Friday, February 7, 2014


I love Paris, I love to eat in Paris. Eating is one of the things that I miss about Paris. During my past 2 visits, I had begun to notice a marked decline in the food being served. I was convinced that it was all "sous vide"(the cooking of various ingredients in a plastic pouch) and not made fresh. Dare I say that, it had begun to taste like bad English food from the 1980's, mais non!!
I sheepishly mentioned it to a few Parisian friends who admitted that it was not as good as before but shrugged off that it was "that bad".
"Alors", as we say in French, I have been vindicated, by none other than the New York Times, that bastion of culinary insights. J'adore les New York Times.

France is renowned as a world capital of gastronomy. But these days, odds have grown that a delicious-looking dish or dessert may have been at least partly prepared by an industrial food giant, frozen, then reheated in a kitchen. Alexandre Castagnet, owner of Le Petit Paris, prides himself on only serving dishes prepared with fresh ingredients. Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
PARIS — Sit down at a cute Parisian bistro and the chances are the onion soup, the paté and the boudin blanc set before you weren’t prepared from fresh ingredients delivered that morning.
Even though France is renowned as a world capital of gastronomy, these days, odds have grown that a savory-looking entree or dessert — especially at establishments near tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame or Montmartre — may have been at least partly prepared by an industrial food giant, frozen, then reheated in a kitchen. Even the bread, the French bread, may have been made in an industrial bakery.
While this practice is taken for granted in the rest of the industrialized world, to many French it is an astonishing affront to their very culture.
The solution is just as French: Lawmakers are expected to approve this month a consumer protection law requiring restaurants to designate fresh dishes with a “fait maison,” or “homemade” logo. If a dish is unlabeled, some or all of it is presumed to come from an assembly line.
“The use of industrial foods in restaurants is a growing global phenomenon,” said Daniel Fasquelle, a National Assembly lawmaker among those pushing for the label. “But for France, we’re talking about our heritage. If we don’t do anything, in 10 years, real restaurants will be the exception.”
As is often the case in France, however, resolving the issue is not so simple. Restaurant owners behind a fresh-food movement say the government has not gone far enough. They want menus to note every frozen item, citing the right for consumers to know after a European food scandal last year in which frozen beef products were found to contain horse meat.
Pushing back is an influential coterie of agro-food companies. Although the quality of frozen foods has vastly improved, they are concerned that singling them out on a menu could cut into a lucrative business that is expanding as dining habits shift and restaurants seek to improve margins as labor and food costs rise.
The stars of French cuisine like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon are offering their own “Restaurant de Qualité” seal for establishments that meet higher standards for cuisine and atmosphere. Only 10 percent of France’s 100,000 restaurants would qualify, since most “only do industrial cooking,” Mr. Ducasse said while unveiling it last year.
The rest of the world may think the French are gastronomes, but about a third of French restaurants acknowledged using ready-made meals in a recent anonymous survey conducted by Synhorcat, the French hotel, restaurant and cafe operators union. But Xavier Denamur, a leader of the fresh-food faction who owns five restaurants in the Marais, estimates the figure is closer to 70 percent when ingredients like frozen fish are part of an otherwise homemade dish.
On a recent morning at Le Petit Paris, a cozy bistro in the touristy Marais quarter, Alexandre Castagnet wrote out the day’s lunch specials on a blackboard: cauliflower velouté, country ham and other dishes made only with fresh ingredients delivered that morning.
But before he and a partner took ownership, the bistro was serving very different fare. “The previous owners used factory-made foods, stored in two huge freezers,” Mr. Castagnet recalled. “When people ordered, they would pull out a bag of frozen lasagna, blanquette de veau or whatever was on the menu, pop it in the microwave and serve it on a plate,” he said.
“It was disturbing,” Mr. Castagnet added. “Tourists and other patrons had no idea that the French meal they were eating was actually industrially made.”
French patisseries won’t fall under the labeling law, but they are part of the trend. At least half of their tarts, pastries, cakes and other viennoiseries are made in a centralized plant and heated up on site. Up to 80 percent of croissants are made that way, said Philippe Godard, a spokesman for the French bakery and patisserie business federation.
“Businesses are making an economic choice,” said Hubert Jan, a representative of the French restaurant and hotel union UMIH. Labor costs including taxes have increased 40 percent since 2000, accounting for about 45 percent of a restaurant’s costs, while raw materials prices are rising. “So kitchens don’t have as many employees,” he said. In addition, “there is a dearth of skilled kitchen workers and people aren’t willing anymore to rise at 2 a.m. to make bread or pastries.”
The modern French diner is more pressed for time: Most have cut back to two sit-down meals a day, from three. And last year, for the first time, more money was spent in fast-food chains than traditional restaurants, 54 percent of the 34 billion euro French market.
For restaurants eager to maintain a competitive edge, padding a menu with ready-made dishes is economically attractive — even if no one dares to admit it, Mr. Jan said.
One of the biggest telltale signs is a menu with a large range of choices. “If the menu is gigantic, the kitchen would need to be as big as the restaurant for all the food to really be fresh,” Mr. Jan said.
“I have no interest in talking about it,” said Bernard Grateloup, who runs the Café de la Poste in Carmaux, in southern France. He was one of several owners who refused to speak after earlier telling French media that they bought frozen meats, vegetables or other dishes because the quality was good. Lower costs helped them improve tight margins and offer reasonably priced meals to patrons.
The biggest players in industrial food see a growing market. They include Davigel, one of Europe’s largest food providers, owned by the Swiss giant Nestlé; the Brakes Group, owned by the private equity firm Bain Capital; Bonduell, the world’s largest purveyor of prepared vegetables and the German wholesale giant, Metro.
Mr. Castagnet said representatives of almost all the companies had visited his bistro and others, bearing glossy catalogs and profit calculations for items. He said a Brakes salesman recounted how a 50-cent factory-made molten chocolate cake was made to “look homemade,” and could be microwaved and sold for 6 euros. If enough menu items were replaced, he was told, he could even save on the cost of an employee. A spokesman for Brakes declined to comment.

