France’s top chefs are battling ‘boil-in-the-bag’ culture with the launch of a new restaurant label promoting fresh food. However the Restaurant de Qualité label has prompted debate on what constitutes good food and whether fresh necessarily means best.
Last year, just two years after the French meal was put on the Unesco list of world heritage, it was revealed that boil-in-the-bag, pre-prepared food was being served in three out of four of the country’s restaurants.
In addition, the horse-meat for beef mis-labelling scandal showed that the ready-made, frozen hachis parmentier that restaurants were serving up could actually be horse.
Now leading Michelin-starred chefs including Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon and Anne-Sophie Pic have launched a Restaurant de Qualité label to highlight restaurants and bistros – with or without stars – that prepare fresh food in their own kitchens and give diners a proper welcome.
Ducasse, who runs three-Michelin starred eateries at the Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris and the Dorchester in London, said he wanted to promote restaurants “fighting to cook using fresh products”.
He added: “The average person has no idea what they are in for when they open the door to a restaurant.
“Of the 150,000 French restaurants, three-quarters of them do only industrial cooking.”
He said that those which get the new Restaurant de Qualité logo from the Collège Culinaire de France will need to have an in-house chef and not “someone who reheats a frozen bag”.
A France 5 TV documentary last year said 75% of restaurants served frozen or bought-in pre-prepared food with companies at commercial food shows openly saying their ready-made meals endorsed by famous chefs could be sold as “house specialities”.
Hotel schools were also accused of promoting reheating ready-meals.
One ex Michelin-starred chef who created a “lamb shank with thyme” for re-heating, told the film: “Joe Bloggs doesn’t care what skills the kitchen team has, he just wants to eat well.”
However, former Times restaurant critic Jonathan Meades, a resident of Marseille, said it was just a PR stunt and that the top chefs’ obsession with fresh food did not mean they were championing good food.
“As with everything that people like Ducasse do it’s down to self-esteem, preserving the mystery of cheffery and – the most vital property in the world of ‘fine’ restaurants – PR.
“There is nothing necessarily superior about home-made. A factory-produced dish may well be superior to that of an inept restaurant kitchen.
“Where does the fetish for homemade stop? Does a restaurant have to refine its own salt, make its own mustard, bake its own bread?”
He added: “Albert Roux, who owns the Gavroche, once said there was nothing wrong with boil-in-the-bag. If you put something good into a bag, boil it, something good comes out.”
Daily Telegraph food writer Rose Prince said: “French restaurants have lost their way.
“You do see a lot of food that looks like it has come off a production line and been reheated.”
Both Meades and Prince said the 35-hour working week had hit restaurants’ ability to offer lower-priced good food.
Restaurant campaigner Xavier Denamur, whose own survey provided the basis for the figure that 75% of restaurant’s used boil-in-the-bag, said the new scheme was elitist and the only real solution was legislation.
Meanwhile the French public appear to be saying one thing and doing another: a recent survey by the hoteliers federation the UMIH discovered that 96% of people wanted a law guaranteeing that food was cooked fresh in the restaurant’s kitchens but, at the same time, fast-food in France has overtaken the traditional table-service restaurant for the first time and now makes up 54% of the dining market. In all, e34bn of sandwiches, salads, pizzas and burgers were sold last year with prices for self-service or counter sales sur le pouce averaging between €7 and €8 while the traditional menu du jour averaged €12-€15.
Overall, the restaurant sector saw turnover drop 2% during the first eight months of 2012 (the latest figures available). The squeeze was felt mostly by mid-range restaurants as the best performing areas were top and bottom of the dining experience: fast-food venues and gastronomic (defined as menus priced above €50) restaurants.