Ze Food is Ze Life

Carême wasn’t without his critics. One of them was another of the world’s great food innovators, Antoine Beavilliers. Beauvilliers is credited with inventing the first “true” restaurant, which is to say, an eating establishment that combined food with décor, expert service and a top-notch wine cellar. His restaurant, La Grande Taverne de Londres was the place to be seen in Paris both before and after the Revolution (it was closed during it), and was frequented by Brillat-Savarin, the gastronome and writer whose famous quote “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are” appears at the beginning of Iron Chef episodes.

Beauvilliers was an egomaniac is his own right, yet it’s fair to say his emphasis was on creating perfect, pleasing dining experiences. As a result he was extremely critical of high-concept cuisine that placed a greater emphasis on what food looked like and stood for than what it tasted like. I don’t think anyone could fairly criticize Carême for not caring what food tasted like. Yet there’s no doubt that Carême looked at food in a much broader social context, at least after meeting Talleyrand. That partnership may well have marked food’s official entry into the realm of politics, and it’s never left (at least in France).

But that’s the way those French folks are. Unlike Americans who like their food in a restaurant, politics in a voting booth, sex in a bedroom and clothes in a department store, the French like the whole shootin’ match together on one conceptual grande buffet. For them, the manner in which you conduct foreign policy has a direct impact on the pattern of your living room upholstery. It’s all of a piece, which is why French politicians like Dominique de Villepin decry American military adventurism by day and sign poetry books at night. It’s a way of looking at the world that is uniquely French, and that has imbued their intellectual society with a singular vitality for hundreds of years. The Talleyrand-Carême combo may be its archetypal example.

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