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Liberté, Egalité, Cassoulet!

A decade ago, a cadre of Paris pranksters cooked up a whole new approach to French cuisine. Now, Le Fooding is set to invade New York.

Author JAY CHESHES Photography ED ALCOCK/EYEVINE

ONE FRIDAY EVENING last winter, a clot of well-dressed young Parisians—men in tuxedos, women in slinky black dresses—stood shivering in line outside Lapérouse, among the oldest and still one of the most venerable restaurants in Paris. First opened in 1766 and still bearing old-world elegance, it had been transformed for the evening into an opulent nightclub. Revelers were met by a hulking bouncer demanding a secret password. The phrase, “Enguerran, Jean Eude and Bertille bang actively on the door,” which had been delivered by email earlier that day, seemed nonsensical, but it opened the door.

Inside, the music was thumping, cognac cocktails flowed, and gourmet snacks (grand cru oysters from Brittany, cult Poujaran bread with boutique Bordier butter) abounded. A pair of young artists had turned a secluded salon into a psychedelic party room. By midnight one of the stuffiest spots in Paris, remade for the night into one of the hippest, was packed.

For nearly a decade a loose confab of rebellious young French food writers, working together as what they dubbed the “Bureau du Fooding,” have been organizing parties like this one, bringing haute cuisine into unlikely locales and top chefs out of their kitchens to mingle with the masses.

Following in the storied footsteps of the Paris Commune and the student movement of May ’68, their mission has been to a poke a finger in the eye of the rarefied French food establishment and to liberate chefs from their obsession with Michelin stars.

Coined by food writer Alexandre Cammas in 1999, Le Fooding—a Franglais mashup of “food” and “feeling”—made its way into the national discourse.

“We created Le Fooding to do something different from the Michelin guides and blow up all the classic categories,” Cammas says. In the 1990s, chefs in New York, London and Barcelona were in the midst of a creative renaissance, but Paris remained stuck in the past. “I wanted to wreak havoc.”

Le Fooding is about the democratization of dining, about celebrating the restaurant experience—from the music on the stereo and the art on the walls to the crowd in the room. It’s about good food in a casual setting, about nibbling three-star cuisine standing up, while a DJ bangs out tunes. In the words of the Le Fooding manifesto, “We create, we innovate, and most of all we have fun.”

These general precepts soon spawned a movement with its own awards show and guidebook, along with a series of gastro-anarchic events. In 2003, the Bureau du Fooding enlisted top chefs from across the country to serve soup to passersby in the covered markets of Paris. In 2004, they hosted their first summer picnic on the banks of the Seine, with trendy Parisian chefs serving a crowd of 1,600 a barbecunomique menu (the Le Fooding crew is fond of made-up words) for the democratic entry fee of €10.

In 2005, they convinced highbrow chefs from the city’s top hotels—the Crillon, Ritz, Bristol and Meurice—to serve their souped-up versions of street cart food (hot dogs, crepes, roasted chestnuts, kebabs) in the historic courtyards of the Village St. Paul in the Marais. Last winter, newspaper food writer François Simon, said to be the inspiration for the critic in Ratatouille, went behind the stoves himself for a week, cooking roast chicken and pumpkin soup at a neighborhood bistro. And this fall, Le Fooding makes its stateside debut at New York’s P.S.1, in Queens, with “Fooding d’Amour,” an event matching young French chefs with their American counterparts.

Le Fooding’s guidebook, built on the heretical notion that reviews don’t need ratings, has become the smart, young alternative to Michelin, highlighting restaurants and chefs the red guide overlooks in edgy reviews larded with puns and double entendres.

“The big chefs, the old guard of gastronomy, in the beginning they hated us,” Cammas says. But a decade in, the Parisian dining scene is increasingly dominated by Le Fooding’s ideals. Now the city’s most popular spots don’t need Michelin stars, just solid endorsements from Cammas and his team.

As Michelin guide France celebrates its centennial, its vaunted star system, long practically a religion in France, has been coming under fire, not just from the Le Fooding crew but also top chefs themselves. After three-star chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life in 2003 (following rumors he’d soon be demoted a star), a handful of his compatriots, citing the pressures of maintaining such standards, gave back their stars. The red guide is finally beginning to acknowledge some of the restaurants Le Fooding discovered, but change comes slowly to the institution.

Many of the new spots still snubbed by the red guide represent an entirely new genre of restaurant, more spiritually in sync with hipster precincts of East London and Brooklyn than the bourgeois Paris of Jacques Chirac. (Or Jacques Pépin, for that matter.) “It’s causing a panic at Michelin,” Cammas says. “They know they’re not onto what’s going on.” One Le Fooding writer, straining to describe the new breed of establishments, coined the term restaurant bistronomique, denoting ambitious food, moderate prices and low-key bistro settings.

The heroes of this new food scene toil in cramped open kitchens at holes-inthe-wall like Chez l’Ami Jean, the tiny Comptoir du Relais St. Germain in the Latin Quarter and Le Chateaubriand, where Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte offers up a $60 five-course dinner that changes nightly. To dine there is to surrender entirely to the chef’s whim.

Le Chateaubriand—with its clean, clearheaded cooking served in a warm bistro setting—embodies Le Fooding’s best qualities and may well represent the future of French food. Even the biggest-name chefs have begun dialing down, opening their own little bistronomique labors of love.

“Between a guy with a big belly and three Michelin stars serving an audience of tourists and a guy like Inaki—cooking cool food, being in magazines, shaking hands with his patrons,” Cammas asks, “who’s the happy one?”

Palate-for-hire JAY CHESHES has eaten professionally for Gourmet, Saveur and Time Out New York.

BON APPETIT

Le Fooding’s Top Paris Tables

Le Chateaubriand
“A festival of colors and textures from our dreams,” raves the 2009 Le Fooding guide.

129 Avenue Parmentier, 11th Arr., 01-43-57-45-95

Le Comptoir du Relais
St. Germain

Le Fooding suggests those wishing to sample Yves Camdeborde’s gastronomic menu “reserve a season ahead.”

9 Carrefour de l’Odéon, 6th Arr., 01-44-27-07-50, www.hotel-paris-relais-saint-germain.com

Chez l’Ami Jean
Le Fooding’s reviewer was “ready to throw uppercuts” for chef Stephane Jego’s braised pork cheek and stuffed rabbit roulade.

27 Rue Malar, 7th Arr., 01-47-05-86-89, www.amijean.eu

Ze Kitchen Galerie
The Asian-fusion fare at William Ledeuil’s sleek little boîte recently landed its first Michelin star.

4 Rue des Grands Augustins, 6th Arr., 01-44-32-00-32, www.zekitchengalerie.fr

La Bigarrade
“Rarely has an open kitchen been so transparent,” wrote the Le Fooding critic who swooned over Christophe Pelé’s modern French fare.

106 Rue Nollet, 17th Arr., 01-42-26-01-02, www.bigarrade.fr

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