Hold the French Fries! Paris Olympics Chart a New Gastronomic Course.

May 29, 2024
Dining & Wine
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There will be no French fries for the 15,000 athletes at the Olympic Games that open in France in July. Yes, you read that right.

In what is being called the biggest restaurant in the world — a 700-foot-long former electrical power plant at the heart of the Olympic Village — there will be no foie gras, either, but vegetarian hot dogs and quinoa muesli will abound.

Strolling the length of what is known as the nave, a light-filled vaulted space where some 45,000 meals a day will be served 24/7 throughout the Olympics and Paralympics, Stéphane Chicheri and Charles Guilloy, the chefs in charge, sang the praises of vegetarian shawarma, za’atar-spiced sweet potatoes with hummus, cabbage pickles, beetroot falafel and grilled eggplant with smoked paprika.

This is a far cry from the classic French cuisine of elaborate sauces and “enough melted butter to thrombose a regiment,” as A.J. Liebling once described a dish.

But these are 21st-century Games on a warming planet. Carbon imprint trumps cassoulet. Vegetable protein is the thing; and of course athletes have to perform in a country of a thousand epicurean delights that are no-noes to their exacting nutritionists.

“French fries are too risky because of fire-hazard concerns over deep-fat fryers,” Mr. Guilloy explained. “No to foie gras because animal well-being is on everyone’s mind, and no to avocados because they are imported from a great distance and consume a lot of water.”

So how French sans French fries can these ecological Games be?

“Don’t worry; we’ll have French cheeses, blanquette of veal but with a lightened sauce, and of course baguettes,” Mr. Chicheri said with a smile. “Athletes will even be able to learn to make bread with a master baker.”

About 500 different dishes will be served at the Olympic Village dining hall in Saint-Denis, just north of Paris. The building is itself a tribute to environment-conscious adaptation: an almost century-old power plant of wrought-iron skeleton that became a movie studio before being transformed over the past year into a giant restaurant.

The Olympic Village restaurant will open as a global campaign by the government to boost French gastronomic impact and appeal gathers pace. With some 15 million visitors expected at the games, two million of them foreigners, France itself will be on display, and in particular Paris, posing the challenge of how to energize a tradition-bound culinary culture.

This is a critical moment for French cuisine, whose pedigree is undisputed but whose image has languished. How many “likes” these days does beef Bourguignon get beside ceviche, tapas or an omakase dinner?

“We’re a country of centuries-old gastronomic tradition, but the truth is that if you have a talent and you don’t nurture it, it can fade,” Olivia Grégoire, the minister for tourism, said in an interview.

She visited New York this month to promote a new multimillion-dollar initiative designed to introduce young chefs and innovative French dishes in places that will initially include South Korea, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “Food is French soft power,” Ms. Grégoire said. “It is also hard money.”

More than 800,000 people are employed in the restaurant business in France, and the gastronomic sector, including wine and spirits, generates more than $55 billion a year in revenue.

In few countries is the ritual gathering around a table as important. In even fewer is pride so intense in the varied produce of “terroirs,” particular parcels of land with their own soil and climate, from the Alps to the Atlantic and from Normandy to the Mediterranean.

“The finest gastronomy is in our DNA; it’s a reference for all students of haute cuisine,” said Alain Ducasse, one of the most acclaimed French chefs who has been chosen to cater the July 26 Olympics opening dinner for heads of state, at which the chef has been asked to serve beef.

“But there is a new international challenge and we have been slow to be part of it,” he said. “Talent is everywhere. We need to wake up to that.”

With 34 restaurants, and 18 Michelin stars, in Europe, Asia and the United States, Mr. Ducasse is no slouch, and there are other French chefs, like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, who have successfully seen the world as their market.

But even as French cuisine has changed — adding fusion touches to old dishes in ways that have spawned the “néobistrot” and introducing “le sharing” as a shockingly novel way of eating — its image has scarcely changed.

In this context, the repertoire at the Olympic Village could be an important game changer. There will be six “grab-and-go” outlets, Asian cuisine, Afro-Caribbean dishes, vegetarian shawarma, hamburgers (meat, vegetarian or a combination of the two), Middle Eastern food and halal cuisine. Kosher food will also be available on demand.

Patatas bravas will probably be the closest anyone gets to French fries.

Two fully fledged French restaurants are planned — but without such classics as steak tartare, blood sausage or choucroute. Wine, of course, is off limits because in the end the point of this 46,000-square-foot emporium with 3,623 seats is to ready athletes for top performance.

The other point is to underscore that France takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.

The French Olympic authorities banned throwaway cutlery and plates. They have not banished trash cans from kitchens, as some Paris restaurants have, but they do demand a zero-waste culture. Some 80 percent of ingredients will be French, and 25 percent from within 155 miles of Paris. Halving the carbon imprint of the Tokyo or London Olympics is the target.

The French company organizing this vast catering enterprise is Sodexo Live, a branch of the Sodexo company, which employs 420,000 people in food services and facility management worldwide. Sodexo Live, which has catered 15 Super Bowls as well as 36 Roland Garros tennis tournaments in France, knows its business, but the scale of this challenge is unique.

“We are hiring 6,000 people. Our aim is that everyone should feel at home and that we marry the nutrition an athlete needs with gastronomic pleasure,” Nathalie Bellon-Szabo, the chief executive of Sodexo Live, said in an interview.

To that end, three much-lauded chefs have been chosen, each of whom will appear for a couple of days every week at the Olympic Village and prepare the creative dishes that France wants the world to know better.

They are Alexandre Mazzia, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has a restaurant in Marseille, AM, that bears a strong African influence and three Michelin stars; Akrame Benallal, who grew up in Algeria and runs Restaurant Akrame, a Paris restaurant with one star and some astonishing combinations of flavors — crab with gray shrimp and coffee, for example; and the French-born Amandine Chaignot, whose Café de Luce serves some of the most succulent frogs’ legs in the capital.

“French cuisine is emancipating itself. It has realized the need to change,” Mr. Mazzia, 47, said. “For me French cuisine is now multicultural, with different roots and spices, lighter, allied to a savoir-faire we must preserve.”

Mr. Benallal, 42, calls himself an “architect of taste,” forever sketching the presentation of new dishes because he believes “we eat first with our eyes.” His red and white quinoa muesli, topped with Parmesan, a little mascarpone and some smoked yogurt is typical of the inventiveness that has brought him a wide following.

“French cuisine is sometimes seen as boring,” he said. “It’s not boring. It’s singular. My restaurant is a cabinet full of curiosities, and that is what I will bring to the Games.”

As for Ms. Chaignot, 45, she has prepared a poached-egg croissant with artichoke cream, goat cheese and truffles to be eaten on the go at the Olympic Village. Another creation is a chicken dish with langoustines.

Even in a changing culinary world there are some constants. What, I asked her, defines French cuisine today?

“Butter is France,” she said. “And France is butter.”

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