The new French food regulations (“fait maison”) are poorly designed

by on July 23, 2014 at 3:15 pm in Food and Drink, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

Elaine Sciolino is pretty critical.  She writes:

A new consumer protection law meant to inform diners whether their meals are freshly prepared in the kitchen or fabricated somewhere off-site is comprehensive, precise, well intentioned — and, to hear the complaints about it, half-baked.

Public decree No. 2014-797, drafted and passed by the French Parliament and approved by the prime minister, went into effect last week. It allows restaurateurs to use the logo if they have resisted the increasing temptation to buy ready-made dishes from industrial producers, pop them in the microwave and pass them off as culinary artistry.

It doesn’t seem to be working to encourage quality:

French fries, for instance, can bear the “fait maison” symbol if they are precut somewhere else, but not if they are frozen. Participating chefs are allowed to buy a ready-made pâte feuilletée, a difficult-to-make, multilayered puff pastry, but pâte brise, a rich pastry dough used to make flaky tart shells, has to be made on-site. Cured sausages and smoked hams are acceptable, while ready-made terrines and pâtés are not.

…Périco Légasse, a food critic for the weekly magazine Marianne, wrote: “ ‘Homemade’ doesn’t mean freshly made. A dish totally prepared with frozen products, even if they come from a Romanian slaughterhouse, can enjoy this happy distinction as it was cooked on-site.”

Mark Bittman piles on.  I would stress there is no substitute for consumers who demand the right kind of food and who otherwise won’t buy it.

Widmerpool July 23, 2014 at 3:33 pm
Ken July 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm

My limited experience eating in restaurants in France matches this article. I found most restaurants there boring and bland. I expect that there are a few truly fantastic places, but a lot of dreck. But, I found prepared French food products to be phenomenal. The butter, cheese, eggs, pastry, bread, roast chicken, pate, and produce on offer in shops were the food highlight of the trip, and a much more consistently high quality than what I had in restaurants.

In comparison, I find most American prepared food products bland and generally bad, but find it easy to find a restaurant I enjoy (and for a good price).

Rahul July 23, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Could it be related to relative labor price? i.e. more expensive the labor better is prepared food over restaurants.

Ken July 23, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Could be. Like Tyler’s favorite restaurants in the DC area, the Parisian prepared food sellers I found tended to group together and have very small shops. So, more intense competition, plus the reduced cost of renting a larger space for a restaurant. Also, the shops needed far fewer people, which lowers the labor cost.

Ken July 23, 2014 at 7:13 pm

I should have said – “reduced cost from not having to rent a larger space for a restaurant.”

Adrian Ratnapala July 24, 2014 at 12:52 am

My impression had simply been that France is a very well developed food culture — they know what they like and they know the correct way of making it. This means restaurants execute the same old things very well, and so can the food packagers. But this trait is more desirable in packaged food than restaurant fare.

As for bland, well its only bland after you are bored of it. It doesn’t help that food culture developed to a high art in a time and place where even pepper was an exotic luxury good.

Ken July 24, 2014 at 10:32 am

My surprise regrading the restaurants came from the country’s reputation for having such a well-developed and demanding food culture. I wasn’t looking for innovation, but rather well done classics. That I found lacking. Perhaps its just my terrible American palate.

I don’t think that French food as a category is bland – I actually love it. I just found the execution lacking in more of the Parisian restaurants that I would have expected. Sole Meuniere is, in some senses, “bland” in that it lacks spices and strong flavors. Done well, it’s absolutely stunning. Done poorly, it’s tasteless.

mpowell July 23, 2014 at 5:32 pm

I thought it was pretty easy to find a good French restaurant, although the typical price was a little higher than in the US (but quality generally much better). And don’t neglect any small foreign places of course. But the prepared food really stood out as being higher quality than what I was used to. That was more impressive in its own way.

Urso July 23, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Oikophobia. If she were Moroccan she’d be complaining about “boring” tagines as opposed to “exotic” sauce piquant.

Pierre July 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm

I was in London last week, I went to a one michelin star chinese restaurant, following the advice of one of my English friend.
It cost me around 120 euros per person. I would have eaten much better in France for 40 euros.
Just an anecdote, but I find it funny to read a British woman lecturing the French about food. Maybe it is boring (and I guess she doesn’t know the French food scene very well to say that), but most of the things are good. England cannot say so much…

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 2:06 am

I, too, found it hilarious that a Brit was complaining that French food is boring. I have only spent a few days in France, but I had more good food there than the average year in Britain. What could be more boring than traditional British food? There is a reason that there are no British restaurants around the world.

