Is There a Chef in the Kitchen? What some restaurateurs in France don’t want you to know.

by phyllisflick on January 16, 2012

If Fernand Siré has his way, menus in French restaurants will soon have to disclose if a particular dish is made in-house and whether it was prepared with fresh, frozen or canned products.

Sadly, in a country known for its gastronomic heritage, more and more restaurants in France are relying on prepackaged, industrially made products rather than making food from scratch. Some estimates say that up to two-thirds of France’s 120,000 restaurants rely on industrial products.

Two exposés on French television this past year painted a shocking image of the French restaurant industry by filming unscrupulous restaurateurs filling their shopping carts at Métro (the restaurant industry hypermarket) with ready-made traditional French dishes and desserts that only need to be reheated and served to customers. 

In both reports, journalists picked through the trash of restaurants and what they found might surprise you.  The fish soup or bouillabaisse in the Old Port of Marseille may very well have come from a can garnished with frozen farmed fish.  The Île Flottante you had in that quaint Parisian bistro may have been made in a factory with prefabricated meringues and crème anglaise poured from a box.  The hand-cut steak tartare?  Chopped in a factory and simply opened before serving.  And that duck confit which the waiter claims is farm raised in southwestern France might actually come from a factory farm in the Czech Republic.

One restaurateur invited the undercover reporter, posing as a new restaurant owner seeking advice, to see first hand the secret of his success at his popular Basque restaurant.  The undercover camera showed a cellar lined with giant cans of Axoa, a traditional Basque stew, and a kitchen which consisted of 6 microwaves and two Sri Lankan cooks who opened cans, plopped the contents onto the plates and nuked them before sending them out to the dining room packed with unsuspecting patrons.  The helpful restaurateur unabashedly explains that he makes a hefty profit this way, paying a euro or two for dishes that are sold for ten times the price.  He saves on labour costs as well, employing a minimum number of unskilled workers. Vive la gastronomie française !

I was most disappointed to see what lurked in the trash of the Paris institution Chartier, which charmed me as a student some 20 years ago.  Wrappers and cans of industrial products filled the bins and the waitress freely confirmed that there is little cooking in the kitchen at Chartier any more, “c’est assemblage ici” (the kitchen just assembles food here” she said.  Sadly, there’s a line out the door of tourists who think they are getting a taste of traditional French cooking.

To combat this distasteful trend, Siré, a deputy with Sarkozy’s UMP party, who happens to be a doctor and has family in the restaurant business, has recently introduced a law which would make all of this more transparent.  It was examined the week before Christmas and, if all goes well, will be passed into law this year.

The law has its detractors and raises many questions.  How will the government enforce such a law?   What constitutes fresh?  Some argue that it’s better to use a frozen, well-made product over a poorly made dish made with less than fresh “fresh” ingredients.  Critics also point out that there are existing measures out there, like the label “Maître Restaurateur” which is awarded by the State to restaurants which pass a very strict set of criteria including using mostly fresh non-transformed products and have trained chefs cooking in the kitchen. But the initiative hasn’t caught on and chefs must apply for the label.  In November 2010 there were only 1300 restaurants who possessed the label.

Some restaurateurs will say, “what’s the difference if customers don’t notice?”. For one, you have no way of knowing what’s in the food.  Processed food is often full of preservatives, added sugar, salt and fat.  There are of course exceptions but if someone’s trying to save money on kitchen staff by buying already prepared foods, he’s probably not buying top quality stuff.

So until the law is passed what can you do?  

Unfortunately, you need to do your homework.  Go to places that are tested and where you know there’s a chef in the kitchen.  There are many restaurants in Paris using high-quality ingredients and cooking from scratch, you just can’t tell which ones without having done a little research. Paris by Mouth is a great resource in English.

Be wary of extensive menus with low prices.  Offering a huge choice of dishes means you either have a large staff, which is quite expensive, or you’re buying ready-made food.  There’s a reason that most small (good) restaurants only offer a set menu or a choice between 3 to 4 entrées, plats, and desserts–it’s just not possible for a kitchen with a small staff to handle anything more without compromising on quality.

Lastly, look for restaurants that change their menus frequently and offer market-based cooking.

I don’t think the law will solve the issue entirely, but it’s a welcome first step.


Credit photo: Melissa McAfee, Washington, DC

For more information:  Les vrais états généraux de la restauration

Coming soon: République de la Malbouffe