French restaurants acknowledge serving factory-frozen food

CHARLES PLATIAU/REUTERS - A terrace cafe near the River Seine in Paris.

It is the warmest memory of many a vacation in France: the little Paris restaurant where a white-aproned waiter served a dish glorified on the menu as something homey like blanquette de veau grand-mere, topped off with a still-tepid creme brulee that was just the right mix of crackly and creamy.

The trouble with this picture, it turns out, is that in 21st-century France, chances are high that both the stew and the dessert were assembled and cooked on a production line in a distant suburban factory, that they were quick-frozen and trucked to the restaurant, that they were then microwaved for unsuspecting diners who thought they were sampling traditional French cuisine.

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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.

The restaurant union has proposed reserving the title “restaurant” for establishments such as Fontaine’s that cook their dishes on the premises. Others — such as chain eateries and cafes that serve reheated lunch to nearby workers — would be limited to such designations as cafe, brasserie or inn.

“The main target of our proposal is to stop fooling consumers,” said Fontaine, who belongs to the union.

In response, the government minister responsible for artisanship, commerce and tourism, Sylvia Pinel, introduced an amendment to a consumer protection law that would allow restaurants that prepare their food on the premises to affix a logo to their menus saying “house-made.” Lawmakers recently toughened the measure, however, making the logo mandatory. The implication was that, at least for connoisseurs, menu items without the logo will be considered factory-produced.

The logo, which is yet to be designed, will allow restaurants to “better inform consumers and promote quality in the restaurant business,” Pinel said in a statement.

With the Socialist government enjoying a comfortable majority, her measure was considered almost certain to pass. That was a disappointment to Fontaine and other on-the-premises advocates, who vowed to continue their battle for full disclosure.

“It is only a first step,” he said.

Compromise criticized

The trade and hospitality union that groups the largest number of restaurants in France hailed the Pinel amendment but said it did not go far enough. Its president, Roland Heguy, told reporters that his organization would continue lobbying for a designation of “artisan restaurant,” which would be granted when all the dishes are prepared on the premises.

About 20,000 French restaurants qualify for the designation, he estimated, out of about 150,000 establishments that sell food. But a similar designation created in 2007 for chefs who pledge to keep factory-made food down to 40 percent of the total never gained acceptance; only 600 chefs signed up.

In reaching her compromise decision, Pinel was accused of bowing to the lobbying of large restaurant chains — the kind found at highway rest stops — most of which depend on fast-frozen dishes to broaden profit margins and guarantee quick service.

“Today we cannot deny the diversity that exists in our country,” she told a skeptical radio interviewer. “We have to work with everybody in the profession, to find a compromise solution.”

Daniel Fasquelle, a National Assembly member from the conservative opposition, accused the government of trying to “bury” the subject with a fuzzy compromise that he said is likely to change nothing. He vowed to introduce a competing amendment that would bestow the title “restaurant” only on establishments where dishes are prepared on-site.

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