“Gastronomy is not the prerogative of chefs, it is a common good” – Liberation

The historian Julia Csergo regrets that the inclusion of the “gastronomic meal” in the intangible cultural heritage of Unesco did not allow the exposure of all the actors of the sector, in particular the small producers.

Professor of contemporary history at the University of Quebec in Montreal since 2012, Julia Csergo has contributed, as a scientist, to the implementation of France’s candidacy for the “gastronomic meal of the French” to be recognized as a Heritage intangible cultural heritage of Unesco. In 2010 she published Is gastronomy a cultural commodity like any other? (Editions Menu Fretin) to testify to the often conflicting stages that led to this candidacy.

How do you explain the failure of the City of Gastronomy in Lyon and how do you see the opening of the City of gastronomy in Dijon?

Lyon is a sad story. Lyon carried out the major rehabilitation operation of the Hôtel Dieu to create a luxury hotel, restaurants and a shopping mall. What we will call “cultural equipment” occupied a very small place. The City of Dijon has positioned itself mainly on the trade and tourism side. If we manage to make social ties around this theme, why not, but if it’s to create a commercial district, we will be far from the initial objectives.

The Gastronomic City of Dijon defends itself from being “a label which freezes the unique know-how of the country of good food” and recognizes the value of rituals strengthening social ties. However, the activities offered there reflect the codes of luxury…

I would say that is where the ambiguity lies. If we look carefully at what France’s application file for Unesco says, we realize that in reality, the French State has not really committed itself to setting up equipment such as it was represented: “The State will initiate a reflection with all the actors concerned […] in order to study the conditions for the creation of a multidisciplinary cultural facility with a national and international dimension which will contribute to raising public awareness of the history, functions and values ​​of the element, as well as the vitality of its experiments in France And in the world” (1). The State has not committed itself beyond “provoking reflection”, however, the Ministry of Culture did not want to get involved in this field and the State did not want to have a budget to devote to cultural facilities… It is a total disengagement: financial and even ideological from the rue de Valois, which has never considered gastronomy to be part of the cultural sector.

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From then on, everything was possible, open, and everyone considered Cities of Gastronomy according to local contexts. We are witnessing a privatization of this common good with major works, major construction groups… And then there is this notion of luxury, great restaurants, great chefs. As we know that France is notoriously a big player in luxury, everyone rushes into it without working on the social fabric or on the needs that could, for example, bring together diverse populations. Gastronomy is not just the prerogative of chefs, it is for everyone, it is a common good.

You regret that France did not take advantage of this UNESCO recognition to promote rural and family know-how, even the rituals of religious festivals. Will these pitfalls be taken into account in future Cités de la gastronomie or other events?

No, I have not seen anything that promotes this. I only saw trade and tourism. This is the idea we have of food in France. These Cities could have been a place of expression, meetings, commitments, and I don’t see any of that. This orientation towards luxury dispossesses ordinary people of their culture.

In your book, you mention that this registration with Unesco could have been an opportunity to create a French cultural exception for gastronomy, by protecting small producers in particular.

Yes. How can those who provide the basis of a good meal not be forced to file for bankruptcy and give up? How can we ensure that the people who make our daily life, the good baker, the good producer on the market, the good butcher who tracks his animals, are protected? This registration could have ensured that these producers avoided unfair competition.

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(1) Application file for inclusion on the representative list of intangible cultural heritage.