Look To The Stars

verybody is the champion of change these days.

Everybody being advertisers, agency heads, holding company heads, creative directors, media planners and buyers, digital deliverers of nouvelle media.

You can’t find a soul willing to stand up in front of the 4A’s or ANA or a panel at Cannes to defend the status quo on any issue. This is, of course, evidence of gross dissatisfaction with the present state of things.

Or is it?

The trick always is to change everything except yourself and stay in power, in control. To change and keep your old job while you preside over the changing.

In the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa book and film, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), the protagonist—a Duke who wants to hold on to his duchy and all the swell privileges of Dukedom—gets off a line that is instructive to those who want to continue to run things in an era of flux. Facing threats from nationalists, communists, fascists, mafiaists and Garibaldiists, the Sicilian aristocrat advises his family that “to keep things the same, we have to change.”

No businesses deal more successfully and more courageously with that decision than three-star Michelin Parisian restaurants and their creative leaders.



L’Arpège

Alain Passard opens his restaurant in 1986, and in due time gets the third star from the French tire maker’s food snoopers and fine tooth-combers. With his restaurant full every night, and money and plaudits pouring in, he decides not to keep imitating himself and declares that he will henceforth do veggies. (With a smattering of chicken and fish.)

He high-speed-trains the produce every day from his farm, peddles the extra vegetables to other demanding restaurateurs and creates a nouvelle-nouvelle cuisine that so impresses the vulcanized rubber folks that they give him another third star.

If you go by his Invalides neighborhood and drop in, you can have a tasting menu of the 20 years of the constantly changing Passard, including the tomato dessert that takes two hours to prepare and is the first assignment for a young chef who wants to move up to creative director.



Senderens

Alain Senderens opens his restaurant Lucas Carton in the place de la Madeleine in 1968 without anticipating the flocks of Da Vinci Code tourists who might descend on Mary Magdalene’s square looking for her remains. When billings increase to a nice point, he sells the restaurant to the Japanese. (Odd that the French seem to be buyers of ad agencies and media buying companies while sellers of their hotels and restaurants.)

M. Senderens stays on after the acquisition, and the public (or at least me, my wife, Terry Bonaccolta, Barry Vetere and Louise McNamee) sees no dimunition of his genius for food, service and wines, which he sells as an option by the glass to match every dish on his voluminous menu.

Then a point comes where the old-style service staff outnumbers the customers, and the monsieur does a buyback. He renames the place after himself (although the Lucas Carton stone script still looms). He repositions it as casual, and on the day my wife and I have lunch there last month, the place is packed and the casual feeling comes through as cell phone babblers in French, Arabic, Japanese and German outnumber the staff. Said staff has adopted the casual style wholeheartedly, but it can be prodded to bring a glass or two of wine, if you wave frantically in Italian and the gesticulating catches their eyes.

It’s still worth a detour, as Michelin would put it, because the raw veal with langoustines on a dainty pile of rice vermicelli is so good I could eat three of them. Senderens may be, as one writer put it, French fast food; but, embracing change, I don’t think that particular Happy Meal was on the old Lucas Carton menu.



Chez L’Ami Louis

What of those who resist change? What fate awaits them? Are they relegated to the ash heap of history like agencies who recommend 30-second commercials?

Here’s a restaurant that began when Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald left Illinois, California and New Jersey looking to eat well on rue Vertbois in the Third Arrondisement. We just had a few things there that I am sure they had, and probably many of the same things D’Artagnan’s mother packed for him when he left Gascony in 1625 for Paris to join the Musketeers. Foie gras, toasted bread, escargot, asparagus almost as big as props from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, a whole roasted chicken, potatoes fried in goose fat, plus some light French fries to balance them, a half bottle of Sauternes and a whole bottle of Bordeaux. For dessert, we had strawberries that not only looked like strawberries, but also tasted like they did before genetic enhancing sacrificed flavor for looks.

Thomas Keller of New York’s Per Se and California’s French Laundry says the best time to go to L’Ami Louis is Sunday afternoon. I agree, but recommend first attending 10:30 mass at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet a few blocks and several centuries away from the Sorbonne. The liturgy is the Latin Tridentine mass, meaning the parish resists change to the point of being anathematized by the various Church councils whose aesthetics extend to tom-toms and one-string guitars, but reject the reverence of the language of Rome. The sermon is in French (which, for me, could use subtitles), but the morning we were there, I am positive the priest was attacking the contemporary evil of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Both Chez L’Ami Louis and St. Nicholas suffer, in a way, for resisting change. The restaurant gets no stars and at most a couple of forks from Michelin. The church depends on unreconstructed monarchists, nostalgic American tourists and the genuinely pious who treasure their well-worn missals, the sounds of bells and smell of incense.

They are, though, as true to themselves as Passard or Senderens are true to fashion. And it’s still tough to get a table at L’Ami or a pew with a soft kneeler at St. Nick’s.