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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
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.