Vivian Darkbloom July 23, 2014 at 3:40 pm

It’s “fait maison”, Tyler.

Just Another MR Blogger July 23, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Food. Regulations. The French. Gotta give this one to Cowen.

Phil July 23, 2014 at 3:52 pm

I don’t understand what the objection is to a government created heuristic.

Adrian Ratnapala July 23, 2014 at 4:17 pm

I have no in-principle objection to this sort of certificate, but it doesn’t surprise me that in practice the thing is arbitrary, fiddly and perhaps useless.

Or perhaps I do have an in-principle objection. Groups like the RSPCA, the fair-traders etc. all run similar certification schemes, with various degrees of success. The fact that no non-governmental organisation was stepping up to do this particular one, might have been a hint that it was a bad idea.

Stephen July 23, 2014 at 8:49 pm

I’m with you. Its a simple way to reduce consumer search costs.

The way I read it, its just a logo licensing scheme and therefore the criteria only apply if the business wants to display the logo. It doesn’t impact the business at all if it don’t use the logo.

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 6:13 am

What possible objection could there be to the government spending my money on something unnecessary?

Phil July 24, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Heuristics are unnecessary?

dan1111 July 25, 2014 at 2:14 am

This one is.

It's Over July 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm

French people are hilarious.

Aidan July 23, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Yeah, they could clearly learn a lot from copying American culinary culture: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/Obesity_county_level_estimates_2004-2010.gif

Bill Kilgore July 23, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Who said anything about America? Why are you so embarrassingly defensive about foolishness in French culture?

It’s OK, French people- like all people- sometimes do stupid things. You won’t lose your prep-school prog merit badge for accepting that without a moronic link to a site which has nothing to do with the comment you are responding to.

To help you out, imagine- instead of this comment- I just made a really “original” ‘Merica joke and Jon Stewart is holding your hand telling you everything will be fine while you guys laugh at it. Don’t you feel better now?

Pierre July 23, 2014 at 6:37 pm

“French people are hilarious” This is quite offending, but I am always surprised to realize how French are somehow a legitimate target in the US.
If I said “American people are hilarious” everytime there is something that would appear illogical or poorly designed about the American government decisions (and God knows it would be almost every day), I guess a few people on this blog would be upset. And they would be right.

Urso July 23, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Oh, French people insult Americans all the time. Don’t even try to pretend otherwise – let’s not forget what language “chauvinism” came from. Heck, earlier in this thread you’re saying all sorts of impolite (but probably accurate) things about Englishmen. No need to get your feathers ruffled.

Brian Donohue July 23, 2014 at 7:52 pm

But…American people are hilarious. Pretty innocuous comment.

Urso July 23, 2014 at 7:58 pm

I, personally, am definitely hilarious. I don’t know about the other 299 million of you.

It's Over July 23, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Yikes, I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I proposed to my wife under the Tour Eiffel many years ago, and honeymooned in Paris a few years later; I love France and the French! But everything about this story is so exquisitely French. It’s hilarious.

Pierre July 23, 2014 at 9:08 pm

I may have overeacted.
But as someone who fairly likes the US, I often regret the high number of antifrench comments I can read online from American citizens.

Floccina July 25, 2014 at 10:08 am

I think most people who look into what our Government does would agree that the American people are hilarious.

D. Talkvil July 25, 2014 at 1:36 pm

At least Americans who visit Paris may get the impression that the French don’t like them
because of the way French shopkeepers, waiters, and other service people behave to customers. By American standards the French seem rude, and tourists take it personally, not realizing that’s just how the French behave.

As far as food goes, even French frozen and canned food tastes better to me than the American stuff.

andrew' July 23, 2014 at 6:51 pm

Is your name really Pierre? Because François would be the on the nose.

Pierre July 23, 2014 at 7:07 pm

From my pure subjective experience, French people like American people much more than the contrary.
Urso, yeah right, chauvinism is French so the French are chauvinists. And 30% of English comes from French, so the French are also 30% of all English words (especially brilliant, entrepreneur and grand).
Also you should be able to tell the difference in meaning and tone between “from my experience, English food is not better than French food” and “French people are hilarious”. I am not ridiculing a whole people.

