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.

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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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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

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The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!