Michael Steinberger has yet to find a French publisher for his new book, and to be frank, he's not all that surprised.
It may have something to do with his contention in Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France that the country's cuisine has become an ossified relic, weighed down by time-worn conventions and overshadowed in many eyes by more innovative cookery in countries such as Spain.
Mr. Steinberger, the wine columnist for Slate online magazine, calls the book a "love letter to France from a concerned friend."
Unfortunately, he points out, "the French are not interested in what other people think of them, especially when it comes to food."
Perhaps even more so when it's an American telling the French that they are losing - and have been for three decades - the food culture that made the country famous.
Vineyards are going broke, dozens of restaurants are closing each day, artisanal cheeses are disappearing. Even Camembert, one of the country's signature cheeses, is under siege.
"Every year you have thousands of cafés, brasseries and bistros shutter," says Mr. Steinberger, who was in Toronto last week to promote his book. "You've seen an entire food culture in eclipse."
The French blame globalization and the rise of chains such as McDonald's, which now counts France as its second-most profitable market after the United States.
Mr. Steinberger isn't buying it. "Globalization is their catch-all for everything that's wrong with France," he says, but the problem is at home - an "inside job."
Domestic wine consumption has plunged, Mr. Steinberger argues, and decades of a lagging economy and high unemployment mean the average French family just doesn't have the money to eat out regularly at bistros and higher-end restaurants. McDonald's is all they can afford.
On top of that, the country's high taxes and oppressive labour laws make it next to impossible to make a profit running a restaurant, Mr. Steinberger says.
As a result, chefs with ambition have looked abroad to more fertile markets such as New York and London - where almost half a million French have become what Mr. Steinberger calls "economic refugees."
"French cuisine has stagnated because France has stagnated for the last 30 years," he contends.
He also points to an unwillingness in France to embrace ideas from foreign cultures - which when done poorly can lead to overwrought fusion collisions but when done right can reinvigorate a staid cuisine.
"If you're not interested in what the world is doing, you might be caught off guard when the rest of the world starts to do some good work."
French cuisine is largely living in exile, thanks to a diaspora of chefs such as Daniel Boulud who carry the tradition forward, and also to legions of dedicated Francophiles who flock to places such as Toronto's Le Sélect Bistro, a city institution where La Marseillaise plays on the answering-machine greeting.
The funny thing is, sitting in a booth at Le Sélect, Mr. Steinberger doesn't look the least bit like a devotee of all things French, coming off decidedly Gap-American in khakis and a blue shirt. But he says he experienced a culinary epiphany in France at age 13, and he's been obsessed ever since.
"We eat the way we do in New York and Toronto and London because of the French, because of all the French chefs who came here in the 1960s when this was a culinary wasteland," he says. "They created the idea of artisanal local fare and seasonal eating. Those have become mantras. …
"These ideas now live on here to a greater extent than they do in France."
In fact, he says, they may live most exuberantly in Japan, which is doing to French cuisine what it did to cameras, cars and audio gear: first copying it and then even making it better.
Mr. Steinberger isn't sure most French care that they are falling behind, or that you can get a better French meal in Tokyo's Ginza district than you can in some French towns, especially given the current economic climate.
"There is a sort of apathy, a sort of indifference. Maybe it's just a reflection of the times."
The great hope is the "bistronomie" movement, led by a group of rebellious young chefs such as Thierry Breton, Pascal Barbot and Alexandre Bourdas who are modernizing classic French dishes at a price that the average person in France can afford.
Part of that means dispensing with the over-the-top expenditures ($500,000 a year at some restaurants) on flowers and other frippery that for years were believed to be necessary to gain top ratings from the influential Michelin Guide.
The chefs are saying "we are going to cook wonderful food in a different way, we don't want to have these luxe palaces," he said. "They are chefs saying 'Screw the Spanish. We are the great chefs.'"
The bistronomie movement is catching on, but it's tiny.
"My hope with this book is that in some very small way it might encourage the French to think more about what they've had and are losing," Mr. Steinberger says. "Gastronomy is one of the great French contributions to mankind. They created this beautiful art [and]taught the rest of the world how to do it. I'd like to see it continue."Report Typo/Error