At a traditional French bistro in a lovely old square in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, food critic Daniel Bernard’s glasses gleam skeptically.
“They’ve called it ‘on the house’ but that doesn’t mean anything regarding the law,” he says. There is always a house where the dishes are cooked! It doesn’t mean it was prepared in this house!”
Another tell-tale sign of off-site preparation is a large number of dishes.
If the menu’s as long as your arm, says Monsieur Bernard, you can be pretty sure that ‘blanquette de veau façon grand-mère’ -- veal ‘blanquette’ like grandma used to make it -- was in fact made in a factory.
The so-called chef, he reckons, has taken it out of the packaging, tossed it in the microwave, added freshly chopped parsley and ‘voilà!’ A dish bought for $4 sold for $20.
And will the restaurant-owner own up?
“Everything here is homemade,” he says.
“That’s what they always say,” says Bernard. “Even when you wave in their face the packaging of a factory-made ‘tarte tatin’ you pulled out of their dustbin that morning.” It’s like politicians and marital infidelity.
We ask the owner if we might take a look in the kitchen but, he says, they are much too busy.
In another restaurant just down the road, owner Xavier Denamur is all too keen to show his kitchen, busy or not. He grabs a bowl of the salad they’re making as their starter of the day and gives me a taste. Raw tuna, mango, lemon and coriander. Everything he serves is made from fresh produce and prepared by in their kitchen.
But this, according to the Synorchat restaurant owners’ union, is becoming rarer and rarer. They say 31 percent of French restaurants now serve food that is pre-cooked elsewhere.
Denamur reckons the real figure is much higher. In any case, the public is being conned, he says.
“Does it matter?” I ask him. “Couldn’t food prepared off the premises be just as good?”
“Of course not!” he says. Or rather shouts. “Why? Because they put some additives in it. Stabilizers, coloring, thickeners… When you buy in a supermarket you can read what you have in it. As soon as you go in a restaurant you can’t read!”
But, if French lawmakers get their way, this will change.
With France’s big culinary reputation to defend, they are worried that a nation of gourmet chefs is turning into a nation of heater-uppers. They voted June 27 to make restaurants indicate on their menus whether dishes are homemade or not.
If the French Senate approves the measure in September, restaurants will be printing up new menus by fall where a symbol by each dish will show whether it’s homemade or not.
It might be time for places serving “grandma-style” veal ‘blanquette’ to bring a real grandma back into the kitchen.