That may be so — but only if restaurants can charge higher prices. At Mr. Denamur’s nearby flagship restaurant, Les Philosophes, the higher cost of workers preparing meals from scratch is passed on to consumers willing to pay more for quality. Duck confit is 25 euros ($34), compared with about 16 euros at a corner cafe, which is lower than restaurants in France’s strict hierarchy of eating establishments.
Mr. Castagnet rebuffed the arguments. “If you run your kitchen right, it is just as cost-effective to use fresh products,” he said.
Nearly 60 percent of Davigel’s 783 million euros in sales in 2012, the latest figures available, came from independent restaurants in France, where it has 66,000 accounts. The Brakes Group had annual sales of 630 million euros in 2012, up 6 percent from 2011.
The companies employ chefs to craft alluring offers — Brake, for instance, has a partnership with Mr. Ducasse to enhance quality and create new recipes. Its lush catalog includes 3,500 items like frozen foie gras with caramelized apples or a precooked kit for gourmet beef stew with sous-vide meat, vegetables and broth.
Mr. Denamur, the activist, is concerned that many such dishes contain additives not found in fresh foods. One morning at Les Philosophes, he brandished an empty container that had held salt cod purée, which he said he had found in a rival restaurant’s trash bin. The ticket was stamped “like homemade,” but it also listed chemical preservatives. “This is why we need transparency,” he said.
But the argument isn’t really about preservatives; it’s about origins. “If a chef uses frozen onions to save time and costs, does that really need to be pointed out?” said Didier Chenet, the president of Synhorcat.
For the industry, the answer is no. “When you identify something as frozen, you put it in the head of the consumer that it might be less good,” said Ignace de Villepin, the marketing director of Davigel, said. “That is wrong, but they may be less inclined to choose it,” he said.
Davigel fought legislation requiring labels for frozen items, and Mr. deVillepin said he doubted that the fresh-foods lobby would succeed in reviving it. The most important thing, he said, was for diners is to know the origin of the food and to feel “that what is on my plate looks and tastes good, that I’m enjoying my experience in the restaurant, and I want to come back.”
Cordelia Dolan, 25, on a recent visit from London with five friends, was skeptical. As they paid the bill at Les Philosophes, they said they favored labels for frozen items — and would probably avoid them.
“You don’t want to eat something that you can buy in a shop,” she said. “That’s not why you go to restaurants.”

No comments:

Post a Comment