As France's frosty attitude toward fast food thaws, master chefs offer up interpretations
Until last year, eating the food of Paul Bocuse, one of France's most celebrated chefs, required a visit to L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, his restaurant with three Michelin stars near Lyon. Diners there lounge beneath chandeliers and eat spoonfuls of his famous truffle soup—at €80 (about $120) a bowl.
But there's now a cheaper option in Lyon—twin restaurants run by Mr. Bocuse called Ouest Express.
There are no truffles on the menu at these ultra-modern eateries. Instead, Mr. Bocuse offers hot plates of salmon ravioli for €6.40, and "le César Classic" burger for €9.40, made with local beef and served with a drink and a side or dessert.
Customers carry their trays to tables arranged in a bright, airy dining room or on a sunny terrace—or they take their meals to go. After opening the first Ouest Express early last year, Mr. Bocuse opened a second location last month in Lyon's Part-Dieu district downtown. Planning has begun for a third.
"A chain? Why not?" says Pierre-Yves Bertrand, director of operations and development for the Ouest Express brand. "Maybe even franchises. The objective is to expand."
Plenty of chefs in the U.S. and France have opened bistros, brasseries and other relatively affordable alternatives to their Michelin-starred eateries. France's master chefs now have taken the next step—designing and serving their own takes on fast food. Their interpretations are American-style lunches of salads and sandwiches, often priced as meal deals and packaged to be eaten on the run.
The enthusiasm for la restauration rapide comes as consumers in France continue to feel a financial pinch. Meanwhile, the nation's historically frosty attitude toward American burgers and fries appears to be thawing. Once, McDonald's franchises in France were met with protests. But at the end of last year, McDonald's France says that the more than 1,100 Golden Arches throughout France rang up sales of €3.3 billion—an 11% increase over 2007.
"Fast food is the sector that is growing the fastest" among restaurants in France, says Claire Cosson, spokeswoman for Union des Métiers et des Industries de l'Hôtellerie, a French hospitality-industry group known as UMIH.
In 2007, slightly more than half of the approximately 9.5 million meals purchased away from home in France were in traditional restaurants. "But every year they lose ground," Ms. Cosson says.
Another trend working in the quick lunch's favor, Ms. Cosson adds, is that the French are eating smaller lunches. In 1975, the average French meal lasted 90 minutes, according to the UMIH; by 2008, that time had shrunk to 30 minutes.
In the U.S., Wolfgang Puck was a pioneer in high-end fast food in 1991, when he launched a lower-priced alternative to his Beverly Hills, Calif., restaurant Spago—Wolfgang Puck Express, a chain of eateries at airports and other locations. Those, plus his line of packaged foods, quickly made the chef a household name.
But in France, where marathon, multicourse meals have been a revered and deeply ingrained aspect of the national identity, master chefs have only recently begun whipping up takeout. Their interest in interpreting fast food is another sign of change.
Chefs say their use of fresh, local ingredients and their attention to detail sets their quick lunches apart from corporate fast food.
"The fact that we're eating quickly is not the problem," says Jean Lhéritier, president of the Slow Food France group, which promotes local products and agriculture. "If you can eat well at a fast-food restaurant, then I'm not opposed."
Marc Veyrat, a master of France's lauded nouvelle cuisine, once split his time between l'Auberge de l'Eridan and la Ferme de mon Père, his three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region near Switzerland. Last year, he turned his attention to an organic casual eatery, Cozna Vera, overlooking Lake Annecy, where he serves a soup du jour for €5.80, and a burger piled high with fresh and roasted vegetables and served with a side of organic fries for €9.80.
Loyal to local farmers, he has this for his motto: "Respect the planet, savor nature."
Alain Ducasse, one of the most famous names in French cuisine and the head of an empire of restaurants, culinary schools and cookbooks, has two sandwich shops in Paris called Be Boulangépicier and Café Be, where a fresh baguette Parisienne costs €4.75 and the popular César salad, €8.25.
At the two-Michelin-starred Le Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris near the Palais Royal, customers can sample chef Guy Martin's "menu plaisir"—a spread of the chef's selection of entrées, mains and desserts for €268. It's a far cry from Mr. Martin's sandwicherie Miyou, where a salad of fresh cod, fennel and spiced orange sells for €9.80, and a foie gras and mango confit baguette for €7.10.
At Thierry Marx's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Château Cordeillan-Bages, in Pauillac, innovations include dishes decorated with ice cylinders and "virtual sausages," a rich meat-and-lentil soup served in a thin sausage-shaped casing, which a waiter snips open and spills onto a plate. Mr. Marx had once hoped to open a fast-food restaurant in Paris; instead, he is giving the rapide movement a different sort of boost, opening what he calls a "street-food academy."
The culinary program, hosted by the Lycée Hôtelier Saint-Michel, near Bordeaux, emphasizes "nomadic" foods that can be held in hand, eaten at a counter or taken to go. It has already welcomed its first group of aspiring restaurant-owners and chefs.
Mr. Marx traces his attraction to street food to his childhood in the Ménilmontant neighborhood of northern Paris, a place still known for its diverse immigrant population of Eastern European Jews, Maghrebis, East Asians and West Africans. At Mr. Marx's academy, students learn to make the street foods of the Mediterranean basin, North Africa and Asia, and they take classes on making fresh pastas, healthy pizzas and other updated versions of regional specialties.
"The idea of takeaway food is very useful," says Mr. Marx, the chef. "We have 15 to 20 minutes for lunch, and often we eat in front of the computer."
The idea, he adds, is to prepare chefs to open their own corner fast-food stands—"good, independent corner boutiques."
By: Susana Ferreira
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