France’s cuisine traces the reasons for its world dominance to the Revolution of 1798, which broke up the power of trade guilds and dispersed the court chefs when their aristocratic employers lost their heads.
Free to work where they wanted and needing to make a living, these cooks led the way in a ten-fold increase in the number of restaurants in Paris inside a few years. This new class of professional chefs also adopted a professional, scientific approach to cooking, in contrast to Italy and Japan, where food are still dominated by family recipes, handed down for generations. Where meat had always been boiled before roasting, for example, they discovered it tasted better when it was only roasted.
Then came Escoffier, chef at the Ritz, who developed the brigade system at the turn of the 20th century. The skills in the kitchen were broken down, making it a professional, repeatable operation capable of turning out perfect meals on any scale required. Every major hotel, every serious restaurant, now uses this French system, the foundation of haute cuisine.
I see this professionalism in action in a large brasserie. From the moment I walk in the door, I know I am in good hands. Even my waiter Eric has worked here for six years. He takes pride in his work but has a lot of tables to look after, so has no time for those who don’t know what they want. This is not America, where people take pride in being individuals in their ordering, turning the chef into a workman whose job it is to do what they ask. A French chef knows what he is doing.