Book Review: “Au Revoir to All That” by Michael Steinberger

I suspect that in middle America — and perhaps anywhere else the Western world — most people would assume that the French have cemented their reputation as the world’s culinary avant garde. It’s certainly a fair assumption. Not only have the French enjoyed an enviable culinary tradition for the last two centuries, but Western pop culture has reinforced this idea again and again. The notion of sophisticated French cuisine has become an enduring cultural archetype both here and abroad, as seen recently in movies like 2007′s “Ratatouille,” or even going back 20 years prior, to the Danish film “Babette’s Feast.” Within the media, French cuisine has been portrayed as the Western standard for decades now, and pop culture has continued to reinforce this hierarchy. Even one of America’s earliest and greatest culinary icons, Julia Child, had deep roots in French cuisine.

But for those who have been following culinary trends for the last 10 years, the center of culinary relevance has slowly shifted outside of France. As author Michael Steinberger points out in his book “Au Revoir to All That,” several factors have contributed to France’s declining culinary influence, including the nation’s poor economy and its general complacency, the rise of chef Ferran Adriá and Spain’s nuevo cocina, the increased competition of fine wine from the New World, and the recent “franchising” of French chefs in overseas markets, such as Las Vegas and New York. Of course, based upon its long history of culinary contributions, France will still continue to enjoy a large stake in the game, but its chip count has steadily eroded over the years, and perhaps for good.

With each chapter, “Au Revior to All That” delivers an insightful analysis of the French malaise, supported with thoughtful and compelling research. Steinberger also provides many terrific first-hand anecdotes along the way, making the text both approachable and engaging. What surprised me the most, however, was a statistic in the book’s seventh chapter, titled “Fast-Food Nation,” in which Steinberger reveals that France has become the single-biggest market for McDonald’s outside of America. Talk about undermining some deep-seated stereotypes — the French have actually embraced the Golden Arches? While it may still be true that most Westerners might still give France the benefit of the doubt when it comes to gastronomy, in reality, globalization seems to have cost France far much more than it has gained.

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