There has been much talk in recent years of France’s standing within the culinary pantheon. The birthplace of fine dining is often accused of being a little recherché in this age of globalisation: white-gloved service, an emphasis on fripperies and fineries, a refusal to embrace gastronomic influences from beyond its borders.

The Michelin guide’s expansion programme over the past decade has only served to sharpen the debate. Paris’s status as the world’s gastronomic capital has been usurped, in terms of star power at least, by Kyoto and Tokyo. The dining scenes in cities such as London, San Francisco and New York, meanwhile, win plaudits for the sheer level of variety on offer.

Speaking in November of last year, the multi-Michelin-starred Claude Bosi, a Frenchman who relocated to the UK over 15 years ago, launched an outspoken attack on the chefs currently plying their trade in his home country.

"They live in the past and just live on their reputations," he declared. "They live in this world where French is best and just stick to what they know."

In the same month, at Hotel Management International‘s European Hospitality Awards, the prize for Best Hotel Restaurant provided a forceful counter-argument. Up against competition from Vienna, Prague, Barcelona and London, Epicure, housed in that most Parisian of luxury properties, Le Bristol, emerged triumphant.

"Making sure we get the balance exactly right is a real challenge, but it also brings me a huge amount of pleasure."

It was just the latest of a series of awards bestowed upon the hotel’s chef des cuisines, Eric Frechon, and his team. Having first arrived at the Le Bristol kitchens in 1985 as an apprentice chef, he retuned to lead the brigade in 1999 and has remained in situ ever since.

Epicure won its third star in 2009 – the same year Frechon was declared Chef of the Year in the prestigious Le Chef magazine. He’s a recipient of Un Des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) and, in 2008, became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. While some might question France’s imagination in the kitchen, nobody can dispute its ability to recognise its chefs.

And Frechon has enjoyed the seal of approval from the highest office in the land. Located a few hundred yards from the Élysée Palace, Epicure became a regular haunt of Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage during the French president’s time as head of state. With a tasting menu coming in at €290, it seems unlikely that his socialist successor and scourge of the wealthy, François Hollande, has been quite as much of a fixture in the dining room.

The three-Michelin-star experience

For Frechon, watching presidents come and go at such close quarters does not seem to have prompted much introspection, even though 14 years spent working within the confines of a hotel seems a remarkably long tenure in this age of celebrity chefs and restaurant empire-building. He did establish and run his own restaurant in 1996, La Verriere in the 19th arrondissement, but the experience clearly schooled Frechon in the benefits of working under the auspices of a Parisian palace hotel with extremely deep pockets.

"Le Bristol affords me a great degree of creativity and there are no restraints," he enthuses. "Throughout the seasons, we work with the finest-quality ingredients, and are not limited when it comes to quantity. During truffle season, for example, we’re buying 22lb of black truffles a week. That would be almost impossible in an independent restaurant without the support of a hotel."

But Frechon is also keen to stress that it is not only the financial benefits that have assured the length of his stay. In his eyes, representing the city’s only palace hotel, a property synonymous with five-star luxury since the 1920s, has forced him to continually raise his game. The pressure to surpass expectations is immense, but it is driven by extremely close collaboration among leaders across the hotel.

"Chefs, management, owners – we are all engaged in the same pursuit of excellence," he believes. "Mutual trust is essential, but the great thing about working in a hotel is that you never get bored. There is always something happening."

As executive chef across all food operations housed within the property, Frechon must be busier than most. The hotel’s brasserie de luxe, 114 Faubourg, won its first Michelin star in February of this year. The kitchen is headed by Eric Desbordes, whom Frechon has mentored since his arrival in 2009. It eschews the ultra-refined fine dining of Epicure, instead featuring such items as "British" fish and chips, and steak frites with béarnaise sauce. The executive chef acknowledges marked menu differences, but also believes one can identify a single culinary philosophy running across both kitchens.

"A signature approach is there: a cuisine built around fresh, seasonal and authentic ingredients, presented in such a way as to enhance the product."

"It is important that we offer different gastronomic atmospheres within the hotel," he explains. "Epicure provides that three-star experience and 114 Faubourg is somewhat more relaxed – we also now have an evening menu at the Bar du Bristol, not to mention room service and catering. Making sure we get the balance exactly right is a real challenge, but it also brings me a huge amount of pleasure and goes some way towards explaining my longevity. But even if you concentrate upon the differences between the menus at our two restaurants, a signature approach is there: a cuisine built around fresh, seasonal and authentic ingredients, presented in such a way as to enhance the product."

Creating memories

The development of talents such as Desbordes is clearly a responsibility Frechon takes seriously. "I have a duty to pass down my experience and passion," he says. "And I must school my teams in what it means to work in a five-star environment."

At the age of 13, his own culinary career was prompted by "the desire to own a bicycle". In order to raise the money, he took a weekend restaurant job in his hometown, the fishing village of Le Tréport on the coast of Normandy. He was a natural and, having gone on to catering school in Rouen, he served time in the brigades of such names as Emile Tabourdiau, Claude Deligne, Jean-Claude Vrinate, Manuel Martinez and Christian Constant.

Among his great influences, Frechon cites Constant, whom he worked alongside at Hôtel de Crillon, as "the chef who taught me cuisine du terroir, the importance of focusing on the produce".

"I am still impressed by Paul Bocuse’s cuisine, the pope of French gastronomy," the chef continues. "The rigour of Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse’s visionary development also serve as strong influences."

Frenchmen one and all; but Frechon feels no qualms when it comes to admitting that he draws predominantly on French classical cuisine for inspiration. Before Claude Bosi gets too excited, however, one should not interpret such an approach as lacking in imagination or ambition. Le Bristol’s chef des cuisines is forever looking to move beyond what he already knows.

"I am still creating and learning every day," he insists. "Alongside my chefs, we are tasting new products and trying new techniques – last week a member of my team taught me a completely novel way of cooking an egg yolk. My cuisine has evolved over the years and it will continue to change; it’s become simultaneously simpler and more elegant.

"But above all, I am constantly asking myself whether a meal is going to create a memory. This is not a question I would have posed a few years ago."

France’s fine dining scene may no longer be the undeniable champion of global gastronomy, but individuals such as Frechon provide a valuable reminder of the country’s significance as the European birthplace of haute cuisine and the importance its population continues to invest in its leading chefs and restaurants. More than surviving on memories of past glories, a number of its restaurants are still intent on building new ones. Perhaps it’s time Claude Bosi paid a visit home.