I sat down last Wednesday with Edouard Thorens, the man behind the popular Paris food Instagram, The FoodStache. While initially the account may look like any other blog promoting “food porn” and suggesting the best restaurants in Paris, I learned from our conversation that Ed possesses a knowledge beyond this superficiality, that he understands food and our growing interest in it set within a cultural framework. In discussing American influence in Europe, comparisons between Italian and French cuisine, and coffee, I learn that food is less an expression of immediate cravings and instead an indication of what is current and what is desired by the larger society. Food defines the paradox of being something that is at once entirely individual and yet almost always influenced by factors beyond your own control.
“I remember growing up in the 80s and 90s and everyone had this massive interest in American culture. Whatever came from the States, that was what was cool. We were watching American TV shows, wearing American clothes, we had Nikes, Supersoaker, everything was coming from there. We just wanted to have everything or anything that they had in the movies, that was what was trendy. And now, food-wise, a lot of what we have today comes from the States as well. The burgers, the cupcakes, the doughnuts. All of it.”
I ask Edouard if he thinks this is true for any western European country, if this interest in American culture spreads beyond his own experience growing up in Switzerland and what he’s come to understand in France. He confirms this, but then thinks specifically of Italy, referencing the contrast this statement plays with the tradition practiced and given emphasis in the country.
“In Italy, McDonald’s is less popular (in comparison to France, the world’s second-largest market for the restaurant chain). What accounts for this is the difference in food culture. In Italy, there’s much more importance given to food, to what you eat and to how you cook. Family is also influential as well. There’s this character of the mother there that’s much stronger than what you have in France. In France, there's this image that when you grow older you’ll be abandoned in a nursing home and no one will visit you. It's a fear but also a partial reality."
Ed then connects this to the 2003 heat wave in Europe, a topic I haven’t considered in years until his mentioning. Consistent temperatures above 40 °C (104 °F) in France led to 14,802 heat-related deaths during the period, the majority of which were people over 60. “They realized then that there was this large population of the elderly living alone and that there was no one taking care of them. No one cared whether or not they had AC, if they had enough to eat or drink.”
These comments reveal the interconnectivity of food and culture, how the former drives our conception of societies, and how the latter generates an appropriate response. Tying this back to a comparison between France and Italy, Ed mentions the image of the nonna, the Italian equivalent of grandmother. But in explaining it to me, I realize that it’s more than a term, it’s more than a single definition of familial relationships. It’s an idea inextricably tied to our thoughts of pleasure and warmth; nonna expresses an element of culture promoting all connotations of comfort tied to sustenance. It’s the same interpretation they offer to food.
“In Italy, it’s widely-known that any man will always compare the way his wife cooks to the way his mother cooks. If his wife is doing lasagna, there’s always the comment Well, when my mom does lasagna she does it this way… They adhere to what they grew up with, always using it as a base of comparison. If you’re Italian, something has to be a certain way because that’s how your mom or your grandmother does it. It’s that way with spaghetti, with ragoût, anything Italian. I would guess that with most of these things, they have a very clear perception of how it should be, and that perception is based on how their family cooks it.
“In France, I don’t think you have that, or not as much. Certainly, people will go crazy about the specific products, but to me, in Italy there’s a stronger interest in how these products are used, in how they’re cooked. In France, it’s a desire to have a good glass of wine, a good cheese, good ham, rather than the suggestion to actually get together and cook.”
It’s logical then that Ed would say Italian people are probably less likely to eat out, that for them it goes beyond this appreciation for the products themselves and extends to the idea of community, of using food preparation and consumption as a reason to gather. He then translates this comparison to an observation of the two cuisines’ health benefits, of their relative nutritional values. “Maybe it’s wrong, but it seems that Italian cooking is healthier than French food in a way. It’s geared more towards natural ingredients, there’s less cream, there’s fewer sauces. Also, I feel like if you cook Italian, it’s very simple, just a couple of good ingredients, quickly and easily cooked and you have a perfect dish. French food will usually be something that you have to cook in the oven for five hours or you have to attend to for the whole day, something like blanquette de veau or boeuf bourguignon. Italian cooking on the other hand, it’s several steps and it’s really good regardless, or maybe because of this simplicity.”
