French Cuisine: Foodies Fight to Protect the Term 'Restaurant'

PHOTO: Lou Mistrau restaurant illuminated at night on Place de lHorloge, Avignon, France.

An increasing number of establishments in France are serving pre-made food to their customers. Old-school foodies want to put a stop to the practice with an initiative to apply the term "restaurant" only to places that serve fresh food made on site.

Be it Boeuf Bourguignon, rack of lamb with garlic, Bouillabaisse or Quiche Lorraine, classical regional French cuisine has done as much to ensure France's legacy abroad as champagne, wine or Airbus jets. But some argue the culinary delights that secured the "gastronomic meal of the French" a place in the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage in 2010 is under threat.

Beyond the wooden spoon-wielding, Michelin-starred chefs of France, chain restaurants and mass catering are becoming a widespread phenomenon in the country, with people opting for fast food or sandwiches rather than more exotic traditional fare like calf's head or pig's feet. Places that once served French onion soup, chicken in white wine sauce or citrus tartlets are now increasingly dishing up pizza, sushi and hamburgers instead. An obsession with fitness and stress are also playing a role. The lunch break, which only 40 years ago was a drawn out, 1.5-hour affair, has since shrunk to a paltry 38 minutes.

Traditional French cuisine, it seems, is under pressure. With restaurants hard-hit by the recent hike in the sales tax and the economic crisis, the fast food industry surpassed establishments with table service for the first time ever in 2012.

It's a trend that is unlikely to change any time soon, given that the decline in the art of cooking goes beyond fast food establishments. It's also hitting traditional bistros and brasseries, where a greater number of meals these days are pre-prepared.

A recent poll of culinary professionals in France by restaurant union Synhorcat found that 31 percent of French eateries are now often looking to the can for their culinary inspiration. Increasingly, this means salads out of bags, industrially produced French fries and potato wedges, canned vegetables, flavor concentrates, vacuum-packed fish as well as sauces and dressings out of the bucket. One-quarter of meals are no longer cooked -- they are simply stirred together or warmed up with nary a mention on the menu that what the customer is getting isn't fresh. As a result, half of customers no longer trust the restaurants that serve them. 'A Place Where Food Is Served for Payment' That's why Synhorcat and a handful of lawmakers now want to declare war on these French culinary cheats. The restaurant union is seeking special protection for the term "restaurant." Currently, the definition accepted for a restaurant is the short description provided in France's leading dictionary, the "Petit Robert," which states merely that, "A restaurant is a place where food is served for payment."

But this broad definition needs adjusting, according to the restaurateurs, who want to create a standard that guarantees origin and quality, similar to the country's Appellation d'Origine Controlée (AOC) seal for wines, cheeses and other agricultural products.

Their role models are the bakers who managed to stem the tide of cheap supermarket baguettes in 1998 by ensuring that only stores who mixed, kneaded and baked their bread in-house could be called a boulangerie, the French word for bakery. Achieving such a label could now secure similar conditions for restaurants. "We want transparency and quality," says Synhorcat president Didier Chenet. "A law should stipulate that in a restaurant food that has been cooked on site with fresh ingredients is served to customers."

Stoves vs. Microwaves

Although about 80 percent of the chefs endorse the proposal in principle, the initiative is opposed by the low-cost competition from cafeterias, snack bars and sandwich shops. Their representatives -- a total of six organizations -- have announced massive resistance. They warn that such a measure could confuse customers and especially foreign tourists. They also fear complicated regulations and rising costs and claim that "the true wealth of French gastronomy" is at risk.

The fact is that if French parliament passes the law in June, about 10 percent of the country's restaurants could no longer call themselves that.

Synhorcat's president, who now has the support of members of parliament, senators and tourism minister Sylvia Pinel, is optimistic. At least 96 percent of the French people support a seal of approval that guarantees real restaurant cooking. The proponents of cheap food have been outplayed, Chenet says. "A restaurateur does not work with scissors and a microwave, but with a stove and knives."

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