Is it wrong to take children to a Michelin-starred restaurant? And exactly when is it too early to introduce a child to the delights of really, really good cooking?
I'm expecting this post to generate a very healthy and vigorous debate, if my web search for 'children in restaurants' is anything to go by. The topic appears to polarise everyone.
There are those who think parents are the problem:
"If you say your kids are angels, that they never get up and run around, never throw French fries, never talk loud, never spill Cheerios, you're lying." (New York restaurant owner Christian Pappanicholas)
"Let me make it clear - if your kid is a jerk in public and you do nothing about it, then you're a bigger jerk and I hope your kid vomits in the car on the way home" (Guardian writer and parent Ben Pobjie, who later in his piece
about children in restaurants argues that banning kids from restaurants just means they will never learn how to behave in one).
Then there are those who think they have every right to reproduce the mayhem of their home in public:
"Guess what people, I'm very aware my kids make messes! That's why I bring them out to eat with us so I can have a night where I don't have to clean that shit up at home!" (mother, ScaryMommy forum)
Michelin three-starred chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago sparked debate earlier this year when he tweeted about a couple dining with a crying eight month old baby:
He ended up on Good Morning America defending his point of view as parents-who-believe-their-kids-have rights-too and diners-who-believe-all-kids-should-be-banned scratched each other's eyes out in the twitterverse.
But food critic and writer Ruth Reichl thinks it depends on the child in question. "If you are a parent who goes out with your child and your kid starts fussing, you take the child out. That's all there is to it. It's that easy. But I would be deeply offended if I took my child to a restaurant and I was told no you can't come in."
I'm with Ruth, although I also appreciate the view of writer Victoria Moran:
"We do children an enormous disservice when we assume that they cannot appreciate anything beyond drive-through fare and nutritionally marginal kid-targeted convenience foods. Our children are capable of consuming something that grew in a garden or on a tree and never saw a deep fryer. They are capable of making it through dinner at a sit-down restaurant with tablecloths and no climbing equipment. Children deserve quality nourishment."
I not only want my children to learn how to behave in restaurants (from fine dining restaurants establishments to street food stalls) but I want to help educate them about why food is important and what it means, culturally and socially, for us as humans.
So please shoot me, I took my children to a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Parc les Crayères, in Reims.
To be fair, my children are no longer little. The youngest stopped sitting in a high chair about nine years ago and the oldest hasn't thrown food on the floor for more than a decade. And without sounding parsimonious, my girls are well behaved. Not in the way that many parents think their children are well-behaved (but secretly everyone thinks they are brats), but understanding of what it means to be well-behaved. To be mindful of other diners. To be quiet. To use good manners. They are silently shocked when another child is allowed to crawl under the table, or have a screaming fit.
But they didn't get that way by accident - they got that way by learning over many years the behaviour expected of them when eating out. We spent a lot of time on footpaths outside cafes and family restaurants waiting for the squalling tempest to pass, and ate plenty of meals in shifts - one of us inside with a knife and fork, the other outside with a whining toddler.
And we never, ever ate at a fancy restaurant with children under seven.
(Okay, that's a lie. We did once or twice but learnt our lesson very quickly. For me, as both a restaurant patron and parent, small children and fine dining are a mutually incompatible occurrence. There, I've said it.)
Le Parc les Crayères: The Food
I thought my girls, now ten and thirteen, would enjoy the experience of true fine dining in a country that does it best: France. More than that, we would enjoy the pleasure of their company for lunch.
Le Parc les Crayères is set in an old chateau in beautiful gardens. The dining room is all eau-de-nil and fine silver.
Here's how Philippe Mille, head chef, describes his cooking:
"My cooking? Pleasure, generosity, greed, childhood memories, respect for the products and their seasonality. Briefly, a kitchen that conveys sensations."
We commenced with an amuse-bouche - a sliver of foie gras, a quail's egg on a wafer, a tiny round of dill-crusted salmon, a smoked boudin-blanc.
A celebration of summer vegetables: salad of white asparagus cream with fennel, artichoke, and sundried baby tomatoes
Risotto with shaved white asparagus, black olives and parmesan foam.
Lily watches wine being decanted before serving. The waiters were very gracious with the girls, and treated them like grown-ups. As a result the girls put on their best behaviour, rising to the occasion. I was so proud of them both.
Rabbit loin with black olive mash, and summer vegetables dressed with plum kernel oil. Served with Fresia (Italy) 2010. Savoury, fresh, perfect.
Mint souffle, light as air and pale, pale green, with red fruit and mint sorbet and served with poured limoncello. Not the world's most attractive dessert, but a triumph of taste - the delicately textured mint soufflé a wonderful contrast to the bright fresh flavours of the sorbet and limoncello.
The winning dessert, according to the rest of the family: layered chocolate and Tahitian vanilla mousse gateau with caramel and gold leaf. Magnificently rich.
Lastly we were served a tiny treat with coffee - a coconut mousse, a crisp chocolate lollipop, a rich chocolate ganache, and a densely flavoured summer fruits jelly in pastry.
So what did the girls think?
They loved it. For them, it was the best experience of their holiday, after the Eiffel Tower and Euro Disney. Because after all, they're still kids.
And I loved sharing the experience with them.
So what's your opinion about children and restaurants?
As readers of this blog you probably lean in a certain direction, but perhaps not. Do you take your children out to eat? Do you think it's important for children to experience good food? Or do your think children should be banned from restaurants? Let me know your thoughts!
Le Parc les Crayères
Two Michelin stars
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
51100 Reims, France
Restaurant open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner
Lunch: 69 euros without wine