Every day—whether it’s in class, at a café, or walking through one of Paris’s spectacular gardens—someone in my study abroad program inevitably poses the question: How do Parisians stay so fit?
It is an excellent question, since food is the lifeline of this city like freeways are to Los Angeles. Food is the first thing you notice upon arrival in the city; a fresh, buttery croissant is the first image that pops in your mind after waking up, and right before bedtime there is always the nearby crpe stand for a nightcap crpe with Nutella and banana.
Being in Paris for a semester, it takes amazing discipline not to follow every impulse. It seems that every other building on every other block houses either a bistro, a boulangerie, a patisserie, or—the little secret I have discovered—excellent ice cream and gelato.
I can say firsthand that Parisians are very good about portion control, seldom indulging in Cheesecake Factory pig-outs. Parisians do exercise quite a lot, running along the Seine or in the Jardin des Tuileries, and sometimes it seems like half the city is swimming at lunchtime at the pool under the Montparnasse tower. Of course this exercise helps combat all of the croissants, but when Parisians light up their cigarettes upon exiting the pool, you see the classic French health issue that exercise cannot help.
Now in 2010, Paris is at a real crossroads with tradition continually colliding with the modern world. Indeed there are still several outstanding classic bistros like Benot serving classics like escargots, soufflés, and cassoulet in plush, cozy surroundings with those old glamour posters of the Toulouse Letrec days. There are also several bistros that are still around despite having seen better days yet could care less since tourists come anyway because Rick Steves told them to. (On aside note, it is amazing how much influence Rick Steves has here.) Every street corner, it seems, has the classic café with outdoor seating and the same waiters every day and the same customers at the same hour every day, lingering for hours over a single glass of sancerre. At cafés in Paris, once you are seated, you own that table for as long as you desire with no pressure from the waiters. If you combine that with the cheap wine prices and France’s 35-hour work week, it is no wonder that it seems like Parisians don’t work.
There is of course the old-school haute cuisine and Michelin-starred temples to gastronomy that have been around since the days of Escoffier. They serve dishes such as truffles la President Wilson or tournedos Rossini stuffed with foie gras, prepared by the classic French kitchen brigade system; the apprentice system is still very much in use in these restaurants. Yes, prices remain as absurd as ever. You may as well hand your credit card over upon entering and say, “Take it and charge what you’d like.”
The best food in Paris is hands-down from the young, innovative new way of chefs and tastemakers who have swept through the city like the vicious winter winds from Normandy. Cream sauces, thick rich stews, and cheese courses are very 1957. My host family perfectly represents this identity crisis of France. They are currently trying to lower their cholesterol but always have a cheese course and must always have cream in sauces for some reason. So what do they do? I have noticed those slices of camembert getting smaller but not disappearing. Easily the finest meal I have had in Paris was at the Michelin three-star Guy Savoy, a contemporary haute cuisine temple where vanilla, lime, and cardamom share the stage with truffles and foie gras. Itinéraires, a young bistro in the old Latin quarter, serves escargot and mousse au chocolat but jazzes up the former with fennel custard and the latter with an incredible addition of red pepper, olives, and raspberries—and the olive oil-vanilla macarons at Pierre Herme are scientific marvels. Small, personal “New French” bistros are everywhere now, using the seasonal, organic approach that is ubiquitous in California but for the French is an Earth-shattering concept.
It is not just innovative riffs on traditional French cuisine that are storming through the city. Ethnic cuisine is everywhere and of mostly terrific quality from what I find. Being so close to Morocco and with such a large immigrant population from North Africa and other former French colonies such as Vietnam, it is no surprise that Paris has outstanding couscous and pho. I have had mole negro at a Mexican restaurant as good as the best of LA and even enjoyed terrific banana and chocolate chip pancakes for my annual birthday brunch dish at an appropriately named diner, Breakfast in America. I have had a terrific hamburger, of course eaten with a fork and knife, but also a lousy version of an American milkshake. As much as the French like to bash American cuisine, they do love hamburgers and hot dogs dearly.
One thing for sure is that the stereotypes about the two most famous cafés in Paris and probably in the world—Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore—are correct in that the food is horribly overpriced and downright bad, and the servers are so snobbish it almost feels like a satirical sketch.
It is also no lie that prices are absurd throughout Paris, even without the exchange rate. Would you like a croque monsieur, a simple toasted ham and cheese sandwich? That is 7 euros, or 11 U.S. dollars. Luckily, baguettes are subsidized by the government and remain terrific standbys though they do get tiresome after a while.
What is amazing about food in Paris is just the way it is everywhere. Much of it is amazing and some not quite; I have certainly discovered it is possible to have a bad meal in Paris. However, honestly, how can you go ever wrong with a baguette with cheese or a crpe with Nutella? Now excuse me as I go get a croissant. Bon appetit!