Last month, I had the good fortune to be asked to lunch at Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. The occasion was the "American Food Revolution", a week-long celebration of US gastronomy. Each day, a different leading American chef prepared lunch and dinner. There were also panel discussions, cookery demonstrations, press conferences and a farmers' market. Blanc had assembled a remarkable galaxy of stars. On the day I attended, Heston Blumenthal, Paul Bocuse and Thomas Keller were present. I arrived in time to catch the morning panel discussion, "Should gastronomy reinvent itself?". As this mostly consisted of various chefs and culinary bigwigs emphatically agreeing that American cooking was enjoying a "golden age", it wasn't wildly exciting. But at least the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, who was on the panel, put a spanner in the works by pointing out that 70 per cent of spending on dining out in America is at "chain restaurants".
Champagne and canapes followed, and then we were ushered into the dining room. The chef du jour was Daniel Boulud, proprietor of Daniel restaurant in Manhattan. Before the first of our six courses arrived, the sommelier appeared, wringing his hands. Various ingredients Boulud had arranged to be imported from the United States had not made it through customs, necessitating last-minute changes to the menu. But at least the killjoy customs officers had let pass his consignment of "Maryland soft-shell crabs". And these proved to be the highlight of the meal. Boulud fried them in a stupendous amount of butter, and served them alongside a salad of (hard-shelled) Cornish crab, as if to emphasise the superiority of the soft-shelled variety.
Another panellist, the Oxford historian Theodore Zeldin, was seated at my table. Earlier, he had invited us to "think of restaurants in a new way, as part of the social life of the future". Now he appeared to be having a miserable time."The food has no consistency, no integrity," he said. "It does nothing more than show off the abilities of the chef." I didn't agree. Boulud's cooking struck me as admirably restrained. There were elaborate touches, such as the odd dab of basil puree or a wasabi and lemon coulis, but the overall emphasis was on clean flavours and straightforward combinations.
After lunch, I headed for the farmers' market, where further treats lay in store. I sampled a remarkable selection of shoots and leaves from Farmer Tommy Lee Jones, discussed French cheeses with an American TV chef, and ate a disgraceful amount of oysters. I left unable to decide whether the American Food Revolution was objective fact or marketing man's fantasy. But so enjoyable had my day been that, frankly, I didn't care.