French dinner party critics

Alison Eastaway, 21/05/2012 In France, everyone is a critic. Considered to be the height of impoliteness in Australian society, French dinner guests routinely critique the food served by their host.

In Australia, a dinner guest wouldn’t think to call attention to a slightly dry piece of chicken, or an under-seasoned soup. Instead, they’d likely just be intensely grateful to have a night off from cooking and cleaning the dirty dishes.

Au contraire for French guests, who consider this not only permissible, but even essential to the host’s future culinary success. It is quite usual for guests to engage in a detailed discussion over how to enhance the entrée, or to point out the flaws of the fromage.

Good food is essential to French culture

The French believe: “La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin”.¹

And it seems the same is true for food.

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It is essential to understand that the casual criticism that seems to flow so easily does not come from a place of malice or even superiority. Inviting family and friends over for a meal is a way for French people to showcase their gastronomic creativity, and the host therefore should expect to be judged accordingly.²

According to one food blog “cooking is an essential part of the French culture, and it adds to one’s usefulness and talents if they are capable of preparing a good culinary meal.”

One should, therefore, not take offence to an invitee’s suggestion to add some fresh thyme to the soup in future. Instead, consider it a generous gesture, as the sharing of food knowledge is an inherent part of French culture.

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In France, everyone’s a critic

This habit of offering helpful suggestions, however, isn’t limited to the adult members of French society. Whilst French children might not throw food,³ they certainly develop a discerning palate at a young age. It seems in France, everyone’s a critic.

With this is mind, I can’t help but think back to my days as a nanny in Paris. I vividly recall spending hours baking a chocolate cake from scratch for the 4 year old’s birthday, only to have him respond not with the delight I anticipated, but instead with scorn. He took one condescending look at my cake and declared it ‘not as good as Fauchon’.

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Which way is better, French or Australian?

But I wonder if Australians lean too far in the other direction? I personally find it difficult to send a meal back in a restaurant even if the steak isn’t cooked how I ordered it, and I’d never dream of suggesting to a friend that their BBQ method wasn’t up to scratch. But that’s a whole other story.

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Who gets it right? Is it better to follow the French approach and offer helpful hints that will benefit everyone in the future? Or is it best to keep your opinions to yourself and be simply grateful that someone else has prepared a meal for you (not matter how burnt or un-picturesque the dish may be)?

What do you think?

¹ Popular French Sayings by Rachel Hanson
² Working with the French Culture by Jeff Allen
³ French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman – review by Michelle Hanson 14/01/12
Image credits:
1. fortinbras on Flickr
2. noodlepie on Flickr
3. miladus on Flickr
4. M.J.S on Flickr  
5. leekelleher on Flickr

About the Contributor

Alison Eastaway

“I am Australian-born but Parisienne at heart. I've spent 8 years in Paris, and can usually be found sipping coffee on café terraces or snuggling up with my cat and a book. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn."

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  1. Elisabeth Donato May 28, 2012 at 7:08 PM - Reply

    Interestingly, I have never been witness to any criticism, constructive or not, of any food served at any lunch or dinner party that I have ever attended in France. Maybe it’s because my father worked as a chef for a good deal of his working life, so no one would have dared question his food preparation (note: I was born in France, and lived there until I was 23 years old. I have been living in the USA since 1975, but return to France every spring, for several weeks.)

    I am presently in France, visiting my brother and his wife. My brother mentioned that he once prepared mussels and fries for our uncle and his wife, and that my uncle had loved this dish, and asked for seconds. The previous time that he and his wife had been my brother’s guests, he had been served cassoulet, and had barely touched the food on his plate – but he had never made one comment about what he had been served.

    On the other hand, I have heard negative comments about food served by relatives or friends, but after the dinner party, and never in the food preparer’s presence.

    Also, my hat off to a 4-year old who is familiar with Fauchon. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, maybe?…

  2. Alison Eastaway May 28, 2012 at 7:57 PM - Reply

    Thank you very much Elisabeth for your thoughts! I’m always very interested to hear the “view from the inside” (if I can phrase it like that) from French readers.

    The cassoulet story is an interesting one, I think that faced with a similar situation, (i.e. a dish that was unappealing or not to our taste) Australians would go to great lengths to consume it anyway. Failing that, a conveniently timed stomach-ache may be employed to protect the host’s feelings 🙂

    Yes indeed, he was perhaps not your average four year old!

  3. Shannon Guy May 28, 2012 at 8:32 PM - Reply

    Hi Alison

    I found your view really interesting and wonder whether you extend it to restaurants? I’ve never heard criticism of meals at dinner parties much, either in France or in Australia, but I’ve noticed a major difference in ‘offering feedback’ at restaurants.

    I tend to do it all the time in Australia. In France also. But French family or friends almost audibly groan when I do in France – they consider it rude and unnecessary. When I asked them what they would do, the answer was unanimous – we would never eat here again.

    I argue that that approach is not fair – that, if there is a problem, the restaurant deserves the opportunity to rectify it. I might say “oh, on the menu it says that this comes with fries, is it possible that I could please have some” or “this steak is a little over/under done, is it possible to get another piece, please?”. If it still isn’t rectified, I will be honest about the waiter when they ask how the meal was and, if they don’t ask, I will offer my opinion – I do this in Australia and in France.

    I suppose, for me in France (and the people whose houses I am invited to), dinner parties have always been about the company first and foremost, a ready supply of alcohol is secondary to that and the food is really quite incidental…but nonetheless, nearly always super enjoyable! Oh, and I love the last photo!

  4. Alison Eastaway May 29, 2012 at 8:37 AM - Reply

    Thank you Shannon, what an interesting question! My fiancé sounds a little bit like you, he eats his steak blue and finds he often needs to send his plate back (except in Australia, where my embarrassment sometimes prevents this!).

    As for the idea of never returning to a restaurant where you were unhappy with the food, I find this speaks to a slightly different topic – the French approach to customer service. Restaurants (and indeed one could extend the thinking to retail shops) provide food of a certain type and quality. The implicit understanding appears to be if you don’t like it the way it is here, go somewhere else.

    In Australia, where the customer is always right, this would be quite a confronting thought. And I find, to your point, that in Australia we like to give the opportunity for a poor experience to be rectified.

    Also, my above article extends not only to dinner parties amongst friends, but even dining with extended family, in-laws etc.

    And whilst I’d never think to offer a cooking suggestion to my belle-mère, I’ve witnessed my fiancé’s brother’s (French)girlfriend be quite vocal about the best method for preparing tartiflette, or how best to prepare les endives.

    And I must admit I had quite a chuckle when I stumbled across the last photo!

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