The distance between Applebee’s and Paris isn’t quite as far as you think, at least not from a historical perspective.
As you sit and enjoy that Spinach & Artichoke Dip or your Sirloin with Garlic Shrimp, you can thank the tens of thousands of French peasants and commoners who fought against aristocrats and their oppressive government for the right to join them at the table.
It wasn’t pretty. Many lost their lives either at the hands of the French military or the guillotine. It was THE original reality series of “Chopped.” How did this happen and why? Well, before heads really started to roll (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the King of France and the rich who supported the monarchy had things pretty much under control. In other words, they all enjoyed a life of leisure and pleasure at the expense of the commoners and peasants whose taxes and labor made the wheels of the French bus go round and round.
Still, the French government was going broke, partly because those in power loved their indulgences. Their entertainment expenses included lavish parties and dinners prepared by the very talented chefs His Majesty and the other aristocrats employed. Meanwhile, the rest of France led a much different life. They didn’t even have an Applebee’s to hang out in.
And that was by design, because to prevent chefs from opening up full-fledged restaurants as we know them, the French government required anyone who prepared food outside of its walls to become a member of a guild, which the government controlled and taxed.
But, even then, people found a way around the laws. (You’re not surprised are you?) And since one of the most popular commoner dishes of the day was a healthy, hearty broth, there wasn’t a soup guild. Therefore, one could easily get a license to sell medicinals, and it wasn’t such a stretch for a chef named A. Boulanger to say his broth was actually a restorative.
Restorative became restaurant.
So, everyone was playing the game and everything was going along just fine until the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, which, as it turned out, also became Restaurants Independence Day. The monarchy fell, and just about everyone with ties to the fallen government, or with size-able wealth, ran for it, leaving their chefs behind.
Fortunately for you and me, chefs are a resourceful lot. With no guilds to restrict them from doing anything they wanted, it didn’t take long for true restaurants to spring up all over town like gas stations. Except these gas stations were fueling everyone. Within a year, reportedly 50 lavish restaurants sprang up in Paris alone.
Nine years later, French chefs struck pay dirt once again when Napoleon came to power in 1789. Now things REALLY started to get cooking! Napoleon LOVED food and traveled with his chef all over Europe. He also brought a tremendous amount of affluence and wealth to France. Many classic French dishes came about during Napoleon’s reign, but in one of life’s true ironies, Napoleon was defeated in 1814 by a general named Wellington.
Even more ironic, perhaps, is the fact that Beef Wellington is prepared by wrapping dough around a beef fillet, mushrooms and goose liver (foie gras).
This dough has many names, but it’s a French invention. Its most common use is in another very famous dish called, you guessed it, Napoleon.
By the end of Napoleon’s reign in 1814, 3,000 restaurants were listed in the Almanach des Gourmands, a popular European travel guide.
Thus, looking back through culinary history, the French Revolution was really the Big Bang beginning for restaurants as we know them today.