Urso July 23, 2014 at 7:26 pm

No, but you are taking a single anonymous internet comment as some sort of proof that all Americans hate all French people. Maybe a certain *kind* of American thinks that. But another kind of American can’t get enough of you guys. Heck, America has an entire genre of best selling specifically about how great French people are. What’s the French equivalent of that?
http://www.amazon.com/Bringing-Up-B%C3%A9b%C3%A9-Discovers-Parenting/dp/1594203334
http://www.amazon.com/French-Women-Dont-Get-Fat/dp/0375710515

Pierre July 23, 2014 at 7:41 pm

France is in the top ten of the countries fan of the US ( http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/15/which-countries-dont-like-america-and-which-do/ ) Not sure the opposite is true.
75% of French people say they like the US.
A few months ago, a Republican congressman officially said ” we are not French, we don’t surrender.” The opposite with any American stereotype would be unthinkable in France.
It is probably because this blog is mostly conservative, but there is always a slightly anti-french vibe in the comments everytime the subject is about France. It gets tiring.

Brian Donohue July 23, 2014 at 7:57 pm

@Pierre

If you consider the overlap between (a) Americans who can not name more than 10 countries, and (b) Americans who aware aware that France is a country, I suspect France comes out pretty well on an American top-10 list.

American people are hilarious.

Urso July 23, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Americans like the French at a 78% rate. Looks like there was a brief but dramatic dip in the numbers during the Afghanistan (when many Americans felt betrayed by their longest-standing allies), but that went away years ago.
http://www.gallup.com/poll/167390/decade-freedom-fries-opinion-france-strong.aspx

Pierre July 23, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Well in that case, I guess I frequent too many American conservative blogs.

andrew' July 23, 2014 at 8:31 pm

Most of us like you guys fine. It is just that you are soooooo French.

Brian Donohue July 23, 2014 at 8:53 pm

@andrew’, exactly.

Steve Martin put it well: ‘Chapeau’ means hat, ‘œuf’ means egg. It’s like those French have a different word for EVERYTHING!

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 3:14 am

As an American, I’m with Pierre on this one. The reflexive anti-French sentiment among some Americans is annoying and offensive. Often, not much is meant by it, but people would do well to find another way to joke about wimpiness/snootiness/whatever.

Ken July 24, 2014 at 10:40 am

Ugh, can we stop being offended that Americans make fun of French people, and that French people make fun of Americans? Both France and America cultures have a distinct strain of chauvinism, so we make fun of each other about our differences. The French are stuffy, lazy socialists. Americans are loud, gun crazy, annoying, greedy, and unable to find France on a map of France. And, however you’re making french fries, you’re doing it wrong.

Ken July 24, 2014 at 10:42 am

* French and American cultures.

Is there really no way to edit comments after the fact? (Long-time lurker here)

Aaron Aardvark July 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm

In my neck of the woods (“progressive” Portland, OR), there is an abundance of excellent restaurants even though there is no government bureau that requires good places to eat.

andrew' July 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Is it important to subsidize chef skills?

Generally labeling lets you know of a difference you can’t tell from the surface or beforehand (e.g. MPAA ratings). If you can’t tell the difference with food, does it matter?

Urso July 23, 2014 at 6:54 pm

But wouldn’t you rather know before than after?

andrew' July 23, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Know what?

ibaien July 23, 2014 at 8:23 pm

i’ve always been curious to hear how tyler plans to reconcile his love of globalized, efficient, limited-regulation markets with his seemingly equal love for foodways, particularly ‘real deal’ cucina povera which only ever exists in the wild in grossly inefficient agrarian backwaters. my guess is some kind of Singaporean hawker market solution, where vendors can sell simulacra of the real thing to well-heeled tourists. but how long will those foods retain any kind of authenticity?

andrew' July 23, 2014 at 8:33 pm

It is actually a ruse to hide the fact that what he really loves is strip malls.

Jimmy July 23, 2014 at 8:44 pm

END THREAD.

Enrique July 23, 2014 at 8:40 pm

Tyler’s conclusion — “I would stress there is no substitute for consumers who demand the right kind of food and who otherwise won’t buy it” — sounds very snobbish … what about price?

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 3:21 am

I think it is just a simple point that what businesses provide is based on consumer demand. If most French restaurant customers demanded freshly prepared food, they would