French chef Alain Ducasse pleaded with President Emmanuel Macron to allow a gradual reopening of the country’s restaurants Friday, with the birthplace of haute cuisine badly burned by the coronavirus lockdown.
With some of the greatest cooks in the world reduced to setting up food trucks and starting takeaway services to keep their heads above water, hard-pressed French restaurants are demanding bailouts and tax and rent holidays to get them through the crisis.
Almost all the one million people who work in France’s hospitality industry have been left idle by its strict lockdown, with cafes and restaurants set to remain closed after the first restrictions are relaxed from May 11.
In the meantime, leading culinary world figures like Ducasse are having to adapt.
While he made the case to Macron for the cultural and economic necessity of France being able to eat out again, meals from his fashionable Paris establishments were being delivered by bicycle to clients who have been starved of gastronomic delights for five weeks.
The two-star Michelin chef Jean Sulpice — who was rival guide Gault & Millau’s chef of the year in 2018 — has also had to compromise his unusually high-blown artistic creations to fit into a takeaway box.
One of the first top chefs to go down the click-and-collect route, diners can pick up a saddle of lamb for a knockdown price of 22 euros ($23) or veal sweetbreads with morilles mushrooms for 35 euros from his Auberge du Pere Bise near the shores of Lake Annecy in the Alps.
‘We have to reinvent’
“We have to reinvent ourselves,” Sulpice told AFP, saying he has now got used to cooking wearing gloves and a mask.
“When we do reopen — and we still do not know when that will be — my professional life will not be the same,” the young cook admitted.
Alsatian chef Olivier Nasti has also had to improvise, delivering to homes within 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) of his restaurant at Kaysersberg, which takes in a swathe of country up to the German border.
“You have to find some way around this otherwise you would be knocked over,” said the two-star chef, who is also setting up a food truck amid the village’s famous vineyards.
While his ideas are working for now — he had 700 takeaway orders within the first four days — Nasti worries for the future of fine dining.
With no vaccine or treatment in sight, he wonders if people will go back to sharing a small dining room after the paranoia unleashed by COVID-19.
‘Tables three metres apart?’
“What are we supposed to do?” he asked. “Have tables three metres (10 feet) apart with masked waiters?”
With the small high-quality producers and fishermen who supply top-end French restaurants also devastated by the lockdown, the hyper trendy Marseille chef Alexandre Mazzia is delivering crates of their gastronomic goodies with his own cooking.
Gault & Millau’s chef of the year for 2019 wraps his own dishes like rillettes of dentex fish and curry and buckwheat tiramisu into packages containing the ingredients and recipes to recreate his creations at home.
The Tour d’Argent in Paris, one of Europe’s oldest and most venerable institutions which looks out onto Notre-Dame cathedral, has also got in on the takeaway act.
The numbered fowl from which it produces its legendary pressed duck dish are now being delivered oven-ready for those with appetites and pockets deep enough for the delicacy.
But many top chefs — including several of the small army of Japanese chefs making a name for themselves in France — have spent the lockdown cooking for health workers.
Takashi Kinoshita has been delivering a daily menu of seasonal treats such as asparagus soup, gougeres a l’epoisses (profiteroles made with a deliciously stinky local cheese) and fluffy chocolate mousse to doctors and nurses in Dijon from his kitchen at the nearby Chateau de Courban.
“It’s a way of saying ‘arigato’, thanks,” Kinoshita told AFP.
“In Japan, when there is a natural or health-related catastrophe we look to see what we can do. One must always think of others,” he said.
Kinoshita has inspired a group of other Japanese Michelin-starred chefs in the Burgundy region south of Paris to join him in treating hospital workers with dishes such as Pinot Noir-marinated braised chuck steak and savoury macaroons with black currant mustard.