France's restaurants and French cooking are under attack. The enemy comes from within-and wears a white hat.
In July, the country debuted the fait maison law. The first of its kind, the law holds the professed purpose of promoting fresh French cooking, which has been on the wane for years. More than half of the country's restaurant revenue last year came from fast food joints and sandwich shops. One study, carried out by French catering union Synhorcat, claims nearly a third of restaurants and bistros use packaged ingredients to prepare meals. A poll performed for the industry publication L'Hotellerie Restoration last year suggests that the number is much higher.
While France's chefs still have a reputation for producing great eats, even the country's top restaurants no longer dominate the global culinary scene. Only five of the world's top 50 restaurants call France home today. That's down from 14 in 2004. Last year Bloomberg News reported that the title of "world's capital of gastronomy" had packed up and left Paris for Tokyo.
Despite all this data, nearly three quarters of the French people polled by L'Hotellerie Restoration state that they're happy with restaurant meals there.
The new law requires all restaurants throughout the country to put the word homemade-fait maison-on menus to indicate which food has been prepared from scratch. Food may be labeled as fait maison "only when it's made in-house from fresh ingredients."
That sounds simple, if costly and pointless. In fact, it's annoyingly complex. The mandate requires each menu to state that "homemade dishes are made on site from raw produce" -even those that sell no such dishes. The law further requires that restaurants serving only homemade food display either the words fait maison or the fait maison logo, which appears to have been drawn to resemble a character from South Park's Terrance and Phillip Show.
"If you see the logo next to, say, cabillaud en papillotte (cod baked in a tinfoil parcel) with carrots braisÃ©es (braised carrots), it will mean that a human being on the premises will have put the cod in the foil and braised the carrots," Stephen Clarke wrote in the Telegraph shortly after the fait maison debut.
Inspectors will attempt to enforce the law beginning later this year.
France's chefs are unhappy with the law-in some cases because they think it isn't strict enough. Most frozen foods are exempt, and so, as Clarke notes, your fait maison fish and carrots could have been frozen and the carrots even pre-sliced. The exception to the frozen-as-fresh exemption? Potatoes, lest fast food restaurants make the law seem even sillier than it is.
Besides chefs, some restaurant suppliers are deriding the law for treating sous vide-which involves cooking foods in a sealed bag in a water bath, often at low temperatures and for hours-as the gastronomic equivalent of Le Uncle Ben's boil-in-bag rice. Under the law, neither is considered homemade.
Other critics contend that France's mandatory 35-hour workweek and high labor costs-rather than the provenance of restaurant ingredients-are the reasons the country's restaurants are in decline.
Supporters of the fait maison law claim it will have several benefits. They say, for example, that the law will create jobs by forcing restaurants to cook more of their food from scratch. But it's more likely to have the opposite effect, at least in the short term. If consumers truly want homemade food, and if they discover that local restaurants are light on such options, they're more likely to stay at home and cook themselves. Alternately, less discriminating consumers who learn that their food isn't made from scratch might just opt to stay home and heat their own dinner in the microwave, rather than paying someone else to do it. The real winner, in either case, would be France's supermarkets.
Other supporters paint the law as a stand against fast and "industrial" food. It's "the government's way to protect diners from the many industrially prepared dishes served in most places and that are damaging the country's culinary reputation," writes the Luxemborg-based Forbes contributor Cecelia Rodriquez.
That reputation is not what it appears. In fact, it looks like much of what you think you know about French food and food attitudes is either outdated or just plain wrong.
The best analysis of the state of French cuisine I've read comes from a surprising source: Epigram, the University of Bristol's student newspaper. (But then, I've always found Ratatouille to be the most profound of French movies.) The author, Robin Cowie, attributed "the decline of France's food culture" to a combination of bad French and E.U. policies, changing tastes, globalization, immigration, the ongoing economic crisis, a lack of innovation in French cuisine, and other factors.
It is a "fear of multiculturalism and foreign cuisine that threatens French food culture more than anything else," writes Cowie. The new fait maison law will do nothing to solve that.
Baylen Linnekin is executive director of the Keep Food Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for food freedom.