March 21 marks the start of spring in Europe, and for the French, ambassador Serge Lavroff explained, it means a “return of sun, light and beautiful days....”
This return of light and beautiful days is an opportunity to spend time “to share good food with good friends in a very good mood.”
This day has given rise to Gout de France which means Taste of France. The event, also called Good France, is, according to the website www.diplomatie.gouv.fr, a “global event held on five continents in over 150 countries which will involve French embassies abroad and chefs from around the world. They will all offer French menus on the same day.”
Each year, a specific French region is showcased, and in 2019, Provence, in southeastern France, bordering Italy and the Mediterranean, was chosen. Provençal food, in the words of a 2018 USA Today online article, resembles “more closely the sumptuous cuisine of Italy than Parisian meat-and-potatoes bistro fare. With emphasis on sun-ripened vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs and a liberal helping of olive oil in every dish, traditional Provençal cuisine blends intense flavours and simple ingredients.”
The first Good France was held in 2015. That year only one TT restaurant participated, Lavroff said.
But this year, five restaurants and chefs will take part: ZaZou Kitchen, with chef Pierre-Yves Le Bihan; Aioli, with chef John-Michael Aboud; Melange, with chefs Moses and Collette Ruben; Café Mariposa, with chef Marcia Guerrero; and Fanatic Kitchen, with chefs Ridge Juman and Jason Peru. Café Mariposa is the first restaurant outside Port of Spain to be among the participants.
The 2019 Gout de France will include 5,000 chefs from countries such as Poland, Brazil, Greece, South Korea and the UK.
The event’s rules are very clear and “always the same”: each chef has to prepare a French-style dinner, according to the highest standards of French cuisine, Lavroff explained. This year there is an additional requirement which asks them to create an eco-friendly menu.
“That means many of the chefs will have to use organic ingredients as much as possible, less fat, less sugar and less salt,” he added.
On a clear day at the French Embassy, Mary Street, St Clair, the discussion with Lavroff and the chefs rolled into a deeper discussion on the state of fine dining and food in TT. Chef Aboud said TT is now getting a “very good response” to fine dining.
“People are getting a little more into food and wine as well,” he said, noting that he did not mean there was an increase in people going to fine-dining spaces, but rather, there was a greater openness to different cuisines from other countries as opposed to just eating local.
Le Bihan, however, said he felt fine dining in TT was dying. “I am talking about the younger generation. You will still have people who will come to fine-dining restaurants, but the culture of fine dining, as we know it, is dying in TT,” he said.
The ZaZou Kitchen chef added that people want things faster, though not necessarily fast food.
“The millennials are the mobile-phone young people: they don’t want to come and spend three hours in front of a plate...what they want is something nice, good value, fast.”
He believes that TT’s gastronomy, as much as it is unique, has become very Americanised.
“Just drive around Ariapita Avenue, just drive around the malls and tell me what restaurants you see. What you see are all the American chains,” he said.
Peru agreed with Le Bihan: “Someone told me the other day they want me to eat local. and I can get four apples for $20 but if I need four mangoes, it is $55. So what am I going to eat?”
He said it is easy to eat unhealthy meals. and that dining is more of an experience.
“People want grab and go and want it fast,” he said.
The chefs also felt consistency of the product and providing organic food in TT was a challenge.
Le Bihan said he felt the grab-and-go culture could to be to the detriment of restaurants and that consistency of product was affected by the difficulty of sourcing ingredients.
Peru explained that if a chef has “a certain presentation to execute and he wants to get a certain look – (for instance) he wants avocadoes to be spread out in a certain way – he may not want to go the imported way. It is a standard he tries to represent at his restaurant, and if he does not get those local avocadoes, he may have to go to the foreign side and his cost might go up 15 per cent more.”
Asked about the eco-menu addition to this year’s event, Le Bihan said that “organic and free range is very steep in TT.” He said it was a constant struggle to find the ingredients.
He saw the answer in what he termed “short circuits” and the growing hydroponics market. By short circuits he meant staying local or buying local produce.
Asked how younger people could be introduced to fine dining, Le Bihan said, “There has to be a twist of fine dining. You have to give them something which is good value for money. Fast, not too long – they can’t spend three hours sitting down at your table – and have something which is a little different from what they would get anywhere else.”
While he believes fine dining is dying, Le Bihan believes there is still room for it.
Peru, looking at the annual restaurant week as an example, said education about fine dining might be a way to revitalise the art.
“During the period of September every year for Restaurant Week, I have seen people flock: millennial, old – it does not matter, they are getting value for a certain price, they are getting a three-course, four-course meal,” he said. “The way it is marketed and introduced also – Restaurant Week – it is positioned in such a way that it is the thing to be at.”
While TT dining was the focus, Le Bihan said the problem did not only exist here and has even seen the trend in France although not as obvious as here.
But Lavroff remained optimistic of the future of fine dining because, he said, while people are rushing to fast food today, in a few years, it might “come back to the roots and basics of well eating” for health reasons.
He added that in Europe, and in some spaces in the US, there was a growing movement called slow food/slow eating which is opposed to fast food. Slow Food was started in the 1980s by a group of activists with “the initial aim to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life,” www.slowfood.com said.
Lavroff said the Italians and French were the first to initiate it. “The slow food movement carries different values not only about eating but also a way of living.”
When the group was asked about climate change and its effects on getting the ingredients needed for fine dining, Le Bihan again stressed short circuits. He said combating climate change in the context of fine dining would be about buying produce from people “next to you.”
The chefs added this also meant going back to your neighbourhood grocer or baker among other artisans. Lavroff said this was one of the paradoxes of globalisation, which makes people more rooted in their environment.
But on March 21, these five restaurants and their chefs will provide TT with a taste of France and fine dining.