Instagram rules even in rarefied world of French cuisine

It was a shockwave in the world of French cuisine. Jean Imbert, best known for winning a reality TV show and hobnobbing with stars, replaced the most decorated chef in the world, Alain Ducasse, at one of the finest restaurants in Paris.

 Instagram rules even in rarefied world of French cuisine
The entrance to luxury hotel "Plaza Athenee" in Paris. FRANCK FIFE / AFP

The announcement in June that Imbert, 40, would take over the illustrious Plaza Athenee, was met with much harrumphing and pursing of lips among the fusty corners of the French culinary world.

“It’s like getting a rocker to perform at the Opera de Paris,” one “expert des grands tables” told Challenges magazine.

But for many of France’s top chefs, it is hardly a surprise.

“A chef that stays in the kitchen, who isn’t ‘Instagrammable’, reaching out to the public, is no longer in the race. Restaurants can’t survive without publicity. There are so many of us,” Christian Le Squer, head chef at the three Michelin-starred Le Cinq at the George V hotel in Paris, told AFP.

Le Squer, 58, learned this lesson from the best: he was assigned to train Imbert during his winning performance on Top Chef, the phenomenally successful TV competition, in 2012.

He gave him tips of the trade, and Imbert returned the favour by helping Le Squer set up his Instagram account.

Ducasse may have had more Michelin stars than anyone in the world, “but he perhaps didn’t find his audience on Instagram,” said Le Squer.

READ ALSO: How a homeless Paris dishwasher became a Michelin-starred chef

READ ALSO: Meet the Frenchwoman who makes the world’s greatest pastry

‘Trial by TV’ 
Even more than social media, Top Chef has changed the rules of the game.

First launched in the United States, the show arrived in France in 2010, pitting professional cooks against each other in a knock-out competition.

It has become more than just an amusing side dish for chefs — it is “a trampoline to success”, said chef Mory Sacko, who took part last year.

He used the publicity to help launch his restaurant MoSuke, bringing the flavours of francophone Africa to the French capital, and now fronts his own TV show.

Le Squer said that before, chefs made a name for themselves in the industry by winning professional contests and titles, such as “the best craftsman of France”.

“Now, it’s trial by TV,” he added.

Helene Darroze — a decorated chef with five Michelin stars — has also become a household name thanks to her regular appearances on Top Chef.

“The competition attracts more and more very talented young people,” she told AFP.

“I’m astonished — they all have an agent. I’ve never had an agent in my life,” she added.

But Darroze sees this as a positive thing — elevating the job of chef in the eyes of the public.

And social media presence proved vital for many chefs during the hard months of pandemic-induced closures.

Imbert is the perfect illustration of the new trend, using his victory in 2012 to launch a restaurant in partnership with Pharrell Williams and pick up more than 400,000 followers on Instagram.

“Ducasse was a man of big ideas, but he lacked a narrative,” Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, head of PR firm MCBG Conseil, said in a recent editorial.

“Jean Imbert, on the other hand, is always telling stories — about his grandmother, the time he dined with Pharrell Williams — with words, with images, with videos, with selfies…”

It marks a cultural shift, he added, as the importance of Michelin stars fades in comparison to the power of a selfie by model Bella Hadid in your restaurant kitchen.

 ‘A dangerous game’
When David Gallienne, from the Jardin des Plumes in Giverny, won Top Chef in 2020, his Instagram followers jumped from 5,000 to 50,000.

“Social media is part of how we are known and exist today,” he told AFP.

He ran online masterclasses during France’s lockdowns last year, followed by a competition in which participants compared their culinary creations on Instagram — with a free lunch in Gallienne’s restaurant for the winner.

It’s all part of the job, even if everyone is acutely aware that a big online presence carries risks.

“You’ve got to play the game, even if it can be a very dangerous game,” said Gallienne.

“You’ve got to weigh your words carefully. They can just as easily hurt you as help you. It’s a full-time job in itself, and in the future, I will probably delegate it to someone else entirely.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit:

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”.