French chefs struggle to reinvent themselves amid uncertainty

Shutdowns due to COVID-19 have dealt a heavy blow to restaurants in France, the birthplace of haute cuisine. As chefs try to adapt, some are wrestling with fundamental questions about the live fine dining experience.

Viktor Mercier attended a prestigious culinary school in France, worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and made it to the finals of the popular television show "Top Chef." Last year he opened his first gourmet restaurant in Paris. Now, the 30-year-old makes hot dogs

They're not just any hot dogs. In keeping with his restaurant's strict no-imports, Made in France identity, the sausage comes from free-range pigs in southern France. They're served in soft bread from a celebrated French bakery and topped with glazed onions, shallot pickles and water cress. One hot dog costs €11 ($13).

With France in the middle of a second partial COVID-19 lockdown and restaurants forced to close yet again, fine dining establishments like Mercier's have scrambled to adapt. Many have pivoted to takeout.

On a recent afternoon, Mercier, along with some of his staff, packed the gourmet hot dogs into cardboard boxes and scrawled "thanks" on the paper bags as customers dropped by his restaurant, FIEF, to pick them up. It's a far cry from the elaborate €70, six-course meals they used to cook from behind a large counter where customers could watch.

They're not making money from it either. The hot dogs and a few other sandwich options rake in a fraction of the €4,500 the restaurant would normally make each night. But Mercier says it's important to boost his team's morale.

"In the hospitality sector, if you don't work for several months, it's really tough to come back with the same motivation. That scares me a bit," Mercier told DW. "I decided for my team, we have to keep moving, show that we're doing something."

Mercier has kept six of his 10-member staff on furlough thanks to state aid. The French government has pumped in billions of euros to prop up the struggling hotel and restaurant sector, which employs a million people and is one of the mainstays of the economy as well as the French way of life.

Amid COVID lockdowns, the government has also rolled out a solidarity fund for bars and restaurants, and extended a furlough scheme through which the state pays an employee's salary for workers in the industry.

Mercier is grateful for the government's support. But unlike some restaurants that are offering a stripped-down version of their gourmet menus for takeaway, he's skeptical of replicating the experience of fine dining, where precision timing and presentation is a priority.

"We're in the business of hospitality. I know we have to adapt, but there's no hospitality to putting food into boxes. I hate it," Mercier said, shaking his head. "We need to see people, show our skills, and they need to see the amount of work that goes into a plate of refined food."

In crisis, an opportunity

Elvire von Bardeleben, who writes about food trends for French newspaper Le Monde, says the pandemic has thrown up fundamental questions about eating out.

"Chefs are asking, 'Who am I cooking for and what does it even mean to go to a restaurant in 2020?'" Bardeleben said. "And customers are more aware of the food they're consuming and values such as sustainability. Seasonal and local products are more important when it comes to restaurants."

According to the restaurant expert, the last five to six years have produced few creative surprises in the French haute cuisine scene, with many eateries dishing out the same old concepts, presentations, products and menus.

In recent years, restaurants, especially in Paris, have also struggled during the sometimes violent yellow vest protests and the crippling transport strikes that kept customers away.

"I think the COVID crisis could provide an opportunity to do things differently," Bardeleben said, adding that younger chefs who are more eco-conscious, nimble and willing to innovate are more likely to emerge winners.




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