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

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‘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.”

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‘The belly of Paris’ – what is Rungis and why are French farmers protesting there?

French farmers are threatening to blockade Rungis - but what exactly is this and why is it so important to Paris?

'The belly of Paris' -  what is Rungis and why are French farmers protesting there?

It’s one of the most important places in France, so famous that it’s routinely referenced by a single word: Rungis. 

On Friday French farmers threatened to block it, potentially disrupting food supplies to the capital.

Its full name is Marché International de Rungis, and even that doesn’t do it complete justice to the world’s largest wholesale fresh produce market, providing employment for more than 12,000 people and business for more than 1,200 firms.

The site covers 234 hectares and is, to all intents and purposes, the Pantry of Paris – or Le ventre de Paris (the belly of Paris) as writer Emile Zola nicknamed it.

It’s where wholesalers and restaurateurs stock up on fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products. 

The market is open from 2am, six days a week, and supplies daily fresh food produce for a quarter of the population of France.

Waste from the market is recycled and energy generated by the incinerator is used to heat the market and nearby Orly Airport.

Its current location is about 20km south of Paris, if you have driven south out of the city you will certainly have seen signs to it.

It opened in its current location in 1969 – but its history dates back more than 1,000 years in Paris.

The first known sketches of a major food market in Paris – Marché Palu – were drawn in the fifth century. Unsurprisingly, that was located on the Île de la Cité. It later moved to Place de Grève, which is today more famous as Hotel de Ville. 

In 1135, it moved again, this time to Les Champeaux, a commercial area at the crossroads of Rue Saint-Honoré, Rue Montmartre and Rue Saint-Denis.

Its history here is established in the area’s new name: Les Halles, which is now a largely underground shopping mall near the central Metro station of very similar name. Emile Zola coined its nickname in his 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris, which is set in the busy marketplace.

Les Halles remained open until 1973, but it had been known for more than two decades that it was too small to serve the needs of the rapidly expanding population in Paris and Île-de-France. 

In 1959, the town of Rungis, on the outskirts of the capital, was chosen as the venue for what would become the Marché International de Rungis. It opened a decade later – despite objections from food merchants in Paris, who did not like the idea of travelling from the city centre.

The market was inaugurated on March 3rd, 1969, after a four-day relocation operation dubbed the “déménagement du siècle” (moving of the century). Almost 30,000 people, 1,500 transport vehicles, and 400 removal lorries were involved in the operation, and the army was brought in to oversee the move, which caused severe disruption in Paris for several days.

Rungis does have another, slightly grim, distinction. Its large site with many refrigerated areas means that it serves as an emergency overflow morgue for the city of Paris.

Some bodies were stored on the site after the heatwave of 2003 in which 15,000 people – many of them elderly and living alone – died.

During the first wave of the Covid pandemic in 2020 space was readied at Rungis to store bodies, but in the event it was not needed and the city’s morgues coped.