I was watching a culinary show the other day on French cable TV called “les Dessous de tables de Francois Simon”1 piloted by a French journalist called, yes that’s right, “Francois Simon”, pen name or not, and decided that for the genre it’s really quite good.
(1Don’t go rushing to Google or Babel translate to see what it means, it’s a little more subtle than that which, I hope, will become apparent below)
Now if you watch the show for the first time you might be excused for thinking it’s just another culinary show by another self designated culinary critic… yet another “Bourgeois” Parisian journalist, a bit snobbish and out of touch with how 98% of the population really live, spouting off about the latest “in” restaurant, invariably in Paris because, well where else, and that’s where you would be wrong, the show’s concept soon becoming apparent, correcting the viewer’s perception.
Firstly “the journalist” doesn’t “spout-off” but narrates, sotto voce, in a calm and factual, but never monotonous way. Not because he’s afraid of being overheard or recognized – the narration is post “Voix-off” (voice-over) – it’s to create an atmosphere of complicity, intimacy and even connivance with the viewers, obliging them to sit forward and listen, first out of curiosity then attentively, so much so the viewer feels as if they’re sitting at the same table as “the journalist”. NB.In doing so he’s also saying “Look, it’s not about me”
The 02nd notable factor is that “the journalist”2 never shows his face, filming with a camera invariably hidden, by the looks of it, in one of his dandy ties or cravats, that lends him a sort of modern-day Jerry Cornelius look (ok, you can “Google” that one) or, if filmed by an accomplice, his face “fuzzed”.
(2“The Journalist” is indeed a professional journalist, working for the French “Figaro” newspaper/magazine, a politically right-wing orientated paper, sympathetic to the incumbent French president’s cause, but that’s beside the point.)
What is enjoyable with the show is its actual approach to the subjects, whether its restaurants, wine bars, delicatessens, of course hotels, or…yes, yes… English tea houses the same factual tone is applied. Yes there’s quite a lot to say about culinary life, but not only, in Paris but “the journalist” is decidedly not averse to taking the viewer out of Paris and showing other regions and even other countries3, initiating his narration, as if to set the tone with the starting point of the trip, with the train station itself, managing in process to make a point of interest of places like the Gare d’Austerlitz or Paddington and so rightfully integrating the journey into the narration as well.
(3In the same way “the journalist”, like some whispering Pied Piper, takes the viewer around some of London’s lesser known but, not surprisingly, just as intriguing “Points of Interests” he’ll take you to Provincial France and find an offbeat but chic hotel or restaurant in Bourges or Metz – pronounced “Mess”.)
Not contenting to “subjectively” comment on the establishments “the journalist” visits the show also puts it into an original perspective by suggesting that the clientele, with their behaviour in a given environment, are just as much an influence on the quality of the establishment as the cooking, the service or the ambient temperature4 and this I, as the commis waiter, Maitre D, restaurant manager I once was, know to be only too true.
(4Apart from noting the quality of the service “the journalist” will also share details about the sound level and the ambient temperature, 2 very underrated but very important points that go to deciding whether a visit is enjoyable, tolerable or forgettable)
Apart from physically taking the viewer out and about “the journalist” also takes them on a virtual tour of the culinary world, sharing books of recipes, photos, anecdotes5 and stories , old and new but always of interest. Here again not contenting to sit back and arbitrarily criticize – that’s what culinary critics invariably do, don’t they? – this particular critic will also roll up his sleeves and, with all the modesty the sotto voce and fuzzed image can portray, practice what he preaches and show that anyone can, without pretension, have fun and jolly up ordinary ever day dishes showing you in the process that the art of cooking is not just for the initiated or the self-acclaimed.
(5 During one show I learnt, for example, that if you put too much salt in a sauce all you need to do is peel a potato, cut it in half, drop it uncooked into the sauce and the potato will absorb the excess salt! Imagine! I spent more than 20 years in the Hotel trade and never knew that!)
Final word: When narrating a trip to Lyon Francois Simon – I’ll name “the journalist” now I’m finished – explained that he’d spent several days preparing the trip. From this I deducted that while he may quite often appear to simply step out of his front door and go where his flair takes him this spontaneousness isn’t really spontaneous.
Preparing a trip is as much a part of the experience as the trip itself, as the trip is as important as the destination. So? So “the journalist” goes a step further and affirms that preparing a trip is like preparing a shirt, or dress, for a special occasion: you lay it out, make sure it’s neat and then put it on with care and attention. I like that image.
Not only does this reinforce the dandy epicurean, but always factual, image “the journalist” is portraying – and this is someone who travels to London to buy ties and cravats from Old Bond Street – it epitomizes a philosophy I was taught to adhere to: There’s an art to living that shows itself every day and in a thousand little ways. It’s a style of living that gives life its sense, a sense of colour, taste and pleasure and it’s what the French call, without any accentuation, “Savoir vivre”.