THE GREAT AND THE GOÛT
The recent Good France dinners show that power is soft cheese and a baguette.
He was The Big Cheese. General de Gaulle counted 246 other varieties in his country, and famously pronounced France ungovernable. But surely, that’s a good thing. Liberté, egalité and fraternité come with a healthy dollop diversité and pluralismé. In eating and drinking well, at the very least, France is a riotous cacophony and soaring orchestral horn of plenty. It’s like the primordial soup of creation itself, a mixed metaphor, a beautiful unicorn in the non-silicon Valley sense of the word.
The provenance of its ingredients— terroir—is respected and protected from gross exploitation by a system called Appellation Origine d’controlee, which identifies where its produce comes from, and how it has come to be. ‘Provenance’ is really a poor translation for terroir, which this I describe, liberally, as a unique trinity of cosmos (climate), earth (geography), and farmer.
Human intervention, like a lightning rod between sky and earth, dynamically alters the relationship between the latter, which comprises a series of moments in a cycle of seasonal transformations. This explains how terroir confounds multinationals that demand the predictability and uniformity that simplifies mass production and turns food into easily recognisable brands for consumers. In short: terroir complicates big business, and it explains a bit of de Gaulle’s lament.
But I digress. Of course, it would be a chef, Alain Ducasse, who shows that de Gaulle the ex-general-turned-politician could not see the wood for the trees: France’s soft power, specifically its projection of its food culture around the world, is probably unrivalled as a foreign policy tool of its kind.
Eighteen restaurants and chefs in Malaysia participated in the global dinner on 21st March 2018 • 2 Ox French Bistro, Kuala Lumpur • Arte Restaurant, Penang • Cilantro Restaurant & Wine Bar, Kuala Lumpur • Cocott’ Kuala Lumpur • DC Restaurant, Kuala Lumpur • Enfin by James Won, Kuala Lumpur • L’atelier French Restaurant, Kota Kinabalu • Espace Andre Cointreau at Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia, Bandar Sunway • French Feast, Kuala Lumpur • Garvy’s in the Park, Ipoh • L’orangerie, HELP CAT, Kuala Lumpur • Maison française, Kuala Lumpur • Nathalie Gourmet Studio, Kuala Lumpur • Nook, Kuala Lumpur • Soleil, Kuala Lumpur • Supperclub, Kuala Lumpur • The Brasserie, Kuala Lumpur • Yeast Bistronomy, Kuala Lumpur Opposite page, from clockwise: Australian(!) beef rib-eye, choron sauce at Cocott'; blue Lobster, spring vegetables, lemon balm emulsion, pickled turnip at Soleil; deconstructed classic beef bourguignon, saffron boulangere potato, baby vegetables at Nook; transcendent bounty at Enfin.
This page: fresh catch of the day at DC Restaurant
But soft power is not wielded like a big stick (a big baguette?). Compared with say, China’s strategic military ability to create whole islands in the Tebrau Strait and around the Spratlys, it is but a subtle force. But we have it on good authority that the sizes of Chinese communities around the world correlate with global Cognac sales (and, in Malaysia’s case, is out of all proportion to it). In China, the people now navigate to the best restaurants by following the Michelin star twinkling in their horizons. Soft power, as China’s rampant Mongol conquerors found out too late, seduces. Ironically, China’s new generations now consume French culture and aspire to its luxury lifestyle, but the converse is less apparent. (They also buy its terroir, reportedly 2% of Bordeaux vineyards, at last count.)
Ducasse founded Goût de France in 2015, after Unesco inscribed in 2010 the “gastronomic meal of the French” on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (We have to say that culture is intrinsically intangible, but that’s a story for another time.) Goût de France is billed as the “World’s Greatest French Dinner”. The fourth edition this year kicked off right after the March solstice. Of the snowballing number of 3,000 chefs and 3,000 menus across five continents, a new record of 18 emerged from Malaysia, including new entries Ipoh, Kota Kinabalu and Penang. It was a degustation of degustations
Ducasse says it’s all about “lightness, optimism and pleasure, ideas which are central to the image of Destination France.” So, all the things which we could do with a bit more of, over here, and right now.
Each of the restaurants had their menus vetted and approved by an international committee based in Paris led by Ducasse. All shared common elements: an apéritif with finger food, a starter, a main course or two, a cheese platter and/ or dessert, accompanied by wine and champagne. This was slow food at its best, moving to the rhythm and beat of living well. Alas, like slow food, Esquire can only hold back the instant gratification that rises like swelling tide behind an insecure dam. That’s our excuse for this short introduction. Tune in to esquire. my for a review of this grand undertaking and what it means to eat well.