Surveying the Paris food scene: a mecca again — but is it French?

The blogosphere, social media and even some normally sober dead-tree publications roar 24/7 about Paris’s contemporary food scene. Hyperbole artists daily declare this the globe’s greatest restaurant city, rebooted after lengthy decline. Upstarts in New York and London are fini, and eternal Rome is ancient history.

French cuisine is back, again?

Well, maybe.

One thing’s certain: Paris is a favorite of food lovers and peripatetic hedonists. They wing and waddle here for the cosmopolitan dining scene and the peerless patisseries, world-class bakeries, chocolate-makers, specialty food emporiums, wine and cheese and butcher shops, and scores of open markets. Goods and services range from the sublime to the ridiculous. But the overall effect, the sense of epicurean opulence, is mesmerizing.

Paris also happens to host one of the world’s great hayseed jamborees, the annual agricultural fair. Earthy, nose-twitching and kitsch, the Salon d’Agriculture transforms the Porte de Versailles into a farmyard feeding frenzy for nine days in late February. The 1,000 exhibitors draw an average 650,000 gawkers. Showcased are the combines, farming techniques, Far Side bovines, and rustic eats that make France the world’s number-two agricultural power. Thirty-five countries participated this year. But as always, France was the star. Its roosters crowed louder. And when it came to prize-winning cattle, there was plenty of French bull.The fair’s thundering herds have barely had time to vacate as thousands of foodie professionals swarm city eateries. For the second year running, this week (March 3-6) Paris welcomes the International Cookbook Fair and Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, truly a mouthful. Last year’s edition enticed 154 countries, with eight in ten of the cookbooks coming from outside France. The trend continues in 2011. Is this a commentary on French cooking?

Well, the imminent death of la cuisine française was already announced in the 1990s — but strangely enough, the invalid still seems healthy. Last November, UNESCO declared the French way of cooking and eating part of humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage.” Cocky nationalists were not the only ones to crow, but some skeptics wondered whether UNESCO was championing a species that was crossbreeding itself into oblivion.

At the very least, assuming the intangible heritage exists, it’s only one of many models for contemporary French cuisine. The truth is that the French culinary table is now more varied – and some would say, vibrant — than ever.

Trendy Paris restaurants like Mini Palais, Spring, Le Chateaubriand, Frenchie, La Gazzetta, Yam’tcha, Rino, Les Tablettes, La Bigarrade or Thoumieux are booked solid weeks ahead. Whether any of the above serves French cuisine as contemplated by UNESCO is an open question best not asked. Paris’s hip and monetarily mobile glory in the wild confusion of ingredients and techniques. The orgy of neo-post-fusion and retro flavors, served separately or folded together, is dionysian. Paris’s avant-garde chefs riff on haute and cuisine d’auteur, dipping into the passé as desired. Menus, when used, promise culinary adventurism of the kind pioneered abroad – in New York, London, San Francisco and Sydney.

Surprising? No. Many new wave Paris chefs are foreign or trained outside France. Daniel Rose (Spring) is from Chicago. Inaki Aizpitarte (Le Chateaubriand) is Basque. Grégory Marchand (Frenchie) cut his teeth among les Anglo Saxons. Petter Nilsson (La Gazzetta) is Swedish. Giovanni Passerini (Rino) is Italian. Adeline Grattard (Yam’tcha) worked in Hong Kong, returning with husband and a passion for tea.

It’s only natural that many of Paris’s hottest venues are see-and-be-seen playgrounds of gastronomy. Self-styled foodistas and gastronauts groove with acolytes of the burgeoning Parisian foodie fundamentalist movements Le Fooding and Omnivore. They reward novelty for novelty’s sake, challenging the ancien régime symbolized by the seriously passé Michelin-starred chefs. These days Robuchon, Ducasse and Savoy are so many Ben Alis, Mubaraks, and Gheddafis.

Stir in the global fashionistas and le people – hipster-speak for beautiful people – and yesterday’s bread-and-circuses becomes today’s edible art. The bread is the circus. Edibles are playthings. In this universe excellence is measured in terms of le fooding experience being ludique – i.e., fun. No matter how skilled the cook is, entertainment and atmosphere outweigh his artworks.

Gauging deliciousness or the fun-quotient is perilous. Silly complication rules. But anyone noting the emperor’s nakedness on an Ipad menu at Les Tablettes risks electronic crucifixion. Evoking le funky old Chateaubriand – before it was declared the world’s top restaurant – is heresy. Only traitors wonder what’s fun about a four-hour culinary ordeal at La Bigarrade – with postage-stamp, mismatched, roughly sliced raw veal topped with carrot flowers, herring eggs, translucent radish and ginger. And why succulent squab should share space with sublime sweetbreads at Spring is a question only an uninitiated anti-revolutionary could ask. Eat at home if you don’t like tea.

What’s astonishingly retro is how alike the songbooks are of ancient Nouvelle Cuisine evangelists and current foodie fundamentalists. “The more things change,” quipped Alphonse Karr, “the more they stay the same.” And that was in 1839.

Media noise makes it easy to forget that complication, choreographed creativity and covens of fashion-conscious cultists are only one slice of the Parisian pie. Michelin’s vision of haute still has followers. Taillevent is the flagship of a fleet of grandes tables preserved in a sea of aspic. A remnant population of classic French and authentic – not faux retro – bistros serve grandma’s real recipes to the unregenerate. Bistronomie, the trumpeted gastronomic bistro fare so many taste buds and wallets endorse, bridges the genres.

Even the bottom link of the food chain shines bright. McDonald’s France has 1,161outlets – the conglomerate’s second largest earner. But, of course, en France macaroons grace Ronald’s menu. C’est chic et ludique. UNESCO surely approves.

[flickr photos via dcbasson and 100five]