Paris restaurants turn to food made off site to cut costs

The practice causes a snit in the world's culinary capital, with critics seeing it as the demise of French culture and others calling it the democratization of fine dining.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

La Rotisserie d'en Face is a fine restaurant near Odéon in the Sixth district, a top Paris dining area. The staff works 70 hours a week. Everything is fresh. Cooking a chicken takes 50 minutes. "Our mashed potatoes are as important to us as our salmon or our beef," says manager Olivier Tourlet.

Such places epitomize the opening line in the film "Ratatouille:" "The best food in the world is in France, and the best place to eat is in Paris." The line is spoken by a rat named Remy who becomes a genius chef in a Paris kitchen that is a beehive of master chefs attended by apprentices hanging on every expert whisk of the egg brush.

But unbeknownst even to many French, the idealized Paris kitchen is changing. Paris food remains superb. But except for two- and three-star places, many of the 5,000 Paris restaurants that serve traditional cuisine rely increasingly on high quality preparation done off site. The famed stereotype of mustachioed white-hat chefs laboring over hot stoves is fading, due to sheer cost.

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At one crowded corner restaurant near La Rotisserie, for example, most of the main dishes are vacuum-packed in a process known as sous vide. "Look at the size of our kitchen," says the manager. "One person is cooking." The dishes, he says in a low breath, "come from Metro."

Metro is one of four companies with huge central kitchens around France whose sales have skyrocketed in the past five years. They hire Michelin three-star chefs to oversee recipes – and offerings range from simple chopped vegetables to precooked tilapia filets and raspberry mousse. The result is a shakeout of tradition in the Paris food scene that could be measured on the Richter scale were it much discussed, which it isn't. A small group of elite kitchens can retain the old ways; mainstream checkered tablecloth places find it difficult.

"Restaurants, including some high-end ones, are turning to prepared dishes. But no restaurant will admit to this," says Hervé Bussière, head of European sales for Cuisine Solutions in Normandy. "French customers still expect everything to be homemade, on site, but that's just not the case anymore."

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Behind the changes in the world's culinary capital are high labor and food costs. The French maintain a short work week (35 hours) and keeping a dozen fresh dishes on the menu, particularly for a mid-range restaurant, is difficult. The trend also reflects a move by chains to regularize fare in popular bistros, and the developing science of sous vide – allowing gourmet meals of crab, veal, beef, and Coquilles St. Jacques to stay fresh for up to three weeks in vacuum-packing. Restaurateurs and food critics call it the democratization of luxury in Paris. The customer base for $200 meals is limited, but a new generation of locals and tourists will pay $35 a plate for food almost as good. Let them eat cake – but let it be vacuum-packed for affordability!

Figures on the rise of sous vide are buried in thickets of obfuscating data. But the Ministry of Agriculture reports that French firms sold nearly 5 billion euros worth of "fresh prepared foods" (foods that undergo preparation for later use) in 2005. Of this, the amount sold to restaurants rose 48 percent, says the French restaurant association ADEPALE.

A food-service consultant recently approached a seventh district restaurant owner. The consultant knew the economics of the restaurant and presented tempting savings, including how to eliminate the need to buy fresh fish that spoils quickly with sous vide filets usable for weeks. The company would supplement rather than replace the menu – allowing the restaurant to concentrate on its famous dishes but still save on food and staff.

"It isn't a kitchen question, it is a political question," says Mr. Tourlet, whose restaurant makes everything fresh. "We work long hours, not 35. We do both lunch and dinner. If there are no customers, we aren't paid. We have talked about buying sous vide equipment [to prepare on-site]; the quality is 99 percent as good as freshly made."

A notable aspect of the change is how few French are aware of it. The use of sous vide may be one of the best guarded open secrets in Paris. The idea of ordering a meal assembled from components cooked elsewhere – whatever the quality – crosses a psychological line that approaches the clinical here. "If that is true, I am no longer French," says Marcel, dining outside in the seventh district.

Nor can the subject be discussed in a restaurant. Everyone from chefs to maître d's freeze at the sound of sous vide. A manager at an Avenue St. Germaine restaurant known to use fresh precooked products looked as if he wanted to fricassée something other than the chicken when asked about it. "I don't know anything about that," he said, though later admitted the practice is "widespread." The subject is quite grave, in fact. When Margot, a restaurant chain, admitted using sous vide techniques, their profits dropped 30 percent in one month. "Monsieur, I am very busy today and have no time for this question," said a garçon at another Left Bank restaurant.

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Most discourse on food here is driven by two- and three-star cuisine – what's happening in the best kitchens. It's like discussing higher education in the US by focusing on Harvard, Princeton, and Yale rather than on state universities. Still, a quiet threshold was crossed in 2004 when the French state diploma for cooking changed its requirements. More time is now spent on "intermediary products," like frozen and sous vide preparation, and less on traditional cooking methods.

The shift sparked a "battle of the chefs." Jean-Pierre Coffe, who used to run two restaurants, tore into the erosion of high art. "We live in a world where everything, even cooking, is appearance, bluff, and sequin," he said at the time.

Yet supporters say the needs of the era have changed. Indeed, a number of famous chefs have lent their names to the new methods, including Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse, Alain Senderens, and Michel Guérard. Tourlet says the restaurant scene is shifting to "two different concepts." One is based on great food, and the other on "the experience of eating out, where drinks, atmosphere, and happy times are enough, so long as the food is pretty good." The first treats food as a profession, the second as a job.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker magazine, writing presciently in the late 1990s, noted that three-star French cuisine is no longer emerging from the "commonplace civilization" of the Paris street. He saw it existing in a separate elite realm, "like grand opera in the age of the microphone." It is "the unforced superiority of the cooking in the ordinary corner bistro ... that seems to be passing."

Be that as it may, the film "Ratatouille," a Disney/Pixar production, has captivated French audiences. People are applauding at the end of it. A Pixar team spent a week inside Paris kitchens to portray an authentic feel. No mention of sous vide is made, but the chief villain, a Napoleonic head chef, is trying to parlay the restaurant's former three-star status into a line of frozen foods.

Fabienne Duault, assistant chef at the three-star Le Meurice, says Ratatouille is a "realistic portrayal" of a great Paris kitchen. Her parents own a small restaurant and go to the market every morning. But she says that sous vide is a good solution for busy restaurants. Still, she adds, "No one in a restaurant like this would do that. The customers would know, and anyway the chefs love their work."

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