What makes a restaurant 'a restaurant' in France?

Concerned that restaurants are increasingly using prepared foods, a French union is urging that the term 'restaurant' should legally only apply to those who cook from scratch.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
An employee serves a customer on the opening day of the Burger King restaurant at Marseille's airport in December. Under an amendment being considered by the French National Assembly, fast-food establishments – and any other meal vendors that use prepared foods – would no longer be able to describe themselves as 'restaurants' under the law.

French chef Cyril Rouquet delicately adds a splatter of his homemade beetroot and aioli sauce and places an edible flower as he dresses his dish of the day – parsley bread-crumbed fish on a bed of seasonal vegetables – for the busy lunch service in his Louvre Bouteille restaurant.

Tucked away in a side street not far from the Louvre museum, Mr. Rouquet’s restaurant receives daily deliveries of ingredients from Rungis market, the world’s largest fresh produce wholesalers.

But unions claim that this is becoming a rarity in the industry. They say that restaurants in France, long considered a mecca for gastronomy, are increasingly serving diners frozen meals or ready-to-eat plastic sealed meals, attracted by its obvious economic advantage. And one union, which represents artisanal restaurant-owners, wants to crack down on the alleged practice by redefining the word “restaurant.”

Under Synhorcat’s ambitious proposal, submitted to the French National Assembly today, the term "restaurant" should only apply to those who cook from scratch and use primary products – or ingredients that cannot be consumed without being cooked. In other words, as Synhorcat says, cuisine “with a knife and not the slash of scissors.”

“It doesn’t cost more to make your own meals, if you work in an intelligent way,” Rouquet says matter-of-factly, tossing a handful of carrot gratings and shrimp shells into a deep pot, which will be reduced to a broth later on.

'Our culture is to cook'

“Forty percent of tourists come to France for its gastronomy,” Synhorcat president, Didier Chenet, says. “And we are cheating these clients because certain restaurants buy pre-prepared meals and microwave it. That is not our culture. Our culture is to cook.”

Their proposal follows a similar initiative in April by 15 of France’s elite chefs to create the label “restaurant of quality” to promote establishments who prepare their meals in-house.

According to a Synhorcat poll, 50 percent of diners do not trust that restaurants serve freshly prepared meals.

This proposition is inspired by the “artisanal” baker trade name, introduced in 1995, which distinguishes between bakeries that machine-produce bread and those that bake their own bread from scratch.

In France, there are many existing culinary labels recognized under the law. For example: "organic"; "pure," referring to cold meats; "free-range"; "artisanal"; "traditional"; "natural," referring to non-treated food; "terroir," referring to culinary preparation from a certain region; and "fait maison," or "in-house."

But French fast-food unions argue that adding "restaurant" to this list is elitist and confusing, given the universality of the word. Not surprisingly, they have overwhelmingly opposed the amendment.

A restaurant, by any other name...

“By the French definition of ‘restaurant,' it is a place where people can dine, where they can eat,” Dominic Bénézet, spokesman for the fast-food union SNARR says.

“Whether they propose fresh meals or not, it takes nothing away from the fact that people come to dine,” he adds.

Mr. Chenet insists that he's not on a crusade against the fast food industry but rather to promote transparency in French gastronomy.

“In the US, McDonald's would never pretend to be a restaurant. You may eat in a diner or a grill, but fast-food joints are never considered restaurants,” Chenet says.

“In France today, anyone can be called a restaurant.”

According to a Synhorcat study in April, 31 percent of restaurant owners admitted using industrial practices in their establishments. Chenet says this figure could be higher – taking in account those who did not own up to this practice.

Bénézet agrees that restaurants should promote in-house cuisine – but not to the detriment of those using industrial practices.

“I don’t see why a restaurant owner cannot use grated carrots delivered in a sachet. It takes nothing away from the fact that they are carrots,” he says. “If the restaurant owner must have someone come in to wash, peel, and cut carrots – it’s a cost to the customer. Is the customer prepared to pay this extra cost?”

Freshly prepared premium

According to an April poll, the answer is yes – at least for some. One in three French people would be prepared to pay more for the guarantee of freshly prepared meals in restaurants.

At Rouquet’s restaurant, salesman Luc Girardot is feasting on the dish of the day. He is willing to pay more for a meal that is guaranteed to be freshly prepared. But within reason. “Up to 10 percent, but no more,” he says.

At the bar, lawyer Geoffroy Carnivet, is also devouring a meal in his lunch hour. For him, it’s more about honesty. “Just because it’s frozen doesn’t mean it’s bad,” he says. “But it’s important to be transparent.”

For the moment, Synhorcat has a long battle ahead of them. In a pre-hearing earlier this month, the amendment was withdrawn, under pressure – Chenet says – from the powerful fast food lobby.

Despite the setback, Chenet will continue his battle. Otherwise, he says, “Tomorrow our cuisine will no longer be what it is today.”

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