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France Shrugs as a German Takes Over the Michelin Guide

4 minute read
Bruce Crumley / Paris

Francophobes who cast all French as neurotically hostile to anything foreign would be wise to upgrade their perceptions. Last week, the supposed champions of shrill nationalism responded with a Gallic shrug to the news that France’s legendary Michelin guide will be edited by a German. The clichéd image of France as a bastion of macho swagger took a beating as well: the bible’s new boss is a woman. (See TIME’s Top 10 food trends of the year.)

The few French press accounts that did appear stuck to Michelin’s own rather laconic communiqué announcing the appointment of German executive Julianne Caspar as the editor-in-chief of the company’s 108 year-old Guide Rouge. Sagely, the reports avoided any moaning about German cooking or foreign assaults on la grandeur de la France. “Why should the appointment of Ms Julianne Caspar, someone who is clearly a hugely qualified traditional French cuisine proponent … shock the French?” asked Anglophone French blog franceblogcom. “This blog and its French members are happy to learn that a woman, a German, has been selected for the job.” (Read Tony Blair’s view of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a runner-up for TIME’s Person of the Year.)

Some observers abroad, however, seemed so intent on mocking French angst over the news that they failed to notice there actually was none this time around. “French Find German’s Role Hard To Swallow” shouted U.K. daily The Independent — then curiously went on to quote exclusively German sources hailing Caspar’s appointment as revenge for the long-disparaged Teutonic food tradition.

The website of the Daily Mail, another British paper, oozed schadenfreude over Caspar’s coup with the marathon headline “Ooh La La: France’s Culinary Bible Michelin Guide Picks Woman As New Editor — and She’s German!”

It was a fascinating insight into how Europeans — sometimes rightly, but often wrongly — see each other. In a strange triangulation, English commentators relied on canned German stereotypes to have fun with typical French reactions. There was just one problem: the French reactions just didn’t happen. “In consideration of the fact that German cuisine is regarded as a lethal weapon in most parts of France, this personnel decision is a sensation,” The Daily Mail quoted conservative German daily Die Welt amidst a smorgasbord of clichés. “It would be in the same dimension as if tomorrow Mercedes calmly announced the new boss of the development division was from Mars.”

To be fair, the French can be just as guilty of falling back on outdated stereotypes. They tend, for example, to view Germans as loud, corpulent, penny-pinching, beer-swilling summer-time beach invaders who turn bright pink as soon as the sun appears. (Come to think of it, that’s how they describe the Brits, too.) They have also been known to moan when foreigners have threatened to take charge of French companies, architectural projects, or even — God forbid! — the Paris orchestra. (See pictures of what the world eats.)

But this time, the Gallic Nation managed to shake off its tendency for self-doubt and nationalism. For now, French commentators are viewing Caspar’s arrival at Michelin as a gain for French gastronomy at Germany’s expense. “I’m as thrilled they’ve finally named a woman as I am disinterested in her nationality — which in a globalized world where only competence counts means nothing,” famed chef Alain Senderens told TIME. Adds Laurent Mariotte, a food expert who hosts cooking programs on radio’s France Info and television’s TF1: “French cuisine has recently begun shedding it’s reputation of being stiff and stuck in its ways by opening up to new influences as great chefs in England and Spain did earlier. Michelin selecting a German woman is another sign of that openness to change in order to improve.”

And anyway, there’s another reason to choke off all the sardonic snorts: Caspar isn’t the first foreigner to head the Michelin guide. That distinction went to Englishman Derrick Brown in 2000, an appointment that caused outrage in France and delight in Britain. France seems to have moved on since then. It’s less sure the same can be said for its neighbors.

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