French chefs team up to safeguard Gallic gastronomy

PARIS Tue Feb 1, 2011 12:02pm EST

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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Worried that France's global gastronomic influence may be on the wane, 15 of its top Michelin-starred chefs are cooking up a plan to put it back on the menu and enlist the help of the state to promote it.

Critics of French cuisine argue that for too long it has rested on its laurels, not moving with the times to use alternative ingredients and adapt to a changing culinary world order as new chefs push the boundaries.

With that in mind, the who's who of French cuisine, including Alain Ducasse, owner of London's famous Dorchester and 26-Michelin star holder Joel Robuchon, gathered at the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday to unveil the country's first chef lobbying group -- the College Culinaire de France.

"We are in a time when everyone is working for themselves," Robuchon, who operates restaurants in Las Vegas, Monaco, Hong Kong and elsewhere, told Reuters TV. "We wanted to create a group that works together for the excellence of French gastronomy and export it overseas where it is still unknown."

The catering industry alone in France accounted for about 50 billion euros ($68.66 billion) in 2009 and is the fourth biggest private sector employer taking on almost 500,000 people each year.

Unlike other sectors, the chefs argue that the authorities have taken it for granted and left it to fend for itself.

"We want them (authorities) to take note and if possible help economically such as through marketing," Alain Ducasse told Reuters. "We have a beautiful past and we can look forward calmly, but competition exists and we shouldn't forget that."

The chefs' art, once dominated by a French swagger, has changed after thousands of budding cooks learnt their trade in France's top kitchens, only to ply their trade elsewhere and take the culinary experience to new levels.

For Guy Savoy, one of the chefs considered to have nurtured the lighter and more modern French cuisine, part of the problem is a sense of guilt about promoting France's heritage.

"It's not arrogant or pretentious to say France is the global essence of gastronomy ... it's the reality and we have to stop punishing ourselves just because one or two countries have a few cooks that make a lot more noise than a few thousand French chefs. This (association) is an attacking team."

The final straw was perhaps at this year's Bocuse d'Or -- the Oscar's of the cooking world held biennially in France's gastronomic capital, Lyon. French chefs were nowhere to be seen as the top three chefs all came from Scandinavia.

"On the podium there was Sweden, Norway and Denmark with big budgets, a large ministerial presence and significant financial backing," said two-star Michelin holder Alain Dutornier. "They have understood how important influential gastronomy is to the tourism economy."

The group's objectives are simple: Create an organization that defends the interests of all Gallic-related delights. Through training it wants to mold a new generation of French "master chefs" who have learned from top restaurants.

It also plans to establish a museum of gastronomy in Paris and will also publish a list annually of thousands of the finest French products to help boost exports and awareness.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Paul Casciato)

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