French Cuisine Gets A Little Less Haute

A lingering recession has top chefs heading down-market

Eric Frechon trained at one of the temples of Parisian haute cuisine, the glittering marble and mirrored Hotel Crillon on Place de la Concorde. But last year, when the talented, baby-faced, 33-year-old chef decided to strike out on his own, he went decidedly down-market, opening a simple restaurant with forgettable formica-topped tables in Buttes Chaumont, a working-class neighborhood of Paris. While his august haute cuisine alma mater remains half empty during most meals, his new Le Restaurant d'Eric Frechon requires reservations a week in advance. "Customers no longer want all that luxury," the chef says. "They prefer good food, an informal atmosphere, and reasonable prices." A sumptuous four-course meal including langoustine ravioli and fresh sea bass costs only $33.

A simplicity backlash? For years, most of France's greatest chefs poured millions of francs into creating gastronomic wonders. Their goal was to win the ultimate award, three stars in the august Michelin Guide. A precious third star boosted business by up to 40%. But these days, France's starred palaces are struggling, weighed down by high taxes, heavy debts, and a lingering recession that has crimped Europe's free-spending ways. Now, chefs are adopting a host of strategies to bring more people to their tables. They are trying everything from discount meals to even welcoming children to their establishments.

NEW RECIPES. A sign of how much things have changed is that Michelin recognition no longer assures financial well-being. Pierre Gagnaire, one of France's most creative chefs, received the triple twinkle back in 1993, only to shock his fellow culinary artists by declaring bankruptcy last year at his restaurant in St. Etienne. Top-rated Marc Veyrat near Lake Annecy barely managed to escape a similar fate. And rumors run wild of other desperate chefs. "It's pure economics," says Mary Hyman at the Conseil National des Arts Culinaires. "France is in pretty bad shape. Few people can pay $300 for a meal."

As usual in France when business is bad, the government meddles. Early this year, the Culture Ministry launched a subsidy plan for chefs. "Gastronomy is part our of national cultural heritage," explains Ministry official Christine Andre. "When Gagnaire and Veyrat had all these problems, we couldn't stand by."

The new "culture" program provides grants to tide over well-known but heavily indebted chefs, which helped Gagnaire reopen in Paris. It also offers up to $17,500 to young chefs who want to open their first restaurant along with bank guarantees and financial advice

to those who lack management skills.

Instead of seeking subsidies, many energetic chefs are going back to business basics. Since last November, travel agency Degriftour has borrowed a page from airlines and started selling the equivalent of "off peak" fares for meals at 22 of France's most famous tables. Customers book by Minitel and, soon, by Internet. A four-course feast, including aperitif, wine, and coffee, at a three-star Michelin restaurant costs only about $100 a person, half the normal price. A similar two-star meal: $75 a person. "You can buy cut-rate vacations and theater tickets" explains the agency's Genvieve Piot. "Why shouldn't you be able to do the same for great restaurants?" So far, the service has racked up 1,500 reservations.

BABY BISTROS. Other chefs are turning to even more innovative marketing tactics. Guy Savoy, a two-star holder at his flagship Paris restaurant, has opened half a dozen "baby bistros," offering modestly priced "theme" meals. A Thanksgiving menu lured scores of Yankees with such treats as pumpkin soup with mussels. Kids also are welcome. At his three-star mecca in Burgundy, Bernard Loiseau recently built a playground and began offering a special menu enfant for less than $20. "The family spirit is back in vogue, and we can't afford to miss the trend," says Loiseau.

The most common trend of all is to turn entirely away from fancy restaurants. After seeing half a dozen of his most talented students such as Frechon succeed by opening informal bistros, the Crillon's top chef, Christian Constant, followed them last month. Seven chefs suffice at his new Le Violin des Ingres, compared with 20 at his former two-star Michelin employer. A five-course Constant meal now can be had for $42.

Despite scrimping on labor and decor, Constant and his disciples haven't cut back on all the goodies. True, caviar is gone from his menu. But he still offers champagne aperitifs and hunts for the best scallops and famed Bresse fowl. Recession or not, after all, this still is France, where a good meal should bring at least a bit of transcendence.

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