How often has this happened to you?
You’re sitting in a restaurant. Maybe you’re sipping the remainder of a nice glass of wine after the dishes from your main course have been cleared away. You’re quite content with the dinner you’ve had. No, you’re satisfied. You really could just go on to coffee and the bill and call it a good night out.
And then a server goes by with another tables’ dessert. It looks fabulous. Your eyes light up and your mouth drops as you take in a short, quiet gasp.
Your eyebrow lifts. Suddenly, your stomach makes room and invites your brain to say, “I’ll have the same thing.”
You’ve no doubt heard the classic phrase, “You eat with your eyes.” This is absolutely true when you’re in Paris. Walk by any storefront, especially during the holiday season, and you’ll see the most amazing displays of chocolate, pastries, breads or cheeses that would be enough to set your mouth to watering and your feet to walking through the door to make a purchase. Or at the very least, it’s enough to put you in a holiday mood, especially when you see that twinkle of joy in a child’s eyes as they peer into the window display with anticipation.
Christmas chocolate on display at La Mere de la Famille on Rue Cler, Paris
The French take food presentation very seriously. It’s art. Go to a French restaurant and chances are, your order will be beautifully displayed and you’ll pause to admire it before picking up your knife and fork to start eating it (unless you’re really hungry of course). In the kitchen, presentation is a big deal. Sure, you can make a chateaubriand that tastes great, but if it looks terrible in presentation on the plate, who would want to eat it? It would show bad on the kitchen and even worse on the chef. Slap it onto a plate with a few smears of stray sauce and throw on a few potatoes and shove it out of the kitchen, you’d be guaranteed a disappointed diner and, in these days of instant Internet reviews and pictures online of meals, you’d be sure that word would get around and the number of customers would drop.
The same thing is true in French stores.
Christmas gingerbreads at the Christmas Market along the Champs Elysees
Look at the window displays. It’s not just a paper sign giving their hours. It’s a literal cornucopia of their holiday offerings. If they don’t tempt you to go inside, at the very least, you’ll think about how beautiful the food looked.
Laduree’s holiday macaron window display along the Champs Elysees
One of the biggest themes I took away from seeing these beautifully arranged windows, buying the meticulously arranged and presented boxes of chocolates or candies or sitting down to a plate of amazing looking food was this – they actually care about their food. And not only do they care about the product going into the boxes or bags or plates, they respect it.
Macarons ready for the choosing at Larnicol
Think about it. When you go to a store and ask for a dozen rolls, what do you take away from the experience? If someone just throws them into a bag, twists it and shoves it to you and says, “That’ll be $2.99,” what do you walk out of the store thinking? Do you think anything of it at all? Now say you walk into a store, ask for a dozen rolls that are carefully placed into a box, sealed with a sticker giving the name and address of the bakery and it’s carefully passed to you as if live chicks were inside. That should tell you that not only does the person behind the counter respect the product that’s coming out of the back, but believes in it enough to treat it with care (and hopefully you will too as you take it home).
Box of chocolate paves from Michel Chaudun, sealed shut with ribbon and a wax seal
If there’s enough respect and care for the food as it goes out of the store, then chances are there’s a lot of respect and care going into it as it’s made. And trust me. When it comes to food, the French know when something isn’t made with care. An éclair made without real cream? Bread made from frozen dough rather than made by hand in the store? Trying to serve products like that to customers would be suicide for a store. Not only would it make you look cheap, but it would show disrespect – to the customer and to the very trade that they are practicing.
Laurent Dubois’ cheese creations at Place Maubert
It’s a lesson that we could learn in the US. Maybe if we came to appreciate the aesthetics of our food more, and even enjoy the little luxuries of a wonderful pastry or loaf of bread, properly and lovingly made, maybe there wouldn’t be a problem with obesity or overeating. Maybe if we felt satisfied with our experience in eating a fabulous piece of tart or cake, we wouldn’t feel the need to mindlessly eat a box of cookies that had never been touched by human hands as they came out of the factory.
Quite literally, we’ve lost touch with our food.
Chocolate offerings at Patrick Roger