Have Fork, Will Travel
France’s new generation of eaters
On a recent Wednesday evening, a youngish crowd gathered on the banks of Paris' Seine River to catch a ride to a nearby island. After the short crossing, they sat on blankets and pillows amid crackling fire pits and ate Irish tapas. There were plates of salad greens tossed with Clonakilty blood sausage, thick with oats. Bowls of chunky seafood chowder with smoked salmon were followed by creamy mocha hazelnut meringue—all of which helped absorb a variety of whiskey-based drinks, including whiskey Mojitos. Folksy rock bands played on a makeshift stage, not loud enough to overwhelm conversation. The event was called Foodstock. And while most of the guests were better dressed and better smelling than attendees at the namesake Woodstock festival 41 years ago, both groups shared a spirit of revolution.
Foodstock was organized by Le Fooding, a movement-turned-business that for the last 10 years has spoken for a new generation of Franco Foodies. As the French Revolution replaced stale traditions of hierarchy with ideals of diversity and freedom, Le Fooding is a break from the narrowly defined principles of traditional French cuisine. The old guard is epitomized by the Michelin system, which ranks the dining experience with one, two or three stars based on a variety of exacting standards. Where the Michelin standards are based on the assumption that there is a right and wrong way to do everything, Le Fooding standards are based on the overall feeling of a place, food included. Accordingly, Le Fooding has produced its own restaurant guide that covers select restaurants all over France.
If you ask a Foodingueur to explain what he or she means by "feeling," expect a starry-eyed response. "Feeling doesn't have a translation in French," explains Constance Jouven, a communications specialist with Le Fooding. "It's a quality you feel that makes you think, I have to come back here."
According to Anna Polonsky, co-executive of Le Fooding, "Feeling is not about strict codes for how many centimeters are between each table, or how the bathroom is arranged, or how this or that food is prepared, or having truffle on the menu. Sometimes a restaurant has all the codes but isn't memorable."
If you find it strange that French foodies are reorganizing the French dining experience according to an American word that doesn't translate into French, brace yourself for this: They also claim there isn't even a French translation for "Food"—hence the adoption of the word "food" in Le Fooding.
"In France, food is either industry, science or art," says Polonsky. There are different French words for each sense, she adds, but none so inclusive as "food." By choosing a word with many different meanings, Le Fooding marked a broad chunk of culinary territory.
The word "Fooding" was coined in 1999 by Le Fooding's founder, Français Alexandre Cammas. Writing for Nova magazine, Cammas observed a shift in the habits of younger Parisians, who were showing an increasing interest in food as a recreational pursuit. "Clubbing is out," he wrote, "and Fooding is in." Today, Le Fooding shares a Paris office space with a rock 'n' roll magazine on a narrow side street, barely a stone's throw from the Bastille.
"Feeling is not about strict codes for how many centimeters are between each table, or how the bathroom is arranged, or how this or that food is prepared, or having truffle on the menu. Sometimes a restaurant has all the codes but isn't memorable."
Anna Polonsky, co-executive of Le Fooding
Like many of the impressionists who followed the realists, the Le Fooding guide favors broad strokes over minute detail. For example, "casual stubbly waiters, a hustle and bustle trendy crowd, a chef with moods, no bookings at lunch," says the guide of Le Chateaubriand. Of Les Delices du Shandong: "Chinese food and training camp for potential 'Survivor' candidates. Can you take the garlic medusa, the trashy tripe or the super hot beef soup?"
Le Fooding happenings like Foodstock are conceived as demonstrations of food-borne feeling. Recent events have included a clandestine cognac bar in the basement of the Hôtel Thoumieux and a "Paris loves New York" event at P.S. 1, in New York City. This September, Le Fooding will return to the States with a New York-versus-San Francisco event, partly inspired by the rivalry of East Coast and West Coast rap—minus, one assumes, the drive-by shootings.
"The idea is to gather what's happening right now, in terms of food, art and music," Polonsky says. "It's a snapshot of the moment."
Following a Le Fooding guide recommendation, I booked a reservation at a Paris restaurant called Derrière, which means—pardon my French—“buttocks."
An eclectic dining service was arranged around a tastefully decorated and somewhat cluttered bohemian apartment. There was a motorcycle parked beneath a crowded coat rack just inside the door, a pingpong table in the middle of the room and a cluttered desk between two tables.
My companions and I sat in an upstairs bedroom, two of us on the bed by a nightstand, below a ceiling-mounted mirror that allowed me to lie back and watch myself chew. Another party occupied a table at the foot of the bed, and another dined between components of the room's entertainment system, their bread plate on the TV, wineglasses perched on a stack of magazines. Across the room was a painting of a naked woman with her knees pulled together in the air, her derrière winking at us.
A cheerful waiter sat with us as we ordered pumpkin soup with sea urchin whipped cream; steamed cod with nori, cabbage and creamy clam jus; braised beef cheeks; scallops with orange and ginger; and lentils with horseradish. The food was exceptional, each dish arriving beautifully presented on mismatched plates. The mood in the room was jovial, and the layout seemed to foster a rare kind of intra-table intimacy. Our pumpkin soup drew questions from across the bed thanks to our chatters of approval.
During and after dinner we lounged, kitchen towel napkins on our laps, and took turns exploring the restaurant. Hidden pieces of art were tucked in closets. In the bathroom, an elevated clawfoot tub served as a very large sink. Behind a mirrored wardrobe, a hidden door opened into a smoky library with couches, a foosball table and shelves of books.
Fred de Gasquet
"You go to a restaurant not only for the food but because you have a specific desire," Polonsky had said. Indeed, if you desire to eat amazing food in a joyful, intriguing and slightly perverted ambience—a space so insanely cool it seems like a matter of time before you’ll need a secret knock to even get in the door—this is your place.
Derrière won't be earning any Michelin stars. When the guy sitting at the foot of the bed moved, I bounced. Later, a woman somehow got locked in the bathroom. Derrière did, however, win a design award from Le Fooding. But that’s not why I chose it. I chose it because, according to the guide, it was one of the few restaurants in Paris that was serving dinner on Sunday.