One thing France has never been is cool. Sure, a Coco or a Bardot pops up now and then; you might argue that Paris had a hot minute or two a half-century or so ago. But the French, in general? Non. They have always seemed slightly slow on the uptake to me – the sort of stuff a French person thinks is cool is the sort of stuff you thought was cool when you were about half their age. Le verlan, the argot beloved of French teenagers, a secret language grown-ups couldn’t understand? Totally rad – when you were fucking seven. Text-heavy, inscrutable t-shirts? I know a tween keen to self-advertise as 100% PURE BITCH. Smoking at thirty? Sick! Can my 15 year-old self bum a light?
One thing I have never been, either, is cool. And that’s fine – or rather it’s fine now. I’ve learned to live with my deficiency, can accept the fact that I’m never going to be at the cutting edge. In some ways, it comes as a relief: schlepping further and further afield to do whatever the in thing is (knowing how boringly straight-edge and covetous of analogue culture millennials are, it’s probably playing hangman, or doing 1000-piece puzzles) is no longer something that consumes my Saturday evenings. I am free to be myself: grumpy, prematurely middle-aged, uncool.
Except I have a secret, a hidden superpower, what soulless McKinseyish Human Capital specialists would call a “spike”. I have to whisper – come closer. My secret is this: I am in perhaps the top percentile of people in London when it comes to knowing about and going to cool restaurants. And I don’t mean “cool” like Black Roe or Sexy Fish, bottomless cashpits where you throw jewel-sized microbites of ponzu-laced seafood down your unfeeling moneyed gullet next to supermodels and someone in Private Equity. I mean properly, edgily cool: the source-streams that turn into rivers that empty out into the vast ocean of mass-market taste. I was at Berber&Q when it was just Berber& (no queue, see?); I remember the two-item menu with which Som Saa launched their brunch offering when they were still under Climpson’s Arch; I had a Mission Chinese-spiced kebab at Black Axe Mangal when they still had their original floorplan – and I was cool enough to recognise the nod to Danny Bowien’s San Francisco restaurant, which I had visited in 2012, because I was cool then, too.
I have felt the change coming over me: where once lists like Observer Food Monthly’s 50 Things to Watch in 20xx acted as a useful guide to things to check out, now they’re more of a checklist: done, done, done twice, we’re still doing that? At first I was fine with it – at first it was almost an accident, arriving out of sheer expediency: I liked the sound of a place, and didn’t want to have to queue for hours once the crowds got there, so got in early. I wore it as a badge of pride – it’s George, the cool restaurant guy! But soon it became a burden, and I realised what cool people for generations before me had found out the hard way: being cool is exhausting. You can’t just be forward-looking, eyeing-up the new new thing: everything in the present is under constant audit, too. Sriracha is out; gochujang is on the way, too. What is the next sourdough? Am I post-kale? It’s 2016: what literal piece of shit dares serve a fillet steak, rather than a knotted ball of tendons?
It is probably just as well I moved to France on a temporary basis, took some time to (ha!) cool down. Because if there’s one thing that the French restaurant scene is not, it is cool. Yes, there are exceptions: I am particularly taken with Top 50-bothering Septime’s little sister Clamato, and the effortlessly bilingual South East Asian / French fusion at Le Servan. Yes, again – a few big names still exert some influence: Alain Pasard was arguably doing the whole vegetable-centric thing a decade ago (albeit at several hundred Euros for a light lunch). But you cannot deny that a great and meaningful shift has occurred: whatever the Michelin guide says, the focal point of the global culinary scene is no longer Paris – it is Spain, or Copenhagen, or New York, or Tokyo, or wherever the leading chefs from those places get together and talk about how profoundly meaningful, how supremely fucking dope, the cooking of their grandmothers was.
A possible reason why this shift had occurred popped into my head unbidden during a three-hour lunch at L’Assiette Champenoise, a three-star place in Reims. Despite the garlands from Michelin, you could extend the World’s 50 Best Restaurants to 500 and I have no doubt this place would still struggle to get a look-in: everything – from the hushed and reverent service to the glassily, astronomically expensively boring décor, to the ageless simplicity of the presentation – screamed its uncoolness into the void. In terms of what we ate, I’d put it right up there – certainly above the scattergun miscellany we rollercoasted through at David Chang’s Ssam Bar (to pick a onetime 50 Best occupant). I simply cannot tell you how delicious some of the things I put in my mouth were: crab flecked with lime zest in a pool of pea purée; John Dory with a leek velouté; a sauce Albufera (that’s foie gras and port) of both grace and depth; astonishing cannelés; a lemon dessert that bore more than a passing familiarity with Paul Pairet’s at Mr and Mrs Bund in Shanghai (both of which managed to give you a whacking great dose of acidity thereby leaving you refreshed, not deflated, after 180 minutes of eating – a genuine achievement). But it was the one dud course that made me think: a thin, insipid broth topped with some braised carrot and cabbage and a quenelle of grain mustard – supposedly an echo of the simple meals enjoyed by the vine workers in the fields nearby. But, weirdly, all it made me think of was my grandmother.
She died a few years ago now; when I was growing up and both my parents we working, we’d go and stay with her quite often. Obviously as a kid you’re not aware of it but looking back, they were not especially well-off, and the cooking was simple: pies with the blackberries from down the lane; home-fried fish and handcut chips; a stew of carrots, potatoes, cabbage and chicken, Coleman’s on the side. It was this flavour profile that my mind was reaching for despite the surroundings; it was the only time in the meal I was distracted, made to think of something other than the supreme deliciousness of the incredibly prime ingredients cooked with genuinely impeccable technique.
David Chang is right; your grandmother’s food is dope: if you’re lucky enough to have it at a formative age, it stays with you forever, emerging at the strangest moments. Even now, nearing my thirtieth birthday, when I am feeling poorly I can usually salvage things by putting some root vegetables and half a chicken in a pot. Because food is not just the pleasure taken in eating delicious things. And that is perhaps why French food – even the post-Alain Chapel, nouvelle cuisine-inflected food served at L’Assiette Champenoise – is so deeply uncool right now: there are so many interesting conversations going on, and it wants no part of them, confining itself instead to the sybaritic, gluttonous pleasure of pure consumption. The sort of thing that comes to mind when considering the worst excesses of foodie culture: an endless procession of dishes, human gavage, Andy Hayler’s sentient chin. I mean, there are times when this is fine (in fact, I would submit a rainy Bank Holiday Monday in Champagne as the perfect such occasion). But man cannot live on bread and beurre Echiré alone – there is more to sustenance than that. For now, I will live with my coolness, and will accept your eyerolls as you walk past me in a queue. But maybe in time what is now seen as the preserve of a few wankerish twats in Hackney will become the norm: a more meaningful, more thoughtful interaction with food as an idea as much as a thing. Après nous, le déjeuner.