Why you should care
Because it’s a big deal for a fancy chef to open a fancy meat-free eatery in a country where vegetarians are generally despised.
In a country that has long embraced “nose-to-tail” eating, with every part of the beast considered fit for the table, taking red meat off the menu could be considered restaurant suicide. So when France’s most famous chef does precisely that after decades building his rep on meaty delights, his compatriots exclaim: “Mon Dieu!”
Parisian tongues are wagging over Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, the flagship restaurant of the man who holds more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world. Why? The establishment has reopened after months of renovation as a meat-free temple to vegetables and pulses.
Seafood remains for those who can’t fathom a meal without a chunk of once-breathing protein.
When it comes to the new menu, in are quinoa, lentils and chickpeas, while out go the frogs’ legs beignets and guinea-fowl pie, which were signature dishes of the old menu. Ditto the bacon on toast that once accompanied smoked swordfish — though seafood remains for those who can’t fathom a meal without a chunk of once-breathing protein.
“Vegetables are my passion,” Ducasse told John Laurenson, a BBC correspondent based in Paris, in a pre-opening interview. Certainly, his desire to get closer to the earth and embrace nature — bringing “a free and nearly instinctive interpretation of Haute Cuisine,” says the new restaurant’s website — won’t be that surprising to diners at Ducasse’s restaurant at London’s Dorchester Hotel, where a “cookpot” of seasonal produce is a signature dish.
Nevertheless, it’s a surprise move for a chef whose specialties elsewhere would send any vegetarian running for cover.
Ducasse serves duck foie gras at New York’s Pinch American Grill and the meat of young camels in Doha, Qatar. In St. Petersburg, Russia, he showcases suckling pig, and in Tokyo it’s Kumamoto red beef, while the pride of his Tuscan trattoria is a veal tripe salad — classic French bistro fare.
Can this be the same chef who is now offering quinoa with roots, mushrooms and quince for an eye-watering $101 per plate at the Plaza Athénée? And vegetables from the garden of the Palace of Versailles with crushed hazelnuts for $108?
It is — and the country’s most respected food critic, Gault & Millau, surprised skeptics by giving the new restaurant a slightly grudging thumbs up. The restaurant guide salutes a cuisine “zen and revolutionary like never before,” even if it describes a dressed-down room with bare wooden tables as “a model farm” and acidly pronounces the new dining concept an attempt to replicate the Garden of Eden.
Laurenson, who has seen vegetarian friends abused by French chefs — serving them salads and tarts contaminated with morsels of pate or bacon — hopes positive response to Ducasse’s bold lead will improve the life of veggies in Paris.
Vegetarians in France are odd ducks. Culinary deprivation is neither sexy nor patriotic here.
He is not alone in noting the ill-treatment of plant eaters in a country that outlawed vegetarianism in French schools in 2011. “Vegetarians in France are odd ducks,” former Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino blogged in The New York Times earlier this year. “Culinary deprivation is neither sexy nor patriotic here,” she added, pointing out that less than two percent of the population identify as veggies.
The hope now, given that Ducasse has a cooking school, is that his menu innovations will trickle down. With luck, diners hunting for a decent meat-free meal in France may in the future be catered to by chefs prepared to take them seriously, and served something both unadulterated by flesh and more interesting than a plate of boiled turnips.