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With its famous food in peril, France goes all out on 'gastrono-diplomacy'

With the French eating more fast food and less traditional fare than ever before, the government pulled out all the stops for a multicourse, multicontinent culinary event.

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    Atmosphere during the Gout de France / Good France dinner at the Palace of Versailles last night.
    Yann Bohac/SIPA/AP
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Marching under the opulent crystal chandeliers in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, through the Queen’s chamber, and past grand salons decorated with oil paintings of French royals, the politicians and ambassadors finally take their seats in the Battles Gallery.

As the invitees gather under 33 paintings depicting the victories of France over 1,300 years, their mission this evening might not be of the military sort but it’s just as monumental. Tonight they are helping the nation defend the supremacy of French cuisine.

Its pre-eminence has been flouted from the reign of King Louis XIV to the chefs of the Michelin circuit today. France's multi-course meal was even added to UNESCO’s “world intangible heritage” list in 2010. But French chefs are feeling competition from counterparts every bit as inventive as they are, from the Spanish Basques to the British to Brazilians. 

At the same time, fast and frozen food has forced its way into French diets, even into the restaurants that are the last line of defense of good French food. And in those restaurants where standards are still world-class, many French are simply priced out.

Now, France hopes its first “Gout de France/Good France” event – which saw 1,300 chefs across five continents prepare a classic “gastronomic” meal Thursday night for some 100,000 clients – reasserts the country's culinary pride and reconnects its citizens with a tradition it is losing touch with.

“In this very moment, the entire world has the pleasure to enjoy French gastronomy,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, welcoming his guests before greeting them affably at their tables. “Gastronomy is part of the French identity, just like the Chateau of Versailles.”

'The gap is tremendous'

Mr. Fabius, along with France’s most famed chef Alain Ducasse, organized a fete of French dining at its finest, for no less than 650 guests for the event's centerpiece. Each of the seven courses was designed by acclaimed chefs. A glass of Dom Perignon from 2004 with a puff pastry of foie gras kicked off the evening. Next up was salmon tartar topped with caviar and toasted quinoa stew with shaved truffles, Mr. Ducasse's creation and one intended to communicate that French food is not stuck in the past. There was fish, sucker lamb, a cheese plate, and a decadent chocolate pudding too.

But if this was a one-of-a-time culinary experience for the majority of the guests, it’s even further out of reach for most French – what some observers call the biggest threat to French gastronomy today.

The French still care fervently about food, something not only seen in Michelin-star restaurants or the halls of Versailles, but in everyday actions. At an interview at a typical café next to a train station in Paris, Alain Drouard makes sure his orange juice is “very fresh” while a waiter recommends the Vichy-St.-Yorre mineral water over everyday Perrier.

But “the gap is tremendous between the creed and the reality of what the French eat,” says Mr. Drouard, a food historian and author of “The Myth of French Gastronomy,” published in 2010.

He cites the fact that the French are the No. 2 consumers of pizza behind Americans. McDonald's thrives here. And in a highly circulated survey in 2014, 70 percent of restaurants admitted to using industrialized products prepared off-site in their kitchens.

Shocking as that was, the culinary establishment was utterly rocked when the 2014 survey of Britain’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants came out: not a single French restaurant figured on the top ten list, leading to political cries of a British ploy to “dethrone” the French in the kitchen.

Crisis of communication

David Sinapian, the president of “Les Grandes Tables du Monde,” an association that groups 167 of the best restaurants across the globe – about half of which are French – denies there is a crisis to speak of. “We have very talented, young chefs, more than before,” says Mr. Sinapian, over the cheese course of Camembert, Roquefort, and Comte cheeses at Versailles.

But there is a crisis of communication, he says, which is perhaps why all the stops were pulled out for Gout de France.

There is a lot at stake in the world’s most visited country. Organizers say that, along with the Eiffel Tower and the banks of the Seine, it is the food that motivates 60 percent of tourists to take trips here. ”Haute cuisine” is also part of the very notion of what it means to be French.

And so the setting for France’s new efforts in gastro-diplomacy in the Battles Gallery was not just a logistical choice of space but a fitting one to express a message: the French will continue to fight to fortify their position. As the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-­Savarin, who was born in 1755, once put it: “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed.”

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