‘Girl dinner’ this; Heroin-chic that. But is luxury minimalism really of a piece with other forms of voluntary starvation?
Contemporary visitors to Les Halles, Émile Zola’s ‘Belly of Paris’, are no longer likely to find the area so grotesquely ‘glutted with food’ as the writer described the former food market in 1873. Zola’s novel The Belly of Paris tells the story of onetime radical Florent Quenu, who has returned from exile to Haussmann’s Paris a lone, thin reed in a field of fattened bourgeois quietists. The giant markets that have swelled in the city as if from nowhere are ‘overflowing with food… like some satiated beast… grown enormously fat, and silently supporting the Empire’. ‘Bursting with contentment and well-being’, it is as though the markets have come down to declare that ‘everything [is] for the best, since respectable people ha[ve] never before grown so wonderfully fat’. Florent seems to think he might drown in inaccessible abundance, begins to despair at the sight of it all, feels his stomach being crushed, prays for mercy.
Fortunately, as writer Natalie Adler recently put it in the Summer editorial of Lux magazine, no one wants to eat anymore. At least, that is, not those who would have the choice to eat if they could. In an inequalities crisis blamed on the general ‘cost of living’, it seems the indecently wealthy are cultivating at least the decency to keep their bellies in check. If deafening overindulgence was once the bourgeois style, perhaps we live in a climate of relative sympathy, a time of solidarity hunger. This would seem to be the message projected by the restaurant installed at the top of the Bourse de Commerce – once the corn exchange at Les Halles and now the home of billionaire businessman François Pinault’s art collection.
This restaurant, Halle aux Grains, which claims to offer art lovers a ‘back to basics cooking style, in line with the history of the building’, is a typically artworld exercise in minimalist chic. Its graphic design converges on grain-shaped punctuation marks – modestly monochrome curls of ear, husk, groat, seed and frond that highlight the spelt and sesame, quinoa and kasha with which the menu is scattered. Of course, it will cost you €56 for a simple set lunch, but nothing about the meal itself would call itself overindulgent. The plates are strewn with punctuation marks of food to match the menus. These are sculptorly studies in humility, modern études in the austere. If this eatery is housed in one of historic Paris’s textbook commercial bellies, a domed architectural wedding cake bulging with gluttonous ghosts, its recent renovation via the vision of Japanese architect Tadao Ando has purified in the air with poured concrete and sans-serif paeans to restraint.
If commentators on such troubling tendencies as ‘girl dinner’, buccal fat removal and heroin-chic-the-third are to be believed, we are living in a boom time for a form of voluntary starvation that cuts across the wealth divide; one in which the average underconsumer can be understood as taking their cues from champagne carpets and prestige TV. For Adler, self-deprivation trends currently whittling down the Western body, from weight-loss injection parties to feminised tinned-fish diets, can be parsed as the embrace of a distinctly ‘rich person minimalism’. It is true that a sharp rise in eating disorders (among those who can still afford to eat) coincides with the wealthy no longer seeming to delight in displays of culinary bounty. Yet confronted, on a recent gallery visit, with a glimpse of the gesture towards austerity made by the brashly expensive Bourse de Commerce restaurant, I wondered if these various forms of ‘deprivation’ really have all that much in common.
Indeed, I began to suspect that you would struggle to come away from Halle aux Grains with any sense of having self-deprived. A brief study of the menu and obligatory Instagram guide reveals a richness against all the ‘grain’. How to make a luxury item of roughage, you might ask? First, by ensuring that grains are in fact the least substantial part of the meal – mere trinkets for tweezing, one by one, atop the main event. Second, by ensuring the presence of eminent richness in their place. Crammed into Halle aux Grains’ minimalist lozenges, smears, quenelles and droplets of taste are concentrations of ‘purebred beef ’, blushing scallops, truffles and cheese so seemingly intense as to defy any copious consumption. Sweetbreads browned in hemp butter, just-seared octopus in ponzu vinaigrette, confit cod preserved in duck fat and slicked with anchovy oil – this is food so rich it has embarrassed itself onto one side of the plate.
Culinary richness should of course be commonplace – its dense, distilled pleasures available to everyone. In Zola’s novel it is precisely the fact that it isn’t that chokes the protagonist’s appetite. Florent’s thinness bespeaks an effective, involuntary protest of the stomach – an inability to swallow or digest the bourgeois scramble for the spoils of imperial gluttony.
Much as he would like to be able to thrive, it is as though his body refuses to partake of a society in which those who can pay for ample nourishment may greedily suck the lifeblood of the weak. That today the rich may do so while adhering to an aesthetic of miniaturist perfection makes no difference to the structural superiority of their satisfaction. Their pretence to restraint is no more related to the eating disorders of others than anorexia can be called, against all evidence to the contrary, a ‘disease of the affluent’. For self-deprivation has never in fact been the sole preserve of the rich and nor indeed has the minimalist aesthetic. In our social order, the preserve of the rich remains, simply, richness, whether it be found in mountains of wealth or in the marbles of thumbnail-sized beef.