Quelle Horreur! French Cooks Are Faking It

A lawmaker wants to crack down on eateries that dish up frozen fare | “Someone had to set up a website to find real food”

Gregory Viscusi

French Member of Parliament Daniel Fasquelle isn’t above grabbing a bite at McDonald’s when he’s in a hurry. But as the son of a butcher and grandson of a baker, Fasquelle is a purist about the handiwork and meticulously selected ingredients that go into plates of boeuf bourguignon and tarte tatin dished up by French restaurants. So imagine the punch to the gut Fasquelle received on June 12, when the restaurant association Synhorcat revealed a dirty secret: Thirty-one percent of French eateries surveyed in May said they don’t make all their food from scratch.

News that French cooks are buying frozen molten chocolate cake might give a boost to Fasquelle’s plan to revive a failed bill that would restrict the use of the word restaurant only to establishments that make all their own food. The lawmaker from northern France says he got the idea after discovering a website that lists restaurants in the south of France that cook from scratch. “We are supposed to be the land of gastronomy, but someone had to set up a website to find real food,” Fasquelle explains. “I don’t want to be left with a few starred restaurants no one can afford and then everyone else eating the same thing.”

France is fanatically strict when it comes to labeling champagne, salt, butter, cheese, chocolate, and almost everything else you’d consume at a French meal. Under a 1998 law, no bread shop can call itself a boulangerie unless the baker makes his own dough. But the €43 billion ($55.8 billion) restaurant industry isn’t subject to regulations that spell out the differences between a brasserie, a bistro, a grill, and a restaurant.

Crafts, Commerce and Tourism Minister Sylvia Pinel wants to keep it that way. Her office says it prefers to be “positive” rather than “divisive.” As a compromise, Pinel suggests the creation of a logo reading fait maison, or “house-made,” which restaurateurs who shun prepackaged cuisine could put on their menus.

That “could work, but I want to keep pushing the government to go further,” says Pascale Got, a Parliament member who represents a district on the outskirts of Bordeaux. “France is losing share in global tourism, and this is a crucial issue.” Earlier this year, Got introduced an amendment similar to Fasquelle’s but withdrew it after the government announced its opposition. Both lawmakers plan to reintroduce their proposals when Parliament reconvenes this fall. “This isn’t a battle against anyone,” says Fasquelle. “It’s about clarity for customers.”

Alain Fontaine, owner of Le Mesturet restaurant near the Paris stock exchange, is all for the idea. If a third of restaurants admit to serving heat-and-eat food, he says, “then the real number must be about half.” The head chef at his 130-year-old eatery puts in 11-hour days to produce French classics (veal ragout) as well as more modern fare (pork belly with citrus). He could work less and Fontaine could make more money if Le Mesturet served frozen food, Fontaine says—but why? That wouldn’t befit someone with “a passion for this trade,” as he puts it. Or, put another way, a restaurant owner.

The bottom line Eateries that reheat premade food wouldn’t be able to call themselves restaurants under a proposal in France.


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