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How the French Revolution Revolutionized Food


Learn everything about the history of restaurants in France!

In the years during and surrounding the French Revolution, both before and after, bread was a hot topic to the French peasantry. The staple food product ate up about 50% of their income and was often the only thing they could eat due to France’s financial struggles at the time. So when France experienced a famine in 1789, the story goes that it was reported to Marie Antoinette that the peasants were all out of bread, and she responded “Then let them eat cake!”.

Nowadays the truth of this account is flatly denied. For one thing, the first time the phrase was written down, Marie Antoinette would have been 9 years old (although that might explain why she didn’t know the scant difference between cake and bread). The story was eventually told by a group of anti-monarchists who purposely vilified the crown in printed stories they passed out around the country after the Revolution officially ended.

The Importance of Bread

Regardless, according to Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, by Linda Civitello: "Bread was considered a public service necessary to keep the people from rioting… Bakers, therefore, were public servants, so the police controlled all aspects of bread production." In France, bread was so important that when it ran out, Revolution started. Why? Because the monarchy decided who was a butcher, or a baker, or a cheesemaker through the guild system. So, obviously, the guild system, and, by extension, the monarchy, was a huge part of a problem that left a huge number of French citizens hungry. They may not have been as oblivious as Marie Antoinette insisting that they instead eat cake, but their restrictions on work in a time of famine certainly were not helping.

The Invention of the Restaurant

Meanwhile, in 1782, the Grande Taverne de Londres opened with a novel idea. Unlike the cafes and taverns that already existed at the time, they would write down a list of available dishes on a menu and serve those dishes on smaller, individual tables. This was the first modern-day restaurant. It catered to an aristocratic clientele, so you can imagine that during the Revolution it was very unpopular with a certain class of Frenchmen. But the idea it had was quite obviously a good one.

When the guild system was abolished, people were no longer required to work one job or another, and so, many butchers and bakers and the like found it easier to start up their own restaurants based on the idea of the Grande Taverne de Londres. And separately, a lot of aristocrats were either executed or driven out of France which left their house staff to find new jobs. Consequently, the best chefs in France found it easiest to find work in these new restaurants. It was the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the age of restaurants!

The Democratization of Fine Cooking

Although the first restaurant catered to the aristocracy, today, restaurants come in all shapes, sizes, and classes. It’s not in the least bit surprising that France’s neighbors (Italy, Germany, and of course, Spain, among others) would pick up on the idea and run with it in their own unique way. But France remains a cultural center of fine cuisine today in large part because of the highly skilled chefs that were ejected from their private employment during the French Revolution. Cultural changes forced them to think outside of their aristocratic box and appeal to a broader range of patrons. It’s in no small part due to the French Revolution that we are able to enjoy the work and legacy of these fine chefs instead of leaving them to the private enjoyment of the upper class.

Even though La Española’s heritage is Spanish, we have a lot to thank France for. Olive Oil is a key ingredient in cooking no matter its country of origin! What do you think about French food? Find us on Facebook and Instagram and let us know!