In a survey conducted for the National Union of Hotel, Restaurant and Cafe Operators, a third of French restaurants acknowledged serving such factory-frozen products to clients. Restaurant owners estimated that the real number is substantially higher, as many chefs were embarrassed to admit the short cuts that, in effect, hoodwink their customers.
Aside from the element of fraud, serving factory-prepared dishes, chefs pointed out, amounts to betraying the national heritage of fine eating and undermining one of the main reasons that France is the world’s top tourist destination. After all, they recalled, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared the classic French meal part of the world patrimony.
One chef who spoke out was Bernard Grateloup, who owns the Cafe de la Poste at Carmaux, a little town 50 miles northeast of Toulouse. Grateloup told reporters that he buys fresh fruits and vegetables at the market when he can but resorts readily to frozen meats and out-of-season produce because they are so much cheaper and easier to manage.
A chunk of tuna cooked Provencal style with an attractive ratatouille on the side, for instance, can be bought in a restaurant-
supply factory for $4, stored in the freezer indefinitely and sold to a diner for $17 after three minutes in the microwave, according to a report in Marianne magazine. A chocolate eclair for dessert goes for 60 cents at the factory and lands on a restaurant table for a profit of several hundred percent.
The practice has spread across the country in recent years as freezing techniques improve and restaurant owners seek to maximize profits by reducing the number of chefs and assistant chefs in the kitchen. In addition, it coincides with the increasing industrialization of the food industry across Europe, dramatized this year when horsemeat found its way into frozen lasagna and experts had trouble tracing the origins.
‘Stop fooling consumers’
Alain Fontaine, who runs Le Mesturet restaurant near the Opera in Paris — and who cooks his dishes from scratch — lamented the growing tendency not only because it cheats diners but also because it means that everybody ends up eating the same mass-produced food with the same homogenized tastes.
“It’s not right,” he said. “We are going to atrophy our senses.”
Doing things right can hurt the bottom line, Fontaine acknowledged. His top-line chefs take home $2,600 a month after deductions, and assistants make $1,950. Hiring illegal immigrants to man the microwave could reduce expenses exponentially.