French Chefs Are Serving You Frozen Factory Food And You Don't Even Know It

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You might just want to stay right here in the ol' U.S. of A. and have a burger with fries. According to a recent survey, around 33 percent of French restaurants are committing a ghastly sin: they're serving diners factory-frozen products—an egregious transgression in a country that prides itself in creating the world's best chefs. Things have gotten so bad that everyone is busy thinking of ways to make sure you know you're getting French food the way it's meant to be cooked—from scratch. 

"In a survey conducted for the National Union of Hotel, Restaurant and Cafe Operators, a third of French restaurants acknowledged serving such factory-frozen products to clients," reported The Washington Post's Edward Cody. Given the findings of that survey, you're playing a sort of Russian Roulette with your brûlée when dining in any restaurant in France. There's a pretty good chance you're getting something you could get from the Cheesecake Factory—without all the jet lag.

But the bigger story is that number of French chefs using frozen ingredients is likely much larger than the 33 percent of French chefs honest enough to admit it. "Restaurant owners estimated that the real number is substantially higher, as many chefs were embarrassed to admit the short cuts that, in effect, hoodwink their customers," adds Cody, signaling that this number could be much higher, therefore increasing the chances you're not getting authentic French fare. 

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This probably wouldn't matter in some American backwater where Frito pies are considered haute cuisine, but this is France—where culinary technique rules, where some of the world's most complex dishes are made, where Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Joël Robuchon were born and learned how to cook the wonderful way that they do. And, c'mon, Julia Child. 

The problem of frozen-food dependency is not unlike the predicament New York City and its chefs are facing: good food and good chefs cost money. "[A] steady increase in labor costs and food prices has fueled an unexpected phenomenon: Many restaurants can no longer afford to prepare meals from fresh ingredients in their own kitchens," reported The Wall Street Journal back in May. Frozen ingredients are cheap. Full on frozen entrees are even cheaper. "Today, most restaurants in this country serve food that has been cooked elsewhere," an expert told The Journal. 

In order to combat these frozen-food-using chefs, unions and restaurant heads are trying to figure what kind of labels and certifications they can bestow on restaurants that actually do serve home-made dishes. One of the options would be changing what the word restaurant means. "The restaurant union has proposed reserving the title 'restaurant' for establishments such as Fontaine’s that cook their dishes on the premises. Others — such as chain eateries and cafes that serve reheated lunch to nearby workers — would be limited to such designations as cafe, brasserie or inn," Cody explains. McDonald's Brasserie sounds fancy right? 

The other option would be to pass laws and measures to allow restaurants to place fancy logos on their menus that would indicate their dishes were house-made. Another option is to incorporate the word "artisan" (groan). "Roland Heguy, told reporters that his organization would continue lobbying for a designation of 'artisan restaurant,' which would be granted when all the dishes are prepared on the premises," Cody explained.

And then there's the bureaucratic reality of all those fancy stickers, logos and labels, which require someone to audit and check up on these restaurants. As The Journal's Gabriele Parussini reported, under the current system, less than 10 percent of the 80,000 table-service restaurants in France have labels certifying that "most" of their ingredients are fresh, meaning that restaurants are either serving frozen ingredients or simply don't want to undergo the certification necessary to get those magic labels. 

"That number hasn't changed much in recent years, and there are several reasons restaurants might not apply for such labels, including the cost and hassle of being audited," Parussini explained. Though it's unclear whether or not that hassle is more or less than the hassle of actually making food from scratch. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.