Dirty Secret of French Restaurants Out as Food Origin Sought

Daniel Fasquelle wants the world to know the dirty secret in the kitchens of many French restaurants: They don’t cook their own food.

The French parliamentarian is pushing a law to restrict the use of the label “restaurant” to establishments that prepare their food from scratch. He reckons many of France’s eateries wouldn’t cut it because they reheat industrially prepared foods.

If you’ve ever wondered why French classics such as a “moelleux au chocolat” or a “tarte tatin” tastes suspiciously the same in Paris restaurants, it’s probably because it is. About a third of French restaurants say they use industrial food, and Fasquelle and other officials fear declining standards at the nation’s 150,000 restaurants threaten a tourism industry that represents 7 percent of France’s $2.8 trillion economy.

“The odds are sadly good you’ll be eating a pre-prepared dish or two if you dine out at the low to mid-level of the Paris food chain,” said Alexander Lobrano, author of “Hungry for Paris” and former European Editor of Gourmet. “I fervently hope that a law with real teeth will be passed in France, since it would not only go a long way to preserving the country’s distinguished gastronomic reputation but also reward those chefs who work so hard to prepare ’real’ freshly cooked food from quality ingredients.”

Fasquelle, who’s pushing for an amendment to a consumer-protection bill, won a partial victory today when the National Assembly voted to require restaurants to say on their menu that what they serve is “fait maison,” or made there.

Le Mesturet

Fasquelle says he’ll still push ahead with his initiative. Pascale Got, a Socialist MP who had entered a similar amendment, withdrew hers after opposition from the government. Both plan to re-introduce their amendments when the bill returns from the Senate later this year.

Fasquelle says his model is a 1998 law limiting use of the word “boulangerie” to bakeries that make their own dough, which has been credited with an improvement in French bread.

The restaurant initiative resonates with Chef Pascal Brot.

Brot arrives every morning at 7:15 a.m. to turn on the ovens at Le Mesturet, a 130-year-old restaurant near the Paris stock market. The daily deliveries and six other kitchen workers arrive from about 8 a.m. for the morning-long process of dicing vegetables, preparing meats, and making sauces.

After lunch service, Brot, 48, does his orders for the next day and then oversees the 3:30 p.m. arrival of the dinner shift. At 11:30 p.m., the last staff member leaves the 130-seat restaurant, after preparing desserts for the next day.

Roaring Business

“If I just reheated industrial dishes, I could show up at 11 a.m. and have half the staff,” said Brot, emerging after a busy lunch hour.

For all that preparation, a three-course meal of traditional bistro fare at Le Mesturet costs 29.50 euros ($38.50).

Restaurants that serve up reheated foods have it easier.

Demand from them has spawned an industry of pre-packaged food suppliers and logistics-services providers.

Davigel, a unit of Nestle SA, employs 3,000 people in France, where it has 66,000 clients for its 3,000 products.

This week’s online offers include dishes such as lentils and sausage for 6.50 euros a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and Provencal-style pork stew for 7.82 euros a kilo. The price for “moelleux au chocolat,” a chocolate cake with a runny warm interior, wasn’t listed since it’s not on special. It comes in a box of 18, and needs a minute in the microwave.

Prepared Meals

Brakes Group, a British company owned by Bain Capital, has 43 sites to distribute 3,400 food products to 43,000 clients in France. The company, which had 2011 revenue of 592 million euros in the country, claims to roll out a new dish for restaurants every three days.

Other suppliers of prepared meals are Metro AG and Pomona, a private French company that began 100 years ago as a fruit distributor.

A survey by restaurant association Synhorcat said 31 percent of restaurants use some industrially made dishes.

“If a third admit to it, then the real number must be about half,” said Alain Fontaine, a 55-year-old eighth-generation Parisian who owns Le Mesturet.

Products are 21 percent of his costs and personnel take up 45 percent. After upkeep, taxes, and utilities, he says he can make a margin of 6 to 7 percent. With prepared foods and a smaller staff, he could make 9 to 10 percent, he said.

Food ‘Passion’

“The three extra points just aren’t worth it if you have a passion for this trade,” he said.

For parliamentarian Fasquelle, more than just the love of the trade is at risk. France’s restaurants have revenue of 43 billion euros and 405,000 employees whose future is threatened by increased use of pre-prepared food, he said.

Fasquelle said his idea of limiting use of the word “restaurant” came from a website he found that listed restaurants in the south of France that cook their own food.

“We are supposed to be the land of gastronomy, but someone had to set up a website to find real food,” he said. ‘I don’t want to be left with a few starred restaurants no one can afford and then everyone else eating the same thing.”

Commerce and Tourism Minister Sylvia Pinel had suggested a logo restaurants can carry in their menus to say dishes are made from scratch, which was accepted by the National Assembly today.

‘Crucial Issue’

“It’s a compromise that could work, but I want to keep pushing the government to go further,” MP Got said. “France is losing share in global tourism, and this is a crucial issue.”

An adviser to Pinel said stripping tens of thousands of restaurants of their designation may be too divisive.

Fasquelle, whose father was a butcher and grandfather a baker, insists his amendment isn’t aimed at anyone, and says establishments will easily survive even if they call themselves “grill” or “bar.”

He eats at McDonald’s when in a hurry or with his kids. “This isn’t a battle against anyone,” he said. “It’s about clarity for customers.”

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