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.
Ducasse affirms his commitment to grovelling in the restaurant’s literature, which promises a ballet in the form of the manager, the unfortunate Denis Courtiade, who will apparently present clients with “marks of attention that accompany them throughout the meal. He offers innovative, liberated gestures. Simple and authentic movements, building the meal into an experience that engages the entire body.” (Translation theirs.)
We began with carrot juice. “This,” whispered Denis (for it was he), “is a freshly pressed apple and carrot juice, with a hint of ginger.” The juice was served with a muesli biscuit. Neither was nearly as nice as the ones I get in Prêt à Manger. I felt apostasy stirring within me, though it could have been the muesli. Obviously, we should have left right then, but I admire Ducasse. I wanted to believe, in the same way that Houellebecq’s protagonist wants to experience spiritual transcendence when he contemplates the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. There are two menus available, one featuring the said fish, vegetable and cereals, the other for refuseniks. The second had meat, which was encouraging, but Denis made it painfully clear as he wearily took our order that we hadn’t just let him down, we had Let Ourselves Down.
The only radiant moment was the amuse-bouche, a truly exquisite langoustine broth, potent and delicate, the sweet flesh of the shellfish hovering in the aroma like the ghost of Ducasse’s talent. Because what followed was one of the most offensively horrible dinners I have ever tried to eat—a truffle-coated betrayal of everything Ducasse claims to represent. We had doubted, and our penance came in layer upon layer of Piedmontese fungus, shaved onto poulet de bresse, blended with kasha, swimming in thick, menacing pools of demi-glace—the culinary equivalent of being caught having a sneaky fag at school and being made to eat the packet. The wine list is ranked by “generations” in five-yearly intervals—there was nothing under €100 a bottle and nothing that could cut the nauseating florescence of the truffles, pervasive and deathly as the hothouse lilies of À rebours.
In Soumission, François considers Huysmans’s view of the sensual and emotional solace offered by food, which remains when fleshly desire and ambition have fallen away. After “a long and fastidious period of modernism”, Huysmans’s conclusions again obtain, as evinced in François’s observation of the number of successful television programmes dedicated to cuisine terroir. The flailing search for roots, for certainty, is answered in Houellebecq’s argument on a plate, but it is fake, primped and prettified for viewers who consume it virtually while grazing on frozen junk.
Paris at present feels gaunt but defiant, bright with starveling solidarity. The food Ducasse is serving is an insult to this shattered city, yet perhaps it represents the aching bitterness which Houellebecq’s work engages, the hunger at the core of liberated (market-driven) individualism from which François gratefully and hypocritically turns away. Ducasse has been a great chef, and may be again. Yet maybe what Soumission is about is the trap that François constructs for himself. As his colleague’s youthful second wife serves him with excellent Meursault and delicious coriander-scented pâtés prepared by wife number one, he wilfully ignores that he has chosen a world in which idols may no longer be smashed.