TEXT: EDDI FIEGEL
When it comes to the world of contemporary fine dining, celebrity chefs from the likes of Denmark and Spain may have won international acclaim over recent years, but there’s no question that France is where it all began, and where it continues to flourish.
The French have a history of exceptional cooking and a passion for savouring the delights of good food in a way that is deeply entrenched in the national culture and way of life. Similarly, they have long enjoyed a reputation for being experts in the field. In the years when British restaurant food was still considered a no-go area, French cuisine epitomised class, sophistication and a feast for the senses.
So how did French cuisine become the benchmark of quality? The answer lies back in the 18th century, when, following the French Revolution, the households of the aristocracy were dismantled and many of the country’s top chefs suddenly found themselves unemployed.
PHOTO © RESTAURANT L’ IMPERTINENT
Eager to source new ways to earn a living, many began opening their own establishments– soon named ‘restaurants’ – after the restorative ‘bouillons’ and stock-based soups served at taverns and inns for weary travellers. These chefs, however, rather than serving food at communal tables, as was the norm at inns, served customers at specially reserved private tables, treating their customers to quality table linens, crockery and cutlery in a style that remains little changed to this day.
The fashion for quality dining soon boomed and, by 1814, 15 years after the Revolution had ended, there were some three thousand restaurants recorded in Paris alone, compared to less than fifty before the Revolution.
With the 19th century rise of the railways and the growth of tourism and grand hotels, the need for quality restaurants likewise grew. This era saw the emergence of the chef considered by many to be the founder of fine dining – and indeed French cuisine as we know it today, Auguste Escoffier.
RESTAURANT LE FANAL (LEFT), PHOTO © LE FANAL | BRITTANY COAST (RIGHT), PHOTO © ALEXANDRE LAMOUREUX
Escoffier was already a renowned French chef when property developer César Ritz invited him to set up the restaurant at his newly opened Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. Escoffier subsequently worked with Ritz at both the Savoy Hotel in London and, later on, setting up the kitchens at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Other luxury hotels soon appeared throughout Europe, and French cuisine became synonymous with smart dining.
Fast forward a century or so, and in 2019, France still leads the way when it comes to restaurants with at least one Michelin star – the internationally recognised hallmark of top quality fine dining. Last year, the Michelin Guide included more than 600 restaurants across France with at least one star, and nearly 30 with three stars.
The Michelin star system of classification for fine dining is, of course, a French invention itself, and France remains a top foodie destination with more outstanding restaurants across the length and breadth of the country than any other in the world.
Over the coming pages, we’ll discover some of them: travelling from Dinard and Brittany on France’s northern coast to Biarritz on the Atlantic and the Côte d’Azur in the south. Bon appetit!
BIARRITZ SEAFRONT & HOTEL DU PALAIS, PHOTO © EMMY MARTENS