Bon Vivance: France’s fight over factory food
A few years back at an airport management conference, I was checking out the various vendors for everything from runway lights to bathroom fixtures and I came across one selling franchises for Indian restaurants. I thought this was kind of interesting, since not having a restaurant specializing in cuisine from India is something that is pointed out to me from time to time as a glaring amenity that is missing in Wausau. I didn’t think this particular offering would really fill the bill for us, since one of the virtues being touted about the brand was that nobody operating the restaurant would have to know how to cook.
I thought about that for a minute, since it sounded odd that somebody would find it to be strong selling point — that nobody in the restaurant would have to know how to prepare food. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that having restaurants where nobody knows how to cook may be more of a rule than an exception these days.
Think about it. We regularly go into restaurants and bars where there is a full menu offered consisting of items that take hours to prepare and we expect things to arrive piping hot on our plates in about 20 minutes, never thinking much about what is really involved in making that happen. (I make great baby back ribs, but if you want them for dinner tonight, you’re going to have to let me know by noon, at the very latest. I would need to find some shortcuts to make something like that work on a restaurant menu.) When it comes to franchises, we expect a consistent quality and uniformity to prevail in a way that would not be possible if anyone along the way was exercising even a modicum of creativity.
Simply put, a lot of our food is made in factories. General Tso’s chicken – a “Chinese” dish that was invented in North America and is essentially unheard of in China – is pretty much the same at any Chinese buffet around the country, just like the individually wrapped fortune cookies. We know that nobody is making hamburger patties at McDonald’s or cutting up potatoes in the back room. We pass Sysco, Rheinhart and Asian Foods trucks every day and we don’t think much about what it all means, but the fact is that a lot of “restaurants” are simply retailers of fully-prepared foods. The value that they add often consists almost entirely of keeping the place clean, creating some ambiance, plating the food, serving it and washing the dishes. Food factories enjoy an economy of scale in procuring their ingredients and the savings allow them to maintain competitive prices on products that significantly reduce labor costs at the heat-and-serve restaurant level.
I’m not necessarily knocking it, but once you start thinking about many restaurants as simply retail outlets for factory-produced food, you realize why you might get a quizzical look when you try to faithfully answer the question, “How was everything?” There is a good chance that anything you might mention is completely beyond the control of anyone in the building, since their role in preparing your meal is extremely limited. It would be like having a discussion about the finer points of seasoning with the guy handing you a hot dog from the concession stand window at the ball park or expecting the person who rings up your Twinkies at the C-store to be a pastry chef.
It is against this backdrop that France has begun a simple program to let people know if their food is actually being prepared in-house. France’s chefs are a very picky lot who live – and sometimes even die – by their Michelin Stars. Restaurants in France will now be able to add an official logo next to menu items that are made in-house. The “fait maison” logo was approved by the French government ‘to reign in the amount of processed foods used and to preserve France’s high gastronomical standing.’
Restaurants can label dishes as “homemade” even if the raw products have been frozen, refrigerated, cut up, ground, smoked, or peeled before being delivered to the restaurant. (The exception is potatoes and some have already complained that to meet the requirements, they will have to hire more staff to peel potatoes that they previously bought peeled and frozen. This being food and this being France, that is likely to be one of the more minor points (or small potatoes) in what is sure to be a continuing controversy over the initiative.) Pasta, bread, cheese and wine can also be used in “homemade” dishes.
It remains to be seen how all of this will play out on the plate, but if you’re going to have a food fight, you couldn’t pick a more appropriate battleground for it than France.