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Fantastically naff: The interior of Alain Ducasse's flagship restaurant in Paris

What is the real subject of Michel Houellebecq's flamingly brilliant and tragically prescient bestseller Soumission (reviewed this issue by Tibor Fischer)? Is it Islamophobic, or is it a satire on the exhausted state of Enlightenment values?  Houellebecq's novel imagines a future in which the political Left has made a desperate compromise with a fictional party, the Fraternité Musulmane, producing a sharia-controlled polity. Published on the day of the appalling carnage at Charlie Hebdo, the novel has already, and perhaps unfairly, obtained emblematic status as a reflection on the present intensely troubled state of France. And France, more than any other European country, has always had a deeply metaphorical relationship with food. The Revolution began with a bread riot at the gates of Versailles; the culture of the restaurant was as much its product as the Declaration of the Rights of Man. And one theme, among the many darkly interwoven ironies of Soumission, is the power of food. Read one way, the story of François, the disaffected academic protagonist, can be reduced to a quest for honest cuisine bourgeoise.

François eats badly. He is troubled by the refusal of his microwave to co-operate in heating his Indian ready meals; his sexual relationships are as flaccid and lacking in savour as the sushi he orders for his dates. An expert on Huysmans, he plunges wistfully into that writer's En ménage, questioning whether the benign domestic contentment of home cooking can ever be his. Baudelaire argued that the only possible female partner for the artist was either a sexually alluring young girl or the calming producer of pot-au-feu, yet François seems unable to obtain either a satisfying fuck or a decent casserole. One of the lures of his passive and mealy-mouthed compromise with Islam at the conclusion of the novel is the example of his polygamous colleague, who enjoys both.

Alain Ducasse, one of the most passionate and celebrated champions of the terroir, has undergone a real-life conversion. His Plaza Athénée flagship, in the chic eighth arrondissement, is now dedicated to a "personal and radical story", that of the superchef's rediscovery of fish, vegetables and cereals in what he claims is a freer, more instinctive version of haute cuisine. I interviewed Alain Ducasse in 2004, soon after he opened at the Plaza. He was charming—energetic, unsnobbish, inspired by the possibilities of the French tradition. When I asked him his views on British food, he was enthusiastic about British ingredients, less so about the ubiquity of television—"Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson—wonderful, but you need a change," my decade-old notes read. Ducasse's commitment to innovation made him one of the pioneers who dragged haute cuisine out of its gilt-chaired doldrums in the Noughties, but this latest reinvention is a tragedy.

The restaurant is all silver gourd-shaped seats and white leather, with touches of Huysmans-esque shagreen. It's fantastically naff in an Aristotle Onassis kind of way, and it could have been quite sexy if it weren't for the people. Because of course Ducasse is indecently expensive, and the problem with really expensive restaurants is that they're full of the people who can afford to eat in them. Or not, as the strange, ludicrous tribe of the international rich never eat real food at all. That is why they think it's OK to pay €180 for a starter, and that, presumably, is why Ducasse has submitted to catering to them.  

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March 7th, 2015
10:03 AM
Pretentious review of pretentious food? Touché

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