If you’re like a lot of people living outside of France, you may still be unfamiliar with the term bistronomie (English: bistronomy) and its significance with French cuisine. It’s a funny word for Americans, after all, and even one that even Yves Camdeborde, a pioneer in the French bistronomy movement, abhors. But what is bistronomy, really? And why is is such a big deal?
Bistronomy is an etymological blend of “bistro” and “gastronomy”. Wiktionary defines it as “French casual fine dining: casual decor, quality food.” But Food and Wine Magazine gave a better description in 2006 when interviewing the indelible François Simon, food critic provacateur at Le Figaro for nearly 30 years, saying that “bistronomie” is represented by a “new breed of bistros run by creative young chefs with formidable haute cuisine training who serve honest food at gentle prices instead of reaching for Michelin stars.” “Bistronomie” was first coined in 2004 byFrench journalist and food critic, Sébastien Demorand, in a special guide called Restos and Bistros by the now defunct Zurban Magazine. He used the word when reviewing La Régalade, a small bistro that Yves Camdeborde opened in 1992.
The restaurant, with it’s low-key decor, served delicious and creative food at affordable prices, giving the average wage earner a chance to taste high-cuisine on their own comfortable terms.
When the restaurant opened, it was a huge success, and the gastro-bistro trend was born.
Vive La (bistronomie) révolution !
To understand why Camdeborde (and other chefs since) made such a wave, we have to go back to when the landscape of French cuisine was strictly defined by Michelin’s infamous Red Guides.
For 100 years, more or less, these guides have been dictating what’s hot and what’s not in the world of culinary experience. No travel guide by any other publisher has come close to causing the same hype that Michelin guides have over the decades. That’s not to say other guides don’t exist, or that none are better than Michelin’s with respect to dining in Paris, but at their high-point, Red Guides generated as much buzz for chefs and their establishments as the Academy Awards does for cinema. Restaurants listed in Michelin guides are typically representative of the high-society eateries the rest of the world has come to know France to be famous for. Indeed, even in France, starred establishments in the Michelin guides embody the very definition of traditional fine dining.
Like haute couture in the fashion world, restaurants with Michelin stars represent experiences in haute cuisine.
For these chefs, cooking is an art, and taste and presentation are taken to unprecedented levels, with price tags to match.Going to a Michelin-rated restaurant isn’t a first stop on your evening’s agenda, it’s the main event.
Trouble in Michelin paradise
Red Guides have seen their share of criticism in recent years, in and outside of France. It began in the late ’90s, when The Guardian, a popular British newspaper, published a statement suggesting the main purpose of the guides are as “a tool of Gallic cultural imperialism” (“Pass Notes”, The Guardian, 23 January 1997, p. A3). In 2005, after the first Red Guide for New York City was published, Steven Kurutz, a writer for The New York Times, criticized it for not starring the Union Square Cafe a star, a popular restaurant at the time that often received high praise in the Zagat Survey and other prominent guides. More notably, Kurutz added that establishments listed in the new guide seemed to reflect those that “emphasized formality and presentation” rather than a “casual approach to fine dining,” and that over half of the restaurants that received one or two stars “could be considered French.” More of that “cultural imperialism” The Guardian commented about? But the real blows to Michelin guides came from inside France itself. In 2004, Pascal Rémy, a veteran France-based Michelin inspector (the people who anonymously visit restaurants and evaluate them for entry in Michelin guides), published a book entitled, L’Inspecteur se Met à Table, and not without a lot of legal heat from Michelin. The book made a couple of startling allegations.
First, that Michelin’s standards for evaluating restaurants had fallen, thus so had the integrity of the Red Guides themselves.
Second, that a fair amount of favoritism was given to certain chefs, who Rémy described as either established figureheads like Paul Bocuse, or those like Alain Ducasse, who, as Rémy said, “have a pool of press officers to look after them.” Rémy said these chefs were “untouchable” and not subject to the same rigorous standards as lesser-known chefs. Even François Simon believes Michelin often grants stars for political reasons on unworthy chefs. In an interview with Food and Wine Magazine in 2006, Simon compares the Red Guides to “an annoying old aunt who embarrasses you with her outdated opinions,” and that having three Michelin stars is like “a wedding picture that implores chefs to stay frozen in time.” Simon admits he’s a devotee of classic bistros like Paul Bert, and applauds the trend of “bistronomie“. That’s saying a lot from a man who’s restaurant reviews can fill a dining room over night, or send a chef running for the hills.
Gastro-bistros are born
But while journalists were making allegations about Michelin guides, a new generation of young and aspiring chefs were making a revolution. These chefs — who had not sold out to commercialism, or were beholden to Michelin star status — were breaking away from the constraints and expectations of classic haute cuisine. For them it was time to take their high talents to humbler kitchens, to provide delicious and affordable food in convivial environments without the overhead, fancy packaging, and increasingly disgruntled clients. Voilà ! The return of the neighborhood bistros as gastro-bristro establishments and the beginning of bistronomy, as it was later described. Incidentally, Camdeborde — along with Sébastien Demorand, and chefs Frédéric Anton and Amandine Chaignot — has since become a judge on the French version of MasterChef, which began airing on television in 2010.
While the pioneers of bistronomy are consumed by celebrity, many new and notable talents are worth discovering. If anything, gastro-bistro dining is only getting more exciting as bistronomy spreads across the globe. But France is where the bar is raised, and the bistros of Paris are especially worth exploring. We have a recommendation…
Caillebotte – “2014, Best Parisian Bistro of the Year”
WonderfulTime has a personal key to the gastro-bistro world — Pierre-Yves — creator of Cuisine et Terroirs Magazine, and founder of the publishing house that brought back the Lebey restaurant guides, which may well be better than Michelin’s for highlighting the best places to eat in and around Paris. No Parisian bistro, brasserie, or restaurant is unknown to Pierre-Yves. He and his team of 20 culinary experts test the best restaurants in the capital and surrounding areas and update the Lebey guides regularly.
Bistros, according to Pierre-Yves, “are hotter than they have ever been,” which he says are due to several factors: the proximity of the chef with customers, dishes focused on the best ingredients, and the toned-down friendly atmosphere of a neighborhood eatery… “Bistros are the Parisians’ second dining room.”
One of Pierre-Yves favorite bistros is Caillebotte, a place Lebey awarded Best Parisian Bistro of the Year in 2014. Pierre-Yves works with WonderfulTime to provide our clients with a unique experience at Caillebotte, where chef Franck Baranger works his culinary magic. If you want to sharpen your foot-critic skills and experience in a way journalists can only hope for, why not have a gourmet lunch or dinner with Pierre-Yves the next time you’re in Paris. Together you’ll meet and talk with chef Baranger and learn to critique a restaurant like a pro. You’ll walk away from the experience set to find the best eateries in your own neck of the woods, and will astound friends with your new culinary insights.
Interested in meeting with a Michelin-Starred Chef ?
WonderfulTime gives you a rare and unique opportunity to meet Thomas Head Chef at L’Arôme, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the 8th arrondissement.
Thomas invites you for some one-on-one time over wine and delightful samplings and will share the concepts of haute cuisine and the techniques of French gastronomy as well as his latest culinary inspirations and improvisations with you.
Thomas knows French gastronomy !