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No more French fries! The Paris Olympics opens up a new culinary route

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There will be no French fries served to 15,000 athletes at the Olympics in France in July. Yes, you read that correctly.

What’s been called the world’s largest restaurant — a 700-foot-long former power plant in the heart of the Olympic Village — also won’t serve foie gras, but will serve plenty of vegan hot dogs and quinoa granola.

Wandering around what’s known as the nave, a light-filled, vaulted space where some 45,000 meals will be served around the clock every day during the Olympics and Paralympics, chefs Stéphane Chicheri and Charles Guilloy sing the praises of vegetarian shawarma, za’atar-spiced roasted sweet potatoes with hummus, pickled vegetables, beet falafel and roasted eggplant with smoked paprika.

It’s a far cry from classic French cuisine, with its elaborate sauces and “enough melted butter to make a legion of blood clots,” as A.J. Liebling once put it. Describing a dish.

But these are the 21st century Olympics on a warming planet. Carbon footprint trumps casserole. Plant protein is key; of course, athletes must compete in a country with a thousand cuisines that are off-limits to strict nutritionists.

“French fries are too dangerous because the fryers are a fire hazard,” Mr. Gilroy explained. “No foie gras because the health of the animal is a concern, no avocados because they are imported from far away and use a lot of water.”

So how French could these Eco-Olympics be without French fries?

“Don’t worry, we’ll have French cheese, veal bechamel (with a light sauce) and baguettes,” Mr. Chicheri said with a smile. “The athletes can even learn to make bread from the baker.”

The Olympic Village restaurant in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, will offer around 500 different dishes. The restaurant itself is a tribute to environmental transformation: the nearly 100-year-old cast-iron power plant was once a film studio and was converted into a large restaurant last year.

The opening of the Olympic Village restaurant is the result of the acceleration of the government’s global campaign to promote the influence and appeal of French cuisine. With the Olympics expected to attract about 15 million tourists, 2 million of whom are foreigners, France itself, especially Paris, will show its charm, and how to breathe life into its traditional culinary culture is a challenge.

This is a critical moment for French cuisine, a cuisine whose pedigree is undisputed but whose image has waned: How many “likes” does beef bourguignon get these days, beyond ceviche, tapas or an omakase dinner?

“We have a country with centuries of gastronomic tradition, but the truth is that if you have the talent and don’t nurture it, it dies,” Tourism Minister Olivia Gregoire said in an interview.

This month, she visited New York to promote a new multimillion-dollar program to bring young chefs and innovative French cuisine to places like South Korea, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “Cuisine is France’s soft power,” Ms. Gregoire said. “It’s also hard currency.”

The French restaurant industry employs more than 800,000 people, and the gastronomy industry, including wine and spirits, generates more than $55 billion in revenue each year.

Few countries place such importance on the ritual of gathering around the table. Few countries take such pride in the diversity of their products, based on their “terroir” – the land with its own unique soil and climate, from the Alps to the Atlantic, from Normandy to the Mediterranean.

“The finest cooking is in our DNA and it is a reference for all advanced culinary students,” said Alain Ducasse, one of France’s most acclaimed chefs, who was chosen to cater the opening ceremony dinner for the Olympics on July 26, at which he was asked to serve beef.

“But new international challenges have emerged, and we have been slow to engage with them,” he said. “Talent is everywhere. We need to realize that.”

Mr. Ducasse, with 34 restaurants in Europe, Asia and the United States and 18 Michelin stars, is a true chef, and other French chefs, such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, have also successfully seen the world as their market.

But even as French cuisine has changed—adding fusion elements to old dishes, giving rise to “nouveau cuisine” and introducing a startling new way of eating called “sharing”—its image has barely changed.

Against this backdrop, the dining options in the Olympic Village could see a significant change. The Olympic Village will have six “grab and go” restaurants offering Asian cuisine, African-Caribbean dishes, vegetarian shawarma, burgers (meat, vegetarian or a combination of both), Middle Eastern cuisine and halal cuisine. Kosher food will also be available on demand.

Patatas bravas are probably the closest thing to French fries one can eat.

Two full-fledged French restaurants are planned, but there will be no classics like steak tartare, blood sausage or chutney. Of course, no wine is allowed, as the ultimate purpose of this 46,000-square-foot, 3,623-seat mall is to prepare athletes for peak performance.

Another point is to underline that France takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.

The French Olympic Committee banned disposable cutlery and plates. They didn’t remove trash cans from the kitchen like some restaurants in Paris did, but they did demand a zero-waste culture. About 80% of ingredients come from France, and 25% come from within 155 miles of Paris. The goal is to halve the carbon footprint of the Tokyo or London Olympics.

The French company responsible for organizing this massive catering enterprise is Sodexo Live, a subsidiary of the Sodexo Group, which has 420,000 catering and facilities management employees worldwide. Having catered 15 Super Bowls and 36 French Open tennis tournaments in France, Sodexo Live knows its business well, but the scale of this challenge is unique.

“We have 6,000 employees,” Sodexo Live CEO Nathalie Bellon-Szabo said in an interview. “Our goal is to make everyone feel at home and combine the nutrition that athletes need with the enjoyment of good food.”

To that end, France has selected three acclaimed chefs, each of whom will appear in the Olympic Village for a few days a week to cook creative dishes that France wants the world to know more about.

They are Alexandre Mazzia, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and owns a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Marseille, France, with a strong African flavor; Akrame Benallal, who grew up in Algeria and runs Restaurant Akrame, a one-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris with some amazing flavor combinations, such as crab with gray shrimp and coffee; and French-born Amandine Chaignot, whose Café de Luce serves the juiciest frog legs in Paris.

“French cuisine is liberating itself. It has realised it needs to change,” said Mazzia, 47. “For me, French cuisine is now multicultural, with different roots and spices, lighter, combined with the savoir faire that we must preserve.”

Mr. Benalal, 42, calls himself a “taste architect,” forever sketching out new dishes because he believes “we eat first with our eyes.” His red and white quinoa muesli, topped with Parmesan, a little mascarpone and some smoked yogurt, exemplifies the ingenuity that has earned him a large following.

“French cuisine is sometimes considered boring,” he said. “It’s not boring. It’s unique. My restaurant is full of fun, and that’s what I’m bringing to the Olympics.”

As for Ms. Chaignot, 45, she prepared a poached egg croissant with artichoke cream, goat cheese and truffles for takeout in the Olympic Village. Another creative dish was chicken with langoustines.

Even in the ever-changing culinary world, there are some constants. I asked her what defines French cuisine today.

“Butter is France,” she said, “France is butter.”

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