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.

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Credit photo: Melissa McAfee, Washington, DC

For more information:  Les vrais états généraux de la restauration

Coming soon: République de la Malbouffe

 

 

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrisos January 17, 2012 at 10:04

You would be very surprised to know who participates to the Fête de la Gastronomie (Gov- sponsored event) :
http://chrisoscope.com/2012/01/12/samedi-22-septembre-2012-fete-de-la-gastronomie/

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phyllisflick January 17, 2012 at 23:43

Thanks Chrisos. I don’t remember anything much of interest from last year’s event, so it doesn’t surprise me. It’ s very sad though. You would think that France could put on a fantastic event. Buffalo Grill doesn’t seem to embody France’s gastronomic heritage.

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Lindsey January 17, 2012 at 11:13

Thanks for posting these videos! Funny you mention Chartier – I’ve been there twice and both times I’ve left feeling queasy and unhappy. All the more reason to stock up fresh produce and meat and cook at home! For the afternoons and evenings out, I’ll choose far more judiciously.

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phyllisflick January 17, 2012 at 23:55

I completely agree. I choose my restaurants carefully; I’d much rather cook myself than spend money on mediocre cooking or worse-on processed junk.

The first time I tried Chartier as a student (20 years ago) I loved it and returned many times the summer I was here. I went back 12 years ago and it was pretty bad so I haven’t returned, but I was still shocked that it’s now industrial pre-made food. The waitress in the video says that they used to do their own cooking. I think it’s shameful and sad because it’s such an institution. But I’m sure they are not the only ones.

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Alec Lobrano January 17, 2012 at 12:55

This is an excellent, if very depressing, post, Phyllis. Sort of confirms some of my worst suspicions about restaurants in the most heavily touristed towns and regions of France, however, and perhaps the worst I’ve seen lately, were empty paper cartons of fondue behind an expensive restaurant in the Alps!

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phyllisflick January 17, 2012 at 23:59

Thanks Alec! It is depressing. Cartons of fondue? That’s really sad. How hard is it to melt cheese?

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Alec Lobrano January 19, 2012 at 19:54

Alas, the ingredients list on the fondue package was some fifty words long, and if I remember correctly, cheese was number four or five after potato starch, ‘milk solids’, vegetable oil, etc., etc. Disgusting!

Femme francophile January 17, 2012 at 16:43

Thanks for this interesting post. I didn’t realise that the issues discussed here had become widespread. I have linked to this post on my blog.

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Parigi January 18, 2012 at 18:15

Yet it is so hard to convince visitors to do resto research and, most importantly, RESERVE ! So often visitors on food websites ask for recommendations of “great restaurants that do not require reservation”. Even the term is like Military Intelligence.
So these visitors want to walk in a restaurant that would have plenty of empty tables, in the tourist-frequented ‘hods that they frequent. Why don’t they tattoo on their forehead: “RIP ME OFF PLEASE”?

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phyllisflick January 19, 2012 at 08:54

I agree, you need to do your research because while you can get a great meal in Paris, it’s too easy to get a really bad one. There are some places I know of (and I’m sure there are many I don’t) where you don’t need to reserve but I do think you are better off reserving. Unfortunately, until this law has passed, I would not go into a place where I wasn’t reasonably sure that they were doing the cooking and using fresh ingredients.

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Sugar Daze/Cat January 18, 2012 at 18:35

I just commented on a similar article written By Jamie Schler in today’s Huff Po. I think it’s really disgraceful when restaurants charge you top dollar for food you can just as easily pick up at Picard. I’ve worked on and off in the industry for over 20 years and it’s unfortunately a practice that more and more restaurants are doing to keep up with rising food costs. You do know restaurants make all their money on beverages, right?

For me using fresh, natural ingredients is a matter of pride. Sure it costs more but my clients expect quality and I hope I never fall into the trap of justifying using pre-made genoise or industrial mixes and claiming home-made as many bakeries both here in Paris and around the world do just to shave a few dollars off their costs. It’s bad business and I’m glad to see that France is cracking down on this.

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phyllisflick January 19, 2012 at 09:06

Thanks for pointing out the article in the Huffington Post. I thought this would get picked up quickly in the English speaking press.

I completely agree with you–I don’t use processed food at home and certainly don’t want it when I’m out and I think we have the right to know.

Personally I can’t understand why someone would want to have a restaurant if they are just going to serve crap. I think it’s great that you only use quality ingredients and it must be frustrating to know that others are cutting corners and making more money by doing so. In the end, I think you will have more clients, or at least I hope so. And since I’ve tasted your cupcakes, I can attest that they are great!

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Margaret January 27, 2012 at 04:42

Many thanks, Phyllis. I had heard these rumors but now put credence in them when they come from you. Are we flattering ourselves when thinking that we can tell the difference between fresh and multi-flavor enhanced packaged goods, or are open kitchens and tight market menus the only insurance that someone is really in there cooking for us?
Or should common sense have told us all along that no kitchen can consistently offer multiple choices of three or four courses without staggeringly high tabs?

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MIke1062 February 3, 2012 at 00:54

Well there goes my trips to Chartier! no wonder the food came out so fast as was well…
just ok.

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phyllisflick February 3, 2012 at 08:50

Sorry Mike, I wouldn’t go either which is a shame because it is a beautiful historic place that merits to have decent food, at least food that doesn’t come out of a box.

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Rachelle Weymuller March 21, 2012 at 18:24

Thank you for this post, very interesting. Yet another reminder to research and find a local that knows the area and chefs well. I just joined a group called A cup of local sugar https://www.cupoflocalsugar.com/ for just that reason, a way to meet locals while traveling and find out the best spots first hand.

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Elodie Amora March 30, 2012 at 11:18

I saw the exposes on tv and I was shocked seeing the Chocolate Molten Cakes which the customers thought were homemade were actually factory-ought! Tsktsk. Definitely not fais maison! By the way, this is my first time visiting your blog and I’m so happy to have found another Paris guide! :)

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thefrancofly.wordpress.com April 25, 2012 at 19:40

Thanks for putting to light something I’ve always been curious about. Most of the time, I am disappointed with the uninspired, bad quality food in most cafes. If I am spending 18 euros on a plat, I certainly want fresh green beans! Although Picard is a great convenience for home cooks, it should not be on restaurant plates, too.

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parisbreakfast May 12, 2012 at 11:35

Thank you!
Excellent expose and info Phyllis.
Makes me very glad I mostly eat chez moi in Paris.
At least patisseries can not get away with this kind of scam.
No wonder they run out of stuff and can’t replenish..

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Ms. Glaze May 18, 2012 at 05:30

It’s about time this was exposed. French mainstream restaurants have had a lot of tough battles to fight over the years – it’s tough for small businesses in Paris – but cutting costs in this way is really selling out the national legacy of being the mother of all cuisines. I am always shocked when I visit (and I used to live and work as a cook in Paris) at the number of bad restaurants. Great post…

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