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French Restaurants

How the Covid-19 lockdown is changing France's competitive world of gastronomy

Three Michelin star chef Christopher Coutanceau in his restaurant in La Rochelle, prepares a meal that will be delivered to a private home, due to lockdown. 7 May 2020.
Three Michelin star chef Christopher Coutanceau in his restaurant in La Rochelle, prepares a meal that will be delivered to a private home, due to lockdown. 7 May 2020. © AFP

French restaurants have had it tough since lockdown restrictions came into place on March 17 to stop the spread of Covid-19, and some are not sure they will survive the extended closures. The restaurant industry has had to rethink its strategies, including how to compile prestigious restaurant guides.

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While certain businesses and shops have been allowed to re-open since 11 May, restaurants and bars are still waiting for the green light.

The next government assessment of the post-lockdown situation is due on June 2.

Michelin starred chef Philippe Etchebest, told France 24 that "the situation for many restaurant owners is dire."

Not only have they have they had to close due to coronavirus, they suffered from a slow down in business over the last year due to various major strikes and upheaval due to yellow vest (gilets jaunes) protests, he explains.

Taking in to account the stringent new hygiene rules, his professional working group has put forward a seven step plan to the government to get restaurants back on their feet, but he admits they don't know how long this transition period will last.

Focus on core business

He says restaurants will have to reassure the public that it's safe to come back, and chefs will need to focus on their core business, which is fine food.

Many chefs and guide directors agree that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the industry in such a way, that it will be difficult to go back to the way things were before.

The director of the Gault & Millau guide, Jacques Bally said it was time to stand by and support restaurants who have suffered from the crisis.

With drastic social distancing measures in restaurants likely when they do reopen, "our responsibility as a guide is to highlight what is being done and what possibly can be done," he told AFP.

A humble, human scale

Bally also says he sees post-coronavirus gastronomy as potentially less pricey and "more simple and humble... and at a human scale", celebrating seasonal ingredients and producers.

The guide is also going to spotlight chefs who have shown a social conscience during the crisis as well as those who have experimented with click and collect, oven-ready meals or even starred chefs offering to go to their customers homes and cook for them.

He said they have shelved their chef, pastry chef and sommelier wine waiter of the year awards, but the 2021 guide will appear as normal in October.

Values called into question

The British-based The World's 50 Best Restaurants was quick to cancel its 2020 ranking which was to be unveiled in the Belgian city of Antwerp next month.

"We decided to not announce a list this year even though the vote had taken place," director Helene Pietrini told AFP.

"It would have been inappropriate," she added. "There are moments to celebrate the best restaurants and others when we have to pull up our sleeves to make sure that all these restaurants survive."

Instead of the annual gathering, they are launching a '50 Best for Recovery' campaign aimed at providing financial relief for the industry.

Pietrini said some chefs were disappointed that the influential ranking had called a pause, but "a very large majority welcomed it".

"This crisis has called our values into question," she added.

Michelin to award innovation during lockdown

Pietrini believes that many of the very best restaurants are going to be "less into the spectacle" after the crisis, and "more into sincerity, the products and the philosophy of the chef.

The prestigious Michelin guide however, says it will go ahead with assessing restaurants and chefs, as usual.

"Great chefs have not lost their talent during the lockdowns," new director Gwendal Poullennec told AFP.

"They have been innovating and creating new recipes," adding that his inspectors were "impatient to try them out when restaurants reopen."

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