How dining got democratized. With the arrival of the French Revolution, certain professions in France quickly ceased being growth industries. Among them, chef to the aristocracy.
A Revolutionary Concept
While their former bosses were fleeing the country or losing their heads to the guillotine, chefs of the royal court found themselves out on the rue without so much as a roux to whisk.
Lucky for them, a promising new institution had begun popping up in Paris during the second half of the 18th century. This new-fangled thing was known as the restaurant. The first restaurants had opened in the 1760s and originally catered to those of fragile health. In fact, the word “restaurant” refers not to resting or ranting but to the “restorative” broths that were intended to return delicate Parisians and weary travelers to good health.
With the arrival of revolution, however, the restaurant became a venue for displaced chefs to practice their craft in a clean setting that, significantly, was open to all comers, not just royalty. For once, it did not require a noble pedigree to dine like a king, only sufficient funds to pay the check.
A New Dining Experience
In the restaurant, as with no dining situation before it, customers could sit down at a private table, at the time of their own choosing, and select from a menu whatever items they thought best satisfied their individual tastes.
We take these things for granted today, but a bit of privacy and the possibility of satisfying personal preferences were new and thrilling concepts to 18th century Parisians. Prior to the restaurant, “dining out” (if it could be called that) had involved sitting with complete strangers at a communal table and eating a single shared meal laid out at a specific time. In such a free-for-all setting, good manners didn’t stand a chance–grabbing your fair share took primacy over other more genteel considerations.
Playing by the Rules
This newfangled restaurant experience was all very civilized. And its peculiarities and particulars encouraged a reexamination of acceptable dinner table behavior. What soon emerged was the concept of gastronomy, a word that combines the Greek words for gastros (stomach) and nomos (law). By laying out the rules of eating, gastronomy was intended to provide patrons with, among other things, the rules of engagement for navigating this curious new institution. Gastronomy would help us stay within the bounds of thoughtful and informed enjoyment of food and prevent us from leaning too far into the morally low realm of food lust.
These new rules of dining were transmitted to the French citizens through the magazines, newspapers and books that informed popular culture. The literary and journalistic traditions that developed alongside the restaurant helped to codify language and secure the high status of French cuisine in the cultural consciousness of not only the French but of people throughout the world.
These traditions that champion the art of eating endure to this day in the form of restaurant reviews, food magazines, celebrity chefs, blogs, websites, TV shows, and any other pursuit whose purpose is to intellectualize the human need to feed.