Nicholas Farrell, journalist and travel writer for the British Telegraph newspaper -- notorious for a haphazardly defending Silvio Berlusconi after he allegedly hired underage female prostitutes -- is back to riling up trouble, this time testifying as to bleak state of contemporary French cooking, stating his last gastronomically oriented trip to France was "so depressing that it made me lose the will to eat," adding "French restaurant food is a national disgrace." Farrell has managed to vex not only the entirety of the French culinary world, but chefs everywhere, with his unrealistic gastronomic demands, no doubt entrenched in fear that he will never have a better meal than that of his nine-course, grotesque 10th birthday dinner at the Hotel Grande Bretagne.
All criticisms of Farrell aside, there has been a paradigm shift in the French culinary world due to new, soon-to-be-implemented restrictions requiring strict classification of dishes served at any restaurant in metropolitan France as either "home cooked" or not. These regulations, known as the fait maison laws, are supposed to support restaurants that use fresh produce and meats, as well as make most of their sauces and dishes completely from scratch. There have been a variety of claims by cooks, critics, and connoisseurs regarding the practicality of such laws, and as our valued clients seeking only the finest dining experience while in France, we'll give you the scoop on what's really important to discern regarding the fait maison laws while you're on your French gastronomic road trip.
It may seem odd that a country whose cuisine has world heritage status would need such a law, and of course, there are plenty of restaurants across France serving spectacularly fresh cooked meals. However, middle-tier restaurants have faced considerable criticism for serving industrially prepared foods at fancy bistro prices; a survey conducted by the catering union Synhorcat determined that over 30% of restaurants (excluding cafeterias, bars, and fast food joints) used industrially prepared foods. Cooks and restaurant owners argue that French labor laws are to blame for the negative impact on French dining; the 35-hour work week doesn't allow prep cooks the time to prepare homemade salads, sauces, appetizers, and deserts -- which means more industrially prepared foods. Furthermore, national insurance costs have more than doubled in the last decade, which along with the increased cost of employment, has both driven up prices and reduced quality.
The fait maison laws will come into effect in January of 2015, and the optimum way to taste the finest French cuisine at the best prices will be to take note of the government "homemade" logo found on menus, and know when to take them seriously. According to the decree, a "home cooked" dish's ingredients will have undergone no major modification, but there are so many exceptions that in many occurrences, it's not worth taking the logo seriously. Vegetables, excluding potatoes, which have been peeled, sliced, or diced outside the restaurant premises can be rewarded with the "home cooked" logo. Ultimately, as several chefs have pointed out, items prepared on different premises can qualify as homemade under certain conditions, thus undermining the critical goals of the reform.
So how can you get the best gastronomic experience while touring France, you ask? Your best bet is to avoid middle-tier, chain restaurants that are able to pass off dishes as "home cooked" by following the most basic statues of the decree, for example, by having all of their non-potato vegetable products prepared at commissary kitchens, sometimes days in advance. Fortunately a majority of French restaurants have long considered using fresh, home cooked ingredients an integral part of their atmosphere and dining experience. To get the tastiest meals at the best prices, find smaller, more remote restaurants (think chateau bistros) that are popular among the locals, and if you're feeling adventurous, ask for recommendations! It's easy to find good food in France if you know where to look, but you'd be foolish to think you can find amazing food everywhere, every time. The fait maison laws, while well-intentioned, are doubtful to assist in that regard.