parent was enough to raise a family in France, and mothers stayed at home and cooked good, traditional food. With more and more mothers working, women have less time to teach their children how to eat."

"We're now looking at two generations of diners who have lost the taste for classic French cooking at home," he adds. "As a result, high-priced French restaurants now face a struggle to survive."

But the Cordon Bleu's chef of chefs also sees opportunity for French chefs in lower-priced bistros and new international markets.

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