Annals of Gastronomy

No Rules!

Is Le Fooding, the French culinary movement, more than a feeling?

by Adam Gopnik April 5, 2010

I suppose I would have an easier time deciding if the Paris-based French food-guide-and-festival group that calls itself Le Fooding is going to be able to accomplish all that it has set out to accomplish—which seems to be nothing less than to save the preëminence of French cuisine from going the way of the Roman Empire, the five-act tragedy, and the ocean liner—if I had an easier time defining what it is and truly hopes to do. That it is a phenomenon is beyond dispute, its success having reached the point where the French daily Figaro announced, last summer, that French food is now divided into two families, each with its own public and cultural identity: “On the one side, Michelin, with its century of cultural expertise; on the other the Fooding guide, born ten years ago in an attempt to break the codes and finally offer real change to a gastronomy that its authors judge to be outdated.”

Yet what, exactly, the new family stands for can be hard to say. At some moments, Le Fooding seems earnest, in the manner of the Slow Food movement; at others, it is merely festive, a good-time gang; at still others, it appears determined to wrench the entire culture of good food in France from its historic place, on the nationalist right, to a new home, in the libertarian center. To spend a few months studying its founders and their ideas is to get pretty much the same feeling you get when, studying French history, you have to take up the story of Jansenism at Port-Royal in the seventeenth century: all you can really figure out is that it’s important, that it’s a heresy, and that it’s hard to follow.

The Fooding restaurant guide is the most obvious of the group’s activities. Since its founding, in 2000, by Alexandre Cammas and Emmanuel Rubin, two gastronomic journalists exasperated by the conformity and conservatism of French food culture, Le Fooding has published, from its Right Bank offices, a handsome, atypically larksome, and unusually honest annual encyclopedia of the restaurants and bistros of both Paris and the provinces. (The guide boasts on its cover that its writers pay their own checks and can prove it—not a thing universally true of French food guides.) But the guide is, in a sense, merely the word, not the act, of the enterprise. The movement, which has been reinforced over the years by a constantly changing team of other Fooding-istes, also sponsors mass picnics—“Foodings”!—at which three-star French chefs, long separated from their diners by a kitchen door and centuries of decorum, offer good food in casual, high-spirited settings. These Foodings take place all over France; the atmosphere is somewhere between a buffet dinner and the Woodstock festival.

Le Fooding is in part a move to épater la bourgeoisie—it was at a Fooding event that the young chef Petter Nilsson famously assembled a plate of vegetables that symbolized the world’s religions, with a giant frite in the shape of a cross on top—but it has also been accused, by left-wing journalists, of representing the bourgeoisie; the populist left-wing magazine Marianne charged that it was a kind of cosmopolitan fifth column in the continuing modern assault on French values, and Emmanuel Rubin left the movement last year, disillusioned by what he considered its loss of moral mission.

I first heard about Le Fooding in an e-mail from Raphaël Glucksmann, the filmmaker and human-rights activist (and the son of the philosopher André Glucksmann). “For once, I’m not writing on behalf of the Chechens, the Rwandans, or the Georgians,” he explained cheerfully, and then urged me to meet with his friend Zoe Reyners, who was coming to New York as a kind of avant-garde of the Fooding movement here. Zoe turned out to be an exquisite, nervous blonde in white linen, with a distinct resemblance to the young Brigitte Fossey, and she explained that Le Fooding was planning to come to New York for its first American event, a marriage of art, food, and festival that would be called “Le Fooding d’Amour” and would take place on the grounds of P.S. 1, creating a kind of Lafayette-Washington moment in Queens. The best of the new generation of French chefs were flying in to meet the best of the new generation of Americans and cook alongside them. She gave me a copy of the latest Fooding guide, which was illustrated by the young cartoonists who bring so much life these days to French journalism. The cover showed King Kong ripping the dome from a Haussmannian restaurant palace with a look of utter satisfaction as he eats the bourgeois diners inside with an enormous silver spoon. The tone of the reviewing had a jocose quality quite new in France: the section on three-star-style temples was called “Fais-Moi Mal!”—literally, “Make Me Ache!,” or, idiomatically, “Hurt Me!” Zoe asked if I’d like to meet Alexandre Cammas, who was arriving in New York the following month for an extended reconnaissance of the new world. “He will be taking a house in Brooklyn, with his family, in order to lay the groundwork for American Fooding,” she said.

I met Alexandre, with Zoe, in Bryant Park; he turned out to be the Danton of the Fooding movement, one of those passionately articulate young Frenchmen who speak with the relentless eloquence of French letters and philosophy, answering each rhetorical question as they raise it. “Fooding?” he said. “I was writing for the magazine Nova, and I needed a rhyme for the title of a piece.” We had now settled on a bench. “I intended the word as a mélange of ‘food’ and ‘feeling’—and I like the provocation of using an English word within the context of French cuisine,” he explained. “I was already a food writer—I had been at Libération for a while—and this was in 1999, a time when restaurants in France were already beginning to move, to change. There was a new element of design, a new element of casual yet serious food. The old choice between la cuisine de bistrot and la grande cuisine française was ending.

ILLUSTRATION: ANNETTE MARNAT
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THE MAGAZINE: APRIL 5, 2010

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