France's foreign minister recently cooked up Gout de la France, a global promotion of French cuisine that included a spectacular sit-down dinner for 700 at Versailles.
Paris CNN  — 

French cuisine is an essential part of French heritage, one of the main attractions for anyone heading there for a vacation.

So why do the French appear to be so insecure about their greatest asset?

That’s the question that struck me when I attended one of the most prestigious events in the French diplomatic calendar.

Each year, at the tail end of the summer, France calls in her ambassadors from their diplomatic posts around the world for a week of meetings, exchanges and schmoozing.

It’s a chance to give everyone his or her orders for the year ahead – and, if you were to just judge from the final day of the conference, the order is apparently: Get out there and wine and dine.

What else can you conclude when the last day of this year’s conference was given over to a giant garden party at an elegant chateau “catered” by 27 of the country’s and best known chefs?

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reminded the 700 diplomatic invitees – no strangers to cocktail parties – that his 19th-century predecessor, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, demonstrated during negotiations at the Congress of Vienna that good food is as important a weapon for diplomacy as good arms are for the military.

Culinary caution

And who produces the best food?

France, of course.

At least it does according to President Francois Hollande, who also attended the garden party.

As he emphasized to his ambassadors, French cuisine is a part of French heritage and is, so says UNESCO, an intangible but edible part of the world’s heritage.

It’s also, as both Hollande and Fabius noted, closely linked to the tourism industry which accounts for 7% of France’s GDP.

Still, an outsider invited to the event (yours truly!) could not help but wonder if French gastronomy isn’t beginning to feel competitive heat, with just an added dash of uncertainty.

After all, the ambassadors garden party was the third such gathering in the past 12 months.

There was something similar, although not quite as grand, for the ambassadors last year.

Then in March this year the foreign minister cooked up a gigantic event called Gout de la France (Taste of France) in 1,300 restaurants and embassies around the world – which included a spectacular sit-down dinner for 700 at Versailles.

So why the sudden need for the French to prove they can cook?

While the kings of the kitchen sniff at any suggestion they’re worried, noses were clearly out of joint this year when not a single French establishment made it into the top 10 of the world’s best restaurants.

French chefs cried foul and suggested that non-French judges behind the award were stacking the pots against France.

But there have been other slights.

Several books and a number of articles over at least the past five years have suggested that French gastronomy has become too steeped in tradition, too predictable and uninspired.


Yet, as with most things in this country it’s hard to detect real insecurity in French kitchens.

“We have to show the ambassadors we are truly the country of gastronomy,” says Guy Savoy, one of the great chefs who catered the garden party without charge. “We are the leaders, there are others but we are the leaders.”

Indeed those “others” are proving tough competition for the French.

Even President Hollande, who was certainly demonstrating his admiration for French food at the garden party, admitted it.

When asked, between buffet tables, to weigh in on the subject he observed: “The competition will only make us better.”

After practically inventing gastronomy and having the field to themselves for centuries there’s no question among the French chefs about the challenges out there – sometimes coming from their own former students.

But out in the world at large, according to several ambassadors, no one is exactly turning down cocktail invitations from the French embassies.

As the French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, says: “Our embassy is expected to practice gastro-diplomacy breakfast, lunch and dinner.”