20 JUNE 2015

PARIS – Mon dieu!  France is in the gravest  peril.

France has always been the mother of gastronomy with a noble tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages.   The names of great chefs like Escoffier, Careme and Prunier  are shining stars in the firmament of grand cuisine.

These luminaries  must be turning in their graves as France forgets its noble gastronomic traditions and plunges into industrialized food preparation worthy of airline swill.

My father, Henry Margolis, was part owner of New York City’s renowned Café Chambord, which was America’s leading French restaurant in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I used to work in the kitchen chopping vegetables, stirring sauces, and watching the burly, ruddy-faced cooks from Normandy produce dishes of exquisite taste and noble character.

Such was the tradition of fine, classic French food until Socialism in the form of the late French President Francois Mitterrand drove a carving knife into the art of cooking.  The unfortunate the advent of “cuisine minceur” – tiny dollops of tasteless glop designed for weight-watching women and overweight mice also injured France’s gastronomy.

Mitterrand imposed a 35-hour workweek on France that remains to this day, damaging France’s economy.  Restaurants could no longer keep one shift for lunch and dinner.  A full second shift was needed – something that many small restaurants and cafes simply could not afford.  

At the same time, formation of the European Common Market led to ingredients coming from ever further away: tomatoes from Spain or Turkey, vegetables from Eastern Europe.  This means food lost its freshness and nutritional quality.  Previously, restaurateurs knew the farmers who supplied their produce and meats.  No longer.

The next blow to France’s gastronomic traditions came from the arrival of American fast food, which French rightly call “le mal bouffe.”  According to Gresham’s famous law, cheap currency drives out the good.   So it was with France’s food.

After a slow start, fast food in France eventually seized a large part of the market, particularly youngsters with no sense of gastronomy or brains.  Horror of horrors, today French teens and 20-somethings feed primarily on supermarket sandwiches or ghastly little dried out burgers.  Fast food, loaded with salt, fat and chemicals, makes people fat, and may contribute to many diseases. 

Their parents eat at home because of high taxes imposed on restaurants and tight budgets.

Meanwhile,  French cuisine has been silently invaded by the plague of frozen prepared foods.  Today, seven out of ten French restaurants, according to recent surveys, use partially or all frozen and/or pre-prepared foods to serve their unwitting clients.  Giant firms supplying frozen dishes to restaurants have grown into an $11 billion annual business.

When you go to one of Paris’ charming little bistros or brasseries, the meal you order usually comes out of a tiny kitchen in the basement run by an immigrant from West Africa.   All those famed dishes on the menu –  lamb and veal stew,  kidneys, chicken in mushroom sauce, beef bourguignon,  steak tatar, tarte tatin, crème brule – are usually frozen in giant factories outside Paris and shipped to restaurants.

They come in large boxes from freezer trucks or “sous vide,”  that is, sealed in a  vacuum in  plastic bags, and then steamed for six hours before being sent to the restaurant customer. Such dishes are microwaved with the addition of reconstituted powdered sauces and flavorings.

Most restaurants in France make use of other pre-prepared or frozen ingredients like diced vegetables, frozen seafood and deserts.    Few eateries, it seems have the time, space or money to employ traditional kitchen staffs to prepare food.

Fake cheese made from soy oil and chemicals is widely used for pizzas and lasagna. Why not? Fresh ingredients last for up to three days; frozen ingredients for at least six months.  Proper management of perishable inventory  is the key to profit and loss in the restaurant business.      

Restaurants and bistros must fight against the ever-growing competition from chain eateries offering predigested food at ruinously low prices.  The only way individual operations can compete is by dishing out airline-style frozen foods and slashing staff.  Independent restaurants in France, once its national pride, are dying at an ever-increasing rate.

Bread, France’s staple, has been debased and debauched.   Today, 90% of bread is pre-frozen white gunk sold in supermarkets and so-called “boulangeries (bakeries).” An entire generation of young French has grown up never knowing the glorious taste of traditional crusty French baguette bread.   That’s because to make it, the baker must knead his dough at night, then bake it at dawn.  Real French baguette bread only last for the day and must be bought fresh daily. 

As France’s once revered gastronomy sharply declines, Italy, its cultural rival since the Renaissance, offers a welcome alternative.  Italian law mandates that all restaurants list the origin of their foods and whether fresh, frozen or semi-prepared.  For such an unruly country, Italy has observed this sensible law.

As a result, Italy offers far more tasty, wholesome food than France.  Equally important,  French are huge carnivores of animals, fish and fowl.  Italians eat a much healthier diet with lots of vegetables, olive oil, fruits and complex carbohydrates.   That’s one good reason there are Italian restaurants everywhere and a declining number of French restaurants.

Sadly, most French can no longer eat French food in restaurants.   My own doleful experience is that half the meals I eat out in France range from disappointing to downright bad.  Happily, French women are still marvelous cooks.  They can somehow manage to work eight hours in the office, have their cinq a sept romantic affaire, and still get home in time to prepare a delicious dinner for their happy husbands and kiddies.


Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2015



This post is in: France

One Response to “TO ARMS, FRENCH”

  1. No matter how much influence fast food may have on modern man, it still only satisfies those, who eat to live. I enjoy food so much, that I can honestly say, I live to eat. Having been spoiled by my French mère for the first 22 years of my life, I have never been able to adjust to fast food, because gourmet dining was a way of life, whenever possible. During the war it was the herbs, spices and sauces, that turned a lot of rationed surrogate food into something edible. And whenever we ate fish, it was always accompanied by wine, because as my mother would say “Poisson sans boisson est poison”. Maybe a culinary renaissance will avoid the extinction of that age old French tradition.

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