Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the Decline of France Hardcover – Jun 23 2009
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“[Au Revoir to All That] is an eye-opening, well-researched and amusingly written, reliable guide to the contemporary cooking scene in France, and it's to be hoped that French chefs somewhere will pay attention to Steinberger's neat formulation of the question – ‘Which way forward for French cuisine?'” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“A culinary expedition through France hunting for the root of the slow decline of the country's acclaimed food and wine traditions... Steinberger's meticulous research and personal hunger for objective truths bring surprising discoveries to light... connected to the larger issue of who or what defines modern France and, by extension, its food. An offering of fresh and engaging insights for foodies and Francophiles alike.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“For anyone who cares about food, wine, or France... Au Revoir To All That is required reading. Steinberger has done remarkably thorough research to detail just what has gone wrong in French gastronomy. Drawing on astonishing tidbits like the identity of France's largest private sector employer (McDonald's), Steinberger convincingly explains why so many of its greatest chefs have grown complacent, its greatest gastronomic guide so off-track, and its winemakers just plain broke. In spite of all the bad news, the book is a ripping fun read and is even a little optimistic, as Steinberger points out a few key men and women bucking the trends.” ―FoodandWine.com
“In the true voice of a passionate Francophile... Steinberger's love for the country is tangible through his descriptions of the food he eats and remembers eating, and somehow it makes sense that he fell in love with his future wife over a French meal. It's not an adolescent love that Steinberger has for the country, but more like adoration mixed with a dose of reality.” ―Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Informative… [Steinberger's] fascinating profiles of influential French chefs and restaurateurs include Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse, and the late Alain Chapel and Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevent in Paris…[an] excellent narrative.” ―Pittsburgh Tribune Review
“France once embodied the crowning glory of culinary art, but the most serious gastronomes today turn increasingly elsewhere for inspiration. Because French food’s hegemony was simply assumed as little as two decades ago, Steinberger marvels at this precipitous decline in Gallic reputation. His investigation finds manifold causes for this state of affairs.” ―Booklist
“One of the greatest books I've read.” ―Marco Pierre White
“In Au Revoir To All That, Mike Steinberger pulls off the magic trick of throwing a funeral you want to go to: The elegy is unflinching but heartfelt and celebratory; the guests are the most interesting people; the food (and wine) couldn't get any better; and--get this--the deceased shows signs of rising again.” ―Benjamin Wallace, author of New York Times bestseller The Billionaire's Vinegar
“Au Revoir to All That is a fascinating and knowledgeable valedictory to the greatest food and wine culture the world has ever known. Michael Steinberger is a great gourmand and a great storyteller, and he will make you care about the fate of camembert and other endangered traditions.” ―Jay McInerney, author of A Hedonist in the Cellar and Bacchus & Me
“Most books on food and wine are misty-eyed memoirs of great meals and happy times. Michael Steinberger's book is different; he is trying to understand the decline and fall of France as the center of the world's great cuisine. In the course of his explorations, Steinberger takes us to the kitchens of great chefs, describes extraordinary food, and evokes fond memories. The result turns out to be intelligent, interesting and complicated. You will have to read the book to get it-- and you will read it with much pleasure.” ―Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World
“If you've ever wondered why eating in France is so often disapponting, Michael Steinberger can explain. His delicious account draws not just on his amazing gastronomic expertise, but on a sophisticated understanding of French politics and history as well. Three stars: this one really is worth a special trip.” ―Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy and editor of Slate
“When I started going to France in the early seventies, it was difficult to find a lousy meal over there. Now the exact opposite is true. How could a country with such an esthetically magnificent culture go wrong? Steinberger's penetrating report from a declining France resonates because he clearly loves the place and feels a sense of loss. Where did their taste go? I thank him mille fois for digging into the when, wheres, hows, and whys. Anyone with the slightest interest in France will appreciate this book, too.” ―Kermit Lynch, author of Adventures on the Wine Route--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Michael Steinberger is Slate’s longtime wine columnist and a regular contributor to Saveur and the Financial Times. His work also appears in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Economist, Food & Wine, and the Wine Spectator. He was the Hong Kong correspondent for Maclean’s, and has written about finance, culture, sports, and politics for a variety of leading international media. He lives in Delaware with his wife and two children.See all Product Description
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This is not the type of opinion writing wherein the French are simply bashed. Steinberger provides the regulatory detail, changes in French eating and drinking habits, and political and social background to convincingly show why French cuisine has collapsed - and it is a collapse. By way of example: France is the 2nd largest market in the world for McDonalds, the country has lost close to 200,000 restaurants, French wine consumption is down 50% since the 60's, and the living standard has declined precipitously.
Steinberger is a sympathetic writer. He obviously loves France, the French, and French cuisine, and is dismayed at his findings. He writes warmly of most of the chefs, shop owners, and vintners he meets and interviews. All of them are struggling to keep afloat. He conveys their anger and frustration so well you can feel it coming off the pages. A few come across as dinosaurs, notably chef Paul Bocuse. The situation for even the best, however, is grim. Most are on the edge and virtually all of them are among the few left standing.
For once, the French realize that they've caused their own problems, blaming, with few exceptions, the French bureaucracy. In addition, institutions like the Michelin guide come under heavy criticism. France shot itself in the foot - twice - with wine, in that the AOC system was allowed to run completely out of control precisely at the time that global wine competition was ballooning. As the number of appellations rose 3-fold and controlled wines went from 20% to 50% of production in a bid to (falsely) puff up the image of French wine, quality crashed amid appellation scrabbles and scandals.