I think about this in relation to an Atlantic article I recently read, “In Defense of Italian Food,” where the author leads off with a Julia Child quote: Anyone can make a bowl of pasta, but it takes a skilled chef to put out a fine French meal. This perfectly defines the general stance between Italian and French food, the idea that French cooking gains validity only through its complexity, and because that intricacy isn’t a value of Italian cooking, it’s thought to be a lesser cuisine. Italian simplicity seems to be frowned upon in contrast to the sophistication and modernity of French or Japanese cooking, or what we’re beginning to see in modern Spanish cuisine. The writer continues with this, saying that this stance towards Italian food rejects its ease, defining it as a “cop out that doesn’t require rigorous thought or skill to produce.” However, the author, Sara Jenkins, a chef who worked in Italy and now in the United States, argues the opposite, saying that it’s an understanding of the restraint inherent in Italian cooking which requires the equivalent energy of perfecting the mother sauces of French cuisine. This begs the question: Are the two cuisines comparable? Are we capable of saying that the styles of cooking specific to any one country can be said to be better or inferior to another?
Edouard mentions family from Italy, as well as a three-month stay in Florence, giving further credibility to what he says. I ask more about his experience in the city, interested in how it compares with other Italian centers of art, culture and food. “It’s the kind of city where you can walk everywhere. You can spend two or three days there and get a really good feel of how the city looks. You can stay a weekend, walk around and see nearly everything.
“Paris stands in contrast by being a very international city. You’ll find sushi places and stuff like that in Florence, but because it’s smaller and because it’s so touristy, it’s also very Italian. People don’t go there for Indian food or for ramen. They want the Italian experience, that’s what drives them to the city.”
I then turn the discussion exclusively to Paris, reflecting upon Belleville’s Asian food scene, the Japanese restaurants centered around Pyramides, or the high-density of Indian restaurants crowded around the Gare du Nord. Thinking about all of this, I ask how people can still be traveling to the city in hopes of experiencing French food. When so many other ethnicities, so many other cultural backgrounds seem to be dominating the Parisian food scene, how can people see or expect anything else?
“There’s still a percentage of people who go to Paris for French food, but there are other regions of France that you would go to if you were really after a food experience. People that are traveling to Paris with this intention, it’s mostly those who are looking for very high-end food or maybe for the experience of having oysters with a glass of wine. There’s loads of these places in Paris, of course. If you think of L’Arpège for example, even Alain Ducasse in a way, it’s those restaurants and those chefs who are glorified, the ones that everyone talks about. They’re in the press, they’re ranked, and because of this, that’s what tourists come for.
“These places still gain attention because they remain icons, like La Tour D’Argent. It used to be a three-Michelin star restaurant and it would be the one place you would go to in the city if you had an important meal.” As an aside, Ed mentions that this is the restaurant which inspired Ratatouille. In doing some fact-checking to confirm this, I also find that Hemingway cited it in A Moveable Feast and that Proust mentioned it in À la recherche du temps perdu -- all of which perpetuates the restaurant’s mythic status.)
“There’s also a much smaller number of people who are traveling to Paris to go to Septime or those new bistros we’re talking about now. They want to catch a bit of the bistronomie trend, so they come here on a ‘food trip.’ But otherwise, people are coming to Paris with that assumption that they’re going to have good food. I think the reality though is that they’re coming to Paris for the Eiffel Tower, they’re coming for the Louvre, or simply because Paris is Paris and they just assume that they’re going to have good food for that reason. They think all French food is good just because it falls inside that category of cuisine, but they’re going to end up sitting in Montmartre, having a random crêpe or entrecôte on the Grands Boulevards, and it’s going to be, at least in my opinion, very bad. But they’re going to love it because they don’t know anything else. It’s Paris, it’s French, so again it’s that question: How could it be bad?
I counter this, asking Ed how food can seem to take a near-universal interest and yet there are still those who haven’t informed themselves about the reality of French food in Paris, those who don’t understand that the city hasn’t remained stagnant in the past eighty years. That, in fact, this isn’t the same city that writers of the Lost Generation romanticized or that Julia Child translated to housewives looking for culinary variety in 1960s America.
He thinks about this, pausing before giving a response. “Even with food becoming a topic that seems to be discussed everywhere, there’s still the question of how much someone will spend on a meal, how much they’re willing to spend on food in general. It's a question of priorities. For most people, if they have an extra hundred euros to spend, they’re more likely to buy a new bag or a new pair of shoes, maybe upgrade their phone or whatever, but I don’t think they’re going to spend it on a single meal.”
There’s analysis to be made in what he says. The suggestions Ed offers up as substitutes to spending on food underlines a common preference for something concrete as opposed to the more abstract pleasure garnered from the experience of a meal. Maybe we put more emphasis on something that seems to have a longer lifespan, greater length in the amount of time we can enjoy it, because after all, the longest of meals can only last several hours. We look at a bag, at clothes, at things as something that we can return to time and again, but is this material happiness greater in value than the undefined pleasures of a meal, or is it just a superficial manifestation of what sharing food really brings?
