French food: Not so fresh?

After a survey revealed the prevalence of ready-made restaurant meals in France, restaurateurs and chefs alike are supporting a move towards locally sourced, fresh-made cuisine.

Fresh baguettes, aromatic fromage, decadent patisseries: these foods have shaped the tourist vision of France for decades, calling to mind a country built on local market fare where every bite is better than the last. The French meal has even been granted Unesco World Heritage status. Yet a recent anonymous survey conducted by Synhorcat, the French hotel, restaurant and cafe operators union, reports that one third of French restaurants admit to using industrial products in their kitchens, often meaning pre-made meals and ingredients – a choice made for both price and efficiency.

Some industry insiders, such as Paris restaurateur Xavier Denamur who owns Les Philosophes in Paris, estimates that figure to be much higher – around 70%, he told the New York Times. If travellers don’t pay attention to where they’re eating, those who come in search of a meal made with fresh ingredients may be easily misled.

To prevent that, and to preserve a culture proud of its high-quality fare,  the government passed a law in February requiring all restaurants in France to indicate on their menus whether or not their food is made in house, or “fait maison”. In an attempt to determine how the label should best be used, the government is asking both restaurant professionals and typical customers to share their opinions on how it should be applied by 4 April.

Much like a label to help identify organic food, the idea behind the new law is to help consumers be better informed about what they’re eating; “fait maison” would mean that someone on site actually prepared the meal, instead of just warming it up in a microwave. But Denamur, who for many years has been an advocate of putting a focus on whole, natural products, said the label “will have no impact on the restaurant industry”, pointing out that even if a restaurant prepares a meal in house, it can still use industrial, processed ingredients – such as a can of tomatoes, origin unknown, instead of a garden-fresh, in season tomato. He is advocating for the government to go even further, requiring restaurants to label whether they use industrial products or source their food locally.

Some restaurants voluntarily do this already, using the label “des produits d’ici, cuisinés ici”, (products from here, cooked here) to indicate establishments that are cooking with products from the Ile-de-France area, the leading French region when it comes to agricultural production. The label is promoted by the local food movement, and though it has only been in use since 2011, it is already used by more than 50 restaurants in the region surrounding Paris.

Will any label make it easier for tourists to distinguish a good meal from a bad one? Not necessarily. “You can do fait maison and the meal can still be underwhelming,” said Jordan Grossi, a private cook who has been working in France for 20 years. “It depends on where the products come from.”

But at the very least, the recent news is starting a conversation between diners and restaurateurs, especially as local food movements seem to be sweeping through cities throughout the world. “If the consumer really wants to know [what they’re eating], they can ask”, Denamur said. “Even without the law, we’re coming to a change.”

Headed to Paris? There are plenty of places to enjoy a fantastic, fresh meal at a variety of price points. One of the leaders of the movement is Yannick Alleno, a three-star Michelin chef that runs Terroir Parisien, a restaurant devoted to using local ingredients and reviving French classics. There are also foodie favourites Bones, Septime and Encore, as well as Gregory Marchand’s Frenchie, breakfast hotspot Holybelly, American-run Verjus and Latin Quarter favourite, Café de la Nouvelle Mairie (33-44-07-0441). If you’re in Montmartre and looking for an escape from the tourist path, try Miroir or Le Grand 8, which has an extensive selection of natural wines and an ever-changing menu depending on the season. For small plates try wine bar l’Avant Comptoir in Saint Germain, or Artisan where your creative seasonal dishes can be paired with a craft cocktail.