Caveat Emptor – A French Foodies Horror Movie
Will French chefs join the Food Resistance — still offering real bistro-cooked menus — or does famine await French foodies faced by the inexorable rise of microwaved pseudo-cuisine?
TV5Monde has just screened a repeat of a 55-minute documentary, made in 2012 by Rémi Delescluse, which reveals the alarming pace at which industrialized processed food is taking over in the nation’s restaurants. Delescluse hopes his film will spur the country’s dwindling gourmets to rise up and Save Real French Food.
Watch the horror movie — which has English subtitles for some of the way — below:
The documentary reveals with some concern, how even famous cooking and hotel schools are now teaching the current generation of chefs how to open vacuum packs and plate microwavable frozen and processed food rather than chopping, peeling and paring fresh ingredients.
In 2010, France’s gastronomic experience became part of UNESCO World Heritage. Behind this prestigious award however lies a less acceptable reality, says the film blurb. “Many French food experts agree that French food has never been as standardised as it is today: frozen fish, pre-prepared lamb shank, sauces and desserts are all manufactured on an entirely industrialised basis in vast food factories.
“Today, seven out of ten restaurants use industrial products when preparing their menus. The agro-food industry has imposed itself onto restaurants and the catering business. The invasion also affects canteens in hotel and schools. Those who advocate and defend the ‘homemade’ approach are trying to alert politicians to take action against the march of the industrial lobbies.”
But it might be a losing battle. Jean Luc is a small Parisian resto owner and he openly told the documentary team — without hiding any of the frozen and pre-prepared food he was using — : “30 years ago the kitchen team would work 60-70 hours a week and prepare everything from scratch. Today they can work no more than 35 hours a week (by law) and as wage and non-wage labour costs have risen we haven’t been able to double the numbers in our teams to compensate ….”
Jean Luc has thus had to choose and he opted to use products that require less labour and last longer, he told the team. So while his menu does not state whether the products are fresh or frozen he maintains the give-away is in the price . “For 19.50 euros you can have a full meal and clearly for that price we can’t be serving fresh fish that costs 25-30 euros a kilo.” In addition he says, his low prices and approach to the business are part of a fight for survival against the 12 restaurant chains that surround his establishment and offer even lower- priced meals. “Time and cost are making it impossible to turn out everything home-made in our kitchens, as we once did”, he says.
Like Jean Luc most restaurants get their supplies from five major food processing companies– a market worth 8 billion euros, the film says.
The team interviewed Marc Foucher a prize-winning chef and one of the top Ouvriers de France who now acts as an advisor to one of the processed food suppliers. He says restaurants are increasingly resorting to serving processed food from companies like the one he advises, for economic reasons. The problem adds the film’s commentator is that restaurants don’t tell their customers that this is their policy.
Emmanuel Rubin, co- author of Le Livre Noir de la Gastronomie (The Black Book of French gastronomy) says it’s an Asterix-style fight between ancient Gaulle villagers and the Roman invaders and guess who is winning.
The film team interview a former gourmet restaurant owner and Chef, Olivier PICHOT who set up Gourmet Home Made International a food lab initially based in Le Mans. He closed his restaurant to run the laboratory, developing prepared dishes for the food processing industry. He says to be able to supply lamb shank at a competitive price he uses imported New Zealand meat which while it has less flavour is far cheaper. The sauces he uses are made from dried commercially prepared mixtures, the complete dish is steam cooked to kill bacteria and vacuum packed so a restaurant just microwaves, plates and serves it.
However at 27 minutes into the film the producer trundles out a member of the Food Resistance, a Parisian chef still doing it the traditional way. Pierre with his commis works in a cramped 4sqm kitchen and has just four hours to prepare a traditional bistro lunch for 40 customers. Pierre works 10 hours a day to offer a simple freshly cooked menu. Yes he says he’s been offered plenty of prepared packs but “where is the pleasure in that? It’s like working in a factory”. For the interviewer, Xavier Denamur, Pierre’s boss, adds up the cost of the lamb shank his two cooks have prepared showing the price to him is 4.25 euros (without tax), “and we sell it at 12 euros TTC”, he says, demonstrating that traditionalists can still make a living without sacrificing centuries of French gastronomic acquis.
In 2007 alarmed at the industrialisation trend, government introduced a law classifying establishments that promised to cook and prepare everything fresh on the premises with a special label.
Members of the Association Française des Maîtres Restaurateurs pledge not to use industrial products in their restos and in exchange they are granted the right to display the Maître Restauranteur – Fait Maison et Produits Frais plaque. The problem is that in five years only 2000 out of 120,000 restaurants in the country have taken the pledge, according to the documentary.
Fernand Sire, parliamentary deputy for Pyrénées-Orientales launched a food transparency project in 2011 but efforts to ensure that menus clearly stated whether food was produced in the kitchen or assembled from a processed and frozen food pack, created “a huge row”. Today, he tells the film-maker, he is supporting the fait maison label that can only be deployed by chefs cooking everything in their restaurants themselves.
So caveat emptor — buyer beware. If you want a real gourmet experience when next visiting France, ask some searching questions of the maitre d’ first.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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