France Battles Rise of Processed Food in Restaurants

More than a third of French eateries fess up to serving ‘industrially processed’ food.

Is your francy French meal frozen. (Photo: Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You hoof it all the way to France, eager to savor some of that famous Gallic gastronomy right from the source, and you plunk down a hefty sum of euros for some authentic coq au vin or cassoulet (with a bottle of Burgundy, of course)—you want to know that you’re getting more than the equivalent of a gussied-up frozen TV dinner, right?

Just three years after the United Nations declared French cuisine part of “the intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” the nation that gave the world steak frites and escargot is living to regret it. In April, a national survey of consumer spending found that, for the first time in France’s history, more people were eating at fast-food chains than at sit-down restaurants. Now, the country’s culinary establishment is up in arms over news that more than a third of France’s non-fast-food restaurants have confessed to serving “industrially processed, often frozen food” to unsuspecting customers, as NPR reports.

A relative few diners in the States may question whether their mozzarella sticks from TGI Friday’s are prepared on-site, but in France, the idea that your béchamel may come from a freeze-pak is cause for revolution—or, at least, legislation.

France’s Lower Assembly has passed a law that would create a new label reserved for restaurants that prepare all their food from raw ingredients in their own kitchen: fait-maison (translation: “homemade”). The bill now awaits approval from the Upper Senate.

“Seventy percent of French restaurants rely on companies to deliver ready-made meals that only require the ding of a microwave,” one French chef decries at NPR (though one wonders if he’s displaying the Gallic propensity for hyperbole).

Apparently, French television has scored rating points by airing undercover sting operations on the topic. Think To Catch a Predator, but instead of some skuzzy guy bringing wine coolers over to what he thinks is a 14-year-old girl home alone, it’s a two-star chef hauling in frozen quenelle de brochet into his restaurant’s kitchen.

To those Americans who are not so in love with their native country’s hard-charging, cost-cutting, time’s-a-wastin’ approach to existence and like to take comfort in the idea that there are other cultures that actually prioritize savoring life (i.e., fantasize about siestas on the Spanish Rivera while you scarf down your Egg McMuffin), the news of France’s culinary crisis is something of a letdown.

Even if we can’t enjoy a two-hour, five-course lunch over a couple bottles of wine ourselves, we like to think there’s somewhere out there to escape to where people can.

But even in France, where such dining was once de rigueur, chains like McDonald’s and Subway have been trouncing the classic French bistro—in some measure because the lunch “hour” in France has contracted from 80 minutes in 1975 to a little over 20 minutes today.

Which brings us back to that United Nations’ designation. The same year the U.N. designated French cuisine a part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” it also did the same for Azerbaijani carpet weaving and the Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival in Turkey—in other words, what seem to be endangered cultural traditions.

But steak frites? Surely they’ll survive Armageddon.

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