Real Food Restaurants – The Fightback Begins

With two out of three French restaurants reported to be no more than food assembly lines — microwaving packs of prepared industrial cuisine — concerned consumers are starting to demand value for money and signs to flag up home made food.

Three star dining -- but if its not described as fait maison ask about the provenance (Credit: Wikipedia)

Three star dining — but if its not described as fait maison ask about the provenance (Credit: Wikipedia)

The fight back against industrialised ‘restauranteering’ in France – reportedly some 80 % of the 140 000 to 150 000 restaurants in France offer menus featuring semi- or fully-finished industrial products — is being led by a couple of real food fans based at Six-Four near Toulon.

Alain and Capucine Tortosa set up their freshly minted website in August last year and say it aims to highlight French restaurants offering real food and cuisine prepared and cooked in-house or fait maison as the war cry has now become.

Fait maison they believe, is why the world regards France as the high church of cuisine and as fans of proper restaurant fare, they hope the website will help like-minded consumers distinguish between factory-churned food and a cuisine that is cut, sliced, braised and fried by real cooks using fresh ingredients whose origins are fully traceable — hopefully to a nearby farm concerned about terroir and organic methods.

Their website is thus a weapon in the current serious skirmishing in the country which has pitched industrial food lobbies against parliamentarians proposing reforms and a government concerned that its recently awarded world heritage status may be in danger.

Alain and Capucine Tortosa’s objective is simple.  They urge restaurateurs proud of their culinary traditions and guaranteeing home made fare,  to sign up and be included in an online directory that in turn makes it easy for consumers to patronise the country’s real food restaurants in the knowledge that menus are prepared and cooked from scratch in the kitchen.

Among issues the couple raise as a warning to all restaurant customers are:

  • How can such a small restaurant have 50 dishes on its menu?
  • How do these chefs know everything?
  • How do they manage to serve us a fondue so fast in the month of July at a very popular seaside resort?
  • How come these chips are so “perfectly” shaped and uniform?
  • Why is all the fish served primarily filleted?
  • How come these pastries and desserts are so “perfect”?
  • How is it that I have an impression of having eaten the same chocolate fondue in so many different restaurants?

The answer they suggest, is that the food is frozen i.e. pre-prepared, vacuum packed i.e. industrial, assembled, microwaved and comes from a central industrial kitchen.

“We are not saying that all restaurants with more than 50 dishes on the menu, serving super fast and offering perfect pastries are perforce providing food from industrial kitchens. They may indeed employ five chefs and a pastry chef but if there are only 10 tables in the place, circumspection is called for.  It is probably unfortunate, but mistrust now has its place. We are not calling for a ban on the use of industrial kitchen preparations in restaurants, every business is free to do as it wants, all we call for is full transparency so that we know what is on our plates. Consult the directory online and read some of the information about homemade food, the cost of home-made food, consumer ignorance, chemicals in food, the food industry overall, on our site, ” the couple urge visitors to Restaurants qui font a manger.

As Alain Tortosa told one local newspaper  it is in a consumer’s interest but more importantly the interest of the true artisan chef, that restaurants distinguish between what they produce in their own kitchens from scratch and what they buy-in ready-made and then microwave.

Made in our kitchen will this become a popular sign and a customer winner?

Made in our kitchen will this become a popular sign and a customer winner?

“There is a world of difference between a restaurant where the chef has slaved for hours over a hot stove preparing food with flair and care in a wish to convey his pleasure in welcoming and surprising his guests and one who mechanically sliced open frozen packs of prepared dishes, slapped them in a microwave, plated them professionally and rushed them to the table.”  He urges all real food restaurants to sign up at his website as part of a national consumer education campaign.

“Yes it might seem ridiculous to some that a restaurant advertises the fact that it prepares and cooks its own menu – after all does a hairdresser have a sign outside his establishment saying he really does cut hair — but there is still too much consumer ignorance of how far industrialisation has taken over French cooking,” he says.

France for instance proudly announced to the world in November 2010 that UNESCO had classified its cuisine as world heritage — “Unesco has extended protection to the French gourmet meal, which now joins 212 other cultural practices and customs in the world pantheon of mankind’s intangible cultural heritage. The gastronomic French meal now joins the list of culinary traditions labelled in 2010 by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

But as a growing number of reports — see here and here — have made clear French cuisine is not always what it seems.

So who are the founders of what could become a vital weapon for those concerned about France’s long standing cooking tradition?

On their website Alain and Capucine Tortosa write: “Let us start by saying what we are not. We are not industry professionals; we are not professional chefs or food critics. We are ‘mere consumers’,  fans of restaurants that one day stopped going to restaurants because we got tired of paying dearly for poor quality industrial kitchen food. In our daily lives, we try to buy fresh, seasonal, locally produced food where possible and, when we have the ready cash, organic products. We try to minimize our purchase of any industrialised food and ensure we avoid as much as we can chemicals, dyes, preservatives, flavour enhancers and other additives. We became disillusioned about the number of times when visiting a restaurant, that we did not know what was on our plates … Time passed and one day we decided it would be nice if there was a sign in the window of the restaurant telling us if we really should eat there or not.

“We want to be able to eat in a restaurant where the dishes are prepared with ingredients found in the kitchen. A dish that cannot be found anywhere else! We want to give kudos to real restaurants, those who cook, those who take the trouble to get up at five in the morning to go to the markets, those who take the trouble to peel their vegetables … so we went into action and set up this directory showing  restaurants that cook their own food. Our purpose is not to rate the flavour of the food or award prizes, nor do we want to force restaurants to offer 100% homemade, all we want is transparency and honesty in the business so consumers can choose where to spend their money. Our site is 100% independent of all lobbies and the food industry. We have no connections with them and we carry no advertising.  Alain and Capucine are ‘simple customers’, and the creators of this site.”

Currently the website has listed some 170 restaurants across the country. The principle is simple: restaurants wishing to be listed contact the Tortosas. “We did not approach any of those listed. Before they can appear they answer a series of questions we put to them based on a number of criteria that helps determine whether or not they are really restaurants that make the food in their kitchen: that respect the seasons in making menus etc.”  The couple rely on these criteria, customer feedback and the honesty of the restaurateurs who are responsible for stating how much of the food they serve is “homemade” and how much is not.

Consult the directory here

Government has been heavily lobbied by the food industrialists over efforts to have restaurants distinguish between real food and products emerging like factory-farmed chickens, from their production lines.  The full details of the debate and the outcome to date are set out here

Taste week is a favourite in schools as chefs transmit their passion to pupils

Taste week is a favourite in schools as chefs transmit their passion to pupils

Meanwhile the dedication to high quality gourmet food continues as several annual events promoting and invoking the value of French cooking, show:

The FranceInfo programme below (click to listen again) highlights some of the issues dogging  those who seek to protect and encourage French food traditions:

Story: Ken Pottinger

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One Response to Real Food Restaurants – The Fightback Begins

  1. Pingback: Epicurean Dining as — Escoffier-style — 1000 Chefs Serve Up French Menus World-Wide | FrenchNewsOnline

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