We move then into a topic I love : the intersection between social media and our society’s interest, infatuation, with food. We look first at Instagram as a single case study, and I offer my explanation of the platform’s popularity as a result of people’s desire to live vicariously through the experiences of others. We can sit anonymously behind our screens, thumbing through pictures documenting a lavish dinner out or an indulgent dessert. Without consuming these calories and without paying the financial cost, we can still share in the experience to some extent, taking a visual delight equivalent almost to the gustatory pleasure one gains in consuming it yourself.
Ed continues upon this thought, “It’s like looking at celebrities, jewelry, wine, cars, or clothes. It’s true for anything. That’s why people buy magazines, that’s why they browse their newsfeeds or stay on the internet for hours. That’s why people are interested in social media, because they want to know what people are doing and they want to experience these things through the eyes of others. Conversely, if we’re looking at it from the blogger’s perspective, that may also be why things like burgers, pizza, cookies, brownies, and doughnuts are all popular right now. They’re all relatively cheap. There’s a couple of Instagrammers in Paris with great profiles, lots of followers, but they’re mostly posts about coffee, coffee places, and pastries, and that’s because it’s a cheaper way of getting into food blogging. You need a much larger budget if you’re going around to Michelin restaurants, and so that’s why there’s only a few people blogging about these places today.”
Always wanting to turn the conversation to coffee, I apply his last comment to the rise of specialty coffee in Paris, suggesting that this exposure of coffee shop culture is responsible for its popularity. Ed agrees, but adds to this the influence of other cities, the typical contenders of Brooklyn, Berlin, and Sydney, images and cultures which have seemed to spread throughout and dominate western culture over the last ten years. “It’s because of these places that when you read about people who started coffee shops in Paris, it’s mostly Anglo-Saxons who realized that there was no good coffee in the city, nothing similar to what they had back home, and so they decided to offer it themselves. So yes, it became popular because it began to be seen everywhere, but it’s also the fact that coffee, like these things I mentioned before, is relatively cheap. In a way, three or four euros thought of without context is not a lot of money, it’s an easy spend. If you’re thinking of spending ten or fifteen euros, you’re more conscious of it in relation to your budget. But if you have a couple coins in your pocket, you don’t give it a lot of awareness because it seems so little. So that’s why buying a coffee is almost something that you give no thought to. If you want one, you’re going to buy one.”
I think to the larger picture of coffee shops’ omnipresence in Paris, how it seems that there’s three or four opening up weekly on every street. Ed agrees, but then observes that there’s still a need to be filled, that there’s still places in Paris that could benefit from more of these cafés.
“Montmartre, for example, you have Cuillière, which is a certain kind of coffee shop. It’s a bit fancier and more established than other places, but if you want to go for coffee in that area, you don’t have many other options.
“What you start seeing on the other hand though, are places that have nothing to do with coffee but which do it well regardless. There’s L’Éclair de Génie, who opened a place on the Rue Lepic about three or four months ago, and they have really good coffee. They do specialty espressos and cappuccinos, they’ll even ask what kind of beans you want, Ethiopian, Colombian, whatever. If they had wanted to offer coffee three years ago, this wouldn’t have been the case, they wouldn’t have given it any thought. But now they make that association between pastries and coffee, and knowing that people want good coffee, they’re going to provide it. That’s also an evolving thing. You start getting better coffee in restaurants and bars and so there’s this general awareness of what constitutes as good coffee. These businesses are aware of the demand for it and so they’re willing to adapt.
“I remember being back in Berlin, where it was the same thing, coffee shops were coming up everywhere. I asked another blogger, Per, behind Berlin Food Stories, whether or not this was going to reach an apex and how all of these businesses could survive when they were all essentially doing the same thing. He gave two explanations for it. One was that in Berlin, the rents are incredibly low, so it’s easy to survive selling coffee. The cost of operating a coffee shop isn’t as high as operating a restaurant. If you have a restaurant and you’re offering something more complex than just pasta or pizza or burgers, then you’ll have to buy meat and fish and vegetables and you have to have a chef, a sous chef, and a staff. There’s loads of costs related to the operation of a restaurant. And of course, if you design your restaurant to be more high-end, the more expensive it gets and the harder it is to be profitable.
“There’s very high margin in coffee as well. To produce a cup of coffee, it only costs around twenty cents. So when it’s sold for three or four euros, that’s a multiple of 15 to 20. It’s similar to wine; if you buy a bottle at three euros then you can sell it for fifteen in a restaurant, which people are going to pay for. But if you buy your bottle for twenty, there’s no way you’re going to sell if for 100. You may have to sell it for thirty, so then the multiple decreases significantly. Food is the same as well. Entrecôte is expensive. You can’t multiply it by three or four and expect people to buy it because they know how much it costs if they bought it directly from the butcher.