At the political root of all this is the Mitterand regime. In response to the global economic issues of the 70s and 80s, France chose a socialist government, which proceeded, naturally, to dramatically increase spending, entitlements, and regulation. Steinberger doesn't write as an anti-socialist. I read him as politically neutral in this book. But the globalization context he provides makes it clear that France's actions were a disaster for French agricultural life - and the cuisine and wine about which he writes.
This book is fascinating reading, providing superb food and wine writing in an unusual economic and political framework. Highly recommended. I look forward to Michael Steinberger's next book.
The author has maybe over a ten year period interviewed a number of people in French gastronomy and there are some interesting bits of information for the person really interested in French haute cuisine. The essays are mostly readable as long as you don't expect a detailed analysis of the decline of French food.
The author likes to provide irrelevant details. Like the cafe he is sitting in when writing. Like that the guy he is interviewing has a worn face and lives in trailer. Like a memory from ten years back when the author had a great dinner. These totally irrelevant episodes renders the reader rather narrow minded and shallow.
The book is a collection of essays that explore, as the book's back cover says, the upheaval in French gastronomy. Because it's evident that France has lost its #1 spot for leadership in food and wine. Some of this is clearly for good reasons; that is, the rest of the world gained better food consciousness, from an emphasis on ingredient freshness to the continuing improvement of non-European locals for wine production. But, as author Michael Steinberger points out, plenty of the fault can be laid at the French as well.
Individually, some of the chapters are really wonderful. I learned a lot about the current state of cheese production in France (is a cheese "raw milk" if it's undergone thermalization, heating to 161 degrees for 20 seconds?) -- and its decline. I was fascinated by the details behind the Michelin stars and the pursuit thereof (I already knew the Michelin guidebooks were started by the tire company to promote auto travel, but maybe you didn't). And I was completely unaware of the crisis in the AOC, particularly that since 1960, France's per capital wine consumption has plummeted by 50%. (One result: in 2003, one hundred million liters of AOC wine were distilled into ethanol.)
But as a collection... I liked this book. I didn't adore it. I'm glad I read it, but it won't stay on my shelf for long. I think it's because the author offers no resolution; at the end of the book, the situation is just as dire as it was when we began. Not that any journalist (however entertaining he might be) can actually change things, but I have no particular call to action, and I'm not sure that any of the individuals or organizations he highlighted do, either. All the people he interviewed (and interviewed WELL, mind you -- I admire anyone who asks good questions) are in exactly the same place they were when he spoke with them. By the end of the book, I felt unsettled rather than satisfied by my new knowledge.
So if you happen to come across a copy of this book, by all means read it. I don't recommend that you put it on the Must Read NOW list, however.
However, the book is so heavily researched and full of specific tidbits of information that it gets bogged down in the details. I had a hard time keeping track of the many chefs Michael Steinberger interviewed and restaurants he visited. Too many facts, dates, names, etc. In one way, that information seems relevant and possibly necessary, but as I was reading this for my own edification and not a school assignment, I would have preferred less data. It does read somewhat like a textbook in many areas, and it is laborious to get through, typos or no.
When Steinberger instead tells anecdotes, gives his impressions of the chefs and other experts (quite a few probably won't speak to him again!), and shares their input on what's wrong with French cuisine (hint: mostly a bureaucratic government that seriously gets in the way, coupled with a society that's become too busy to appreciate good food), the book becomes far more readable and enjoyable. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of French cuisine: the history of French cuisine, the impact of the economy and the government's policies, the famed/dreaded Michelin Guide, the role of racism in the restaurant business, the wine and cheese industries, the threat from Spanish and other foreign cuisines, infamous chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, etc. No stone is left unturned, and it is a thorough treatise of the topic.
If you are a culinary professional or layperson with a deep interest in the topic, you would gain a lot from reading this book. If you are merely curious or just have an above-average interest, you are probably better off reading one of the many articles that resulted from Steinberger's book publicity tour (there's one on NPR's Web site). I do have a deeper appreciation of how tough French culinary artisans have it over there, and quite a bit more disdain for their government than before (and I am a serious Francophone who wants to live there), but I felt like this a real chore to get through and wouldn't necessarily recommend it.
Steinberger takes us through a history of French dining through the years explaining how they got to where they are today. There are so many factors that he discusses as the reasons for the decline, some particular to France, but many others that I could see were common factors in other countries as well. The decrease in the number of people eating out was a factor as was the government bureaucracy, taxes and laws that were damaging to the industry and the increase in fast food. Also a factor was the Michelin Guide and the way their ratings affected restaurants and chefs.
One of my favorite things about the book were the many interviews with the chefs and wine makers and even the head of McDonald's. It gave me the feeling of being right there, sitting in a restaurant over a meal or bottle of wine, involved in the conversation, and asking the kinds of questions that I myself would have liked to ask. It made me feel like an "insider" hearing the opinions from famous chefs, winemakers and others involved in the food industry. The book was much more fascinating than I expected it would be and was in fact, a difficult book to put down. Michael Steinberger has such an entertaining writing style and it really comes through in this book. I think that many people having read this book, will want to do a search on Slate and other publications to read his other interesting articles.