Article published on June 27, 2014
Article published on June 27, 2014

With rising food prices and the growing popularity of frozen food, is French food, once the most famous cuisine, in decline?

Being a for­eigner in France, I have friends and fam­ily who visit Paris for the first time and are dis­ap­pointed after din­ing in the cap­i­tal due to their some­what high ex­pec­ta­tions of French cui­sine. Is it be­cause they lack a French palate? It’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted that food en­thu­si­asts find ex­cep­tional places to fit their gourmet ap­petite, but how about if a mod­er­ate meal at an av­er­age restau­rant in the world’s (al­leged) culi­nary cap­i­tal is just not cut­ting it?

The prob­lem is, even many na­tive French peo­ple I spoke to would ex­press the same dis­ap­point­ment.

One avid French restau­rant goer, France Lys, says she is dis­sat­is­fied at least half of the time when she dines out.

What’s going on here? I thought the French in­vented the word, “gourmet”? France still is the culi­nary cap­i­tal of the world, right?

Or at least it was.

in­dus­trial qual­ity for gourmet prices

With high labour and restau­rant taxes stacked on top of an eco­nomic cri­sis, restau­ran­teurs are fac­ing is­sues to pro­vide fresh, qual­ity meals at a com­pet­i­tive price. For an av­er­age pay­ing cus­tomer, roughly 15 to 20 euros a meal, this com­monly trans­lates to frozen prod­ucts on your plate.

Syn­hor­cat, a na­tional union of hote­liers, restau­rants, cafes, and cater­ers, re­leased a sur­vey show­ing 31% of restau­rants use in­dus­tri­ally made meals — a per­cent­age which is al­leged to be higher by restau­ran­teurs who pre­pare fresh meals made from scratch. 

Michael Stein­berger, au­thor of Au Revoir to All of That: Food, Wine, and the End of France says a weak econ­omy is not good for food and gas­tron­omy.

“It’s dif­fi­cult for small restau­rants to make a profit. The gov­ern­ment makes it dif­fi­cult, so there’s a lot of in­cen­tives for chefs and restau­rant own­ers to re­ally keep their costs down and that means maybe not the best prod­ucts and best peo­ple to cook it...​that’s had a bad af­fect on the food in lots of restau­rants. [The gov­ern­ment] makes it very dif­fi­cult to run them prof­itably.”

Since 2000, labour taxes rose 40% and restau­rants face a 10% tax, a 3% hike since last year. This is why restau­rants opt for frozen or in­dus­tri­ally made food.

Owner of a restau­rant in the 16th dis­trict at La Muette in Paris, Michel Gef­froy, keeps his bak­ery-cafe menu sim­ple but still uses a few frozen items like green beans and French fries which saves a lot of work in the end. “If I bought all my prod­ucts fresh, I’d have to hire an­other staff mem­ber,” he tells me.

It would cost Gef­froy ap­prox­i­mately 3,000 euros per month in­clud­ing labour taxes to hire an­other worker at his restau­rant which is most busy dur­ing lunch hour.

Though restau­ran­teurs like Gef­froy are squeez­ing their bud­get to make a profit where the mar­gin is al­ready small, he be­lieves France still dom­i­nants the fine din­ing play­ing field de­spite the in­er­tia of the coun­try’s gas­tro­nomic scene due to the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion. Stein­berger says it’s hard to rev­o­lu­tionise dur­ing tough times.

the rise of the rest

“A lot of peo­ple who are pas­sion­ate about food con­cluded that for the last 15 years France has not been the most in­ter­est­ing place to eat and [now] it’s places like Spain, Italy, Japan — and France has be­come stale. When times are bad, peo­ple want com­fort food and not very ex­per­i­men­tal food.”

With the fate of French food at high stakes, restau­ran­teurs and politi­cians who fear of los­ing the coun­try’s culi­nary rep­u­ta­tion are fight­ing to keep it alive and dis­tin­guished by a con­sumer pro­tec­tion bill that would re­quire a 'fait mai­son', or home­made logo, which was passed at the Na­tional As­sem­bly last year and is com­ing soon to restau­rants- yet it is still un­clear how the law will be im­ple­mented.

Restau­ran­teurs, like Gef­froy, who are stuck be­tween de­liv­er­ing high qual­ity with very lit­tle rev­enue and buy­ing frozen prod­ucts to save time and money, are put in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion to find a com­pro­mise be­tween the two and usu­ally end up with un­sat­is­fied cus­tomers.

Lys, a con­scious con­sumer able to dis­tin­guish in­dus­tri­ally made prod­ucts from fresh prod­ucts, be­lieves a gas­tro­nomic ex­pe­ri­ence con­sists of a small menu of high qual­ity.

“[A gas­tro­nomic meal] is when the in­gre­di­ents are sim­ple but the way it’s cooked is elab­o­rate, the at­mos­phere [of the restau­rant] well sit­u­ated, servers know­ing why and how the food is made, good pre­sen­ta­tion, and if it was home­made.”

Though the French have not done enough to keep the culi­nary scene vital and dy­namic, Stein­berger says the cre­ativ­ity has not com­pletely dis­ap­peared with the bistronomie move­ment in­tact and a very re­cent move­ment of for­eign chefs cook­ing French food with a for­eign flare.

“The bistronomie move­ment in Paris was a pretty good thing. These are re­ally tal­ented chefs who have de­cided that they don’t want to pur­sue Miche­lin Stars, peo­ple like Yves Camde­borde link and so forth. You go, eat this ter­rific meal, very ca­sual set­ting, ex­cel­lent meal for 35 to 45 euros per per­son. These are peo­ple who could be Miche­lin Star chefs but they de­cided they could do some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Over the last ten years, the bistronomie move­ment has brought some­thing dif­fer­ent to the table [pun in­tended] but the lat­est has been a group of young for­eign chefs — such as Daniel Rose and James Henry of Bones — who are bring­ing a new evo­lu­tion to tra­di­tional French cui­sine.

“The fact that for­eign chefs are in France cook­ing re­ally good French food in Paris and are being ac­cepted by the French is a great sign. There is a new gen­er­a­tion of din­ers who are very open-minded and re­cep­tive-15 years ago, there’s no way that some of these chefs could have been able to open restau­rants in Paris and be ac­cepted,” says Stein­berger.