“But coffee doesn’t gain this same attention. People don’t realize that when you have a cup of coffee at a café, that you could buy a bag of beans for the same price. And anyways, it’s not going to be the same.”
I think about this as I look down at our cappuccinos. We’re seated at my favorite table at Fragments, one that’s unlikely to be unoccupied if you come on a weekend or any other busy time of the week. But it’s a Wednesday morning, still early enough that we’re two among the other ten or so customers at the café. The table comprises two chairs situated between the counter and the front window, a privileged position which allows you to look down at the procession of baristas and bakers resolute in their work. On the opposite side, you look out on the rue des Tournelles, a quiet street just off the larger Boulevard Beaumarchais, a favorite for wandering lazily and without purpose around the Marais.
Ed’s right. Again, yes we’re paying for the coffee, for the pleasure taken in that first sip and however many will follow. But it’s also the cost of the experience, maybe even more so. Coffee and food are a backdrop to interaction, they act as elements in the composition of our moments shared with others, even the moments we share with ourselves.
He ties this back to the social context we’ve somewhat unknowingly drifted into. “It’s cultural, because everyone drinks coffee, especially in the morning. For the past 40 or 50 years, it’s been something that almost everyone’s engaged in, that almost everyone’s done. It’s not something entirely new, it’s always been here, but now it’s just better and people are developing a taste for that. For us in Europe, we always regarded Italy as the country of coffee, so it’s not like it’s coming from the other end of the world. It’s where you found the best espresso machines, the best baristas, the best cafés.”
I think about this in relation to an earlier comment, Ed’s observation that the majority of coffee shops which fit the mold we’re discussing are a result of expats’ nostalgia for what they had back home. But if Italy has such a strong coffee culture, why didn’t they feel the need to extend this to other European countries, to push beyond their borders and permeate outwards to other nations without the appreciation for coffee they’ve cultivated over so many years. But in the time it takes to vocalize the question, I’ve already begun formulating the answer in my head.
“The coffee culture we have in Paris doesn’t come from there. It’s not Italian. In comparison to other parts of Europe, the views surrounding coffee in Italy are much stronger. It existed there when there was nothing in Berlin, when there was only tea in London, and just the idea of drinking an espresso at the comptoir in France. In Italy, the coffee was always good. Macchiato, cappuccino, all those specialty coffees, it all comes from there. They didn’t have expats coming and introducing this ‘new’ coffee culture because for them, it’s always been that way. And because the culture is so prominent, there’s less space for change.”
I apply this then to French food, to the instability upon which its future sits. Paris being the international city that Ed describes, it’s subject to the influx of travel from other nations and the outside influence these foreigners bring. Maybe that’s why there’s such an anxiety over it. Maybe that’s why everyone seems to be equally concerned about trying to define French food today, about trying to predict what it will be five or ten years from now. If it will even exist beyond that. Maybe it’s because, without knowing it, we’re all contributing to its demise.
We go further into discussing this coffee culture which exists parallel to what is practiced in Italy. “I’d say it started in London, in the mid 2000s. It was there before Berlin, certainly before Paris. It seems to be developing in Barcelona now as well. There’s a brand called Nømad which roasts for the fancy coffee shops, of which there still aren’t that many, only about four or five. But it’s coming. It's interesting though, because it’s the same as it is in Italy, it’s another place where the coffee culture was already developed. You have café solo, a single-shot espresso, strong and bitter, taken at the bar, and that’s how people like their coffee. Then you have café con hielo, which is poured over ice…”
Ed lists several other Spanish coffee preparations, but for some reason I focus entirely in upon this final method, doing further research to confirm the steps he’s outlined for me. I’m not sure why I stop to reflect upon this final method of preparing coffee, but then realize that maybe that’s it. I’m interested in the process, in the cultural formality tied to how people go about doing something so seemingly simple, apparently straightforward and without complication. I love this passion, this breaking-apart of something which can be completed in a matter of only one or two steps, but which benefits nonetheless from the excess of care offered to it, to the attention it seems to necessitate.
Café con hielo is ritualistic, invariably performed in the same way each time. Ask for a cup of coffee and a glass of ice. Add sugar to the former, allowing the crystals to liquify in the process of melting. You pour this immediately over the ice, allowing your period of consumption to last no more than ten minutes. Anything longer and the charm’s disappeared.
I think about how this contrasts the hour and a half I’ve spent with Ed, discussing food and its illustration of culture and societies. I look down again at the table, our two cappuccinos only now just nearing their end.
Illustration by Hermine Illustrations
All photos courtesy of The FoodStache