French food goes down
Before my first visit to France, around 45 years ago, I was told that you couldn’t find bad food there if you tried. I was of limited experience, so even a hot dog jammed into a baguette bore witness to that “fact.”
Nevertheless, a few visits later, it seemed justifiable to buy into the program: France had countless regions, each producing superior products that were handled well and (with notable exceptions) served at reasonable prices. I wish we could go back — we’d need a time machine, of course — and verify that experience.
For that bubble burst long ago. My first indication was a braised chicken dish served at a bistro near Lyon. Whether it was cooked on the premises or in a faraway factory was impossible to know, but it had certainly been frozen since its creation and reheated at least once, most recently in a microwave. That depressing experience was the first of many, and I never again repeated the platitude about good food in France. Today, when I write about Parisian restaurants I have to eat in three to recommend one, and that’s with expert guidance.
Which only means that restaurants in the home of la grande cuisine have become much like they are elsewhere. If you want a meal out featuring great ingredients prepared fresh and with skill you can find one, but you have to be very diligent, very lucky or willing to spend big; the vast majority of restaurants disappoint.
The people of France appear to have lost faith and even interest. They spend most of their restaurant dollars at chains, and they no longer trust that restaurants make a majority of their dishes themselves.
But some members of the French government and restaurant industry are not giving up easily. They’re trying to preserve what was once a daily fixture in the lives of a nation of people who appreciated well-prepared food, as well as a tourist attraction that appears in some circles to have been overtaken as a culinary tourism destination by Italy (with some justification), Spain and even tiny Denmark.
Sadly, they’ve devised just about the dumbest fix imaginable, the “fait maison” (“homemade”) logo, which looks like a roof over a skillet and is to be placed next to dishes that are made in-house. Of course, the devil is in the details, and the law has several exemptions — including frozen food. Thus, farm-raised, antibiotic-laced, slave-labor-produced and frozen-and-thawed shrimp from Thailand can be legitimately logo-ized, as long as they’re cooked in-house, as can frozen vegetables from anywhere in the world — again, as long as they’re cooked in the restaurant that’s serving them.
I’ve nothing against frozen vegetables. (Oh, french fries are exempt from the exemption; you can’t put the logo next to potatoes unless you’ve peeled them yourself.) I’ve nothing against charcuterie that isn’t made by the chef serving it. I’m all for real cooking on the premises, too. But the question is not “where is it made?” so much as “how?” and “with what?”
And I’m all for regulations that might work, but this one won’t. A sly restaurateur will be able to apply the fait maison logo to almost everything on the menu. In fact, if my reading of the law is correct, even a chain like Pret a Manger — which produces fresh sandwiches on the premises — could apply the logo to most if not all items on its menu. (Bread is exempt.) And the ruling will not help consumers distinguish between a vacuum-packed salad made thousands of miles away (vacuum-packed foods are exempt) and one made with tomatoes grown 20 feet outside the kitchen door. Both get the logo.
Fancy, famous, embarrassingly expensive three-star French restaurants will, of course, legally apply the logo to just about everything. But the one-time national treasure, mom-and-pop operations that relied on nearby sources and cooking in a style that was both regional and personal, has become rare. And this law won’t change that.
America doesn’t have that kind of tradition, although the cooking of our diners and other greasy spoons was once honest and often enjoyable. But they’re gone, too, because the problems are fundamental. By relying increasingly over the years on fast and pre-prepared food in most arenas of our lives, we — including, at this point, the celebrated French — have allowed un-fresh food to take over. There are exceptions, of course — part of my work is looking for them — but that’s exactly what they are.
The fait maison logo does nothing to address the fact that chains and pre-prepared food now dominate the restaurant industry globally. And whether it’s a chain, school, hospital, workplace, prison or restaurant, there’s only occasionally reason to expect fresh ingredients prepared on the premises.
In fact, if that’s the kind of food you want to rely on, you’d better get rich or start cooking at home. Or, of course, hop in your time machine.
Mark Bittman is a columnist for The New York Times.