There is no question, at least at the high end of the restaurant scene that the French are still at the top of the culinary world although the competition has become incredibly fierce with countries like Spain, Italy, the UK (yes you read that correctly) and Japan challenging for the top position.
But amid that reputation is a creepy feeling that not all is rosy. While the top chefs can command huge international respect for their creations, you need to sit and wonder at what is happening in the more traditional ‘bistros’ and ‘brasseries’. That feeling is more pertinent when you learn that France is introducing a law that will force restaurants to mark their food as ‘fait maison’ or home made to save their culinary reputation.
When this happens you realise that things are not always as they seem. As you can see from this article in The Guardian, many mid-range restaurants are using industrial companies as a way to cut costs and serve customers food that has been prepared elsewhere. We are not speaking here of canteens or fast food places but restaurants around France. The report says It is difficult to estimate what percentage are doing so but it could vary from 30% to three quarters of restaurants.
If you think about it this is incredible though it might be noticeable to the discerning eye particularly since ‘the classic dishes’ seem to be replicated in many places with similar results irrespective of the region of France you are in.
I could realise something was going wrong with French cooking on a combined trip to Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France a few years ago. The reputation of these two regions is very high. But on balance, it was clear that there was no contest between the overall quality of food in Tuscan restaurants when compared to those in Provence. Don’t get me wrong, we still ate very well in Provence in certain restaurants but at the lower end, i.e. in the osterias and trattorias in the Chianti area of Tuscany there was very little chance of going wrong. Stop at any restaurant, sometimes, even a bar in a 500 people village and the chances of going wrong were close to zero. There was no need for guides or advice from locals. The reason is that at its core Italian food is simpler to French cooking because the focus is always on the quality of the ingredients and not the sauces or the complexity of the preparation required.
We also ate very well in the beautiful villages of Provence, the search for a good place was more painstaking and required considerably more research. We noticed, quite easily that the chances of going wrong were higher and to eat well you needed to spend considerably more than in Tuscany.
The question people are asking is whether this law will work. It is difficult to assess particularly in view of the fact that ‘fait maison’ might not necessarily always be better. But clearly, it should inspire people to vote with their feet. Let’s hope it works for the sake of the French culinary reputation.