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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.