Who Says French Food Can't Be Friendly? 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.
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Who Says French Food Can't Be Friendly?

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Who Says French Food Can't Be Friendly?

Who Says French Food Can't Be Friendly?

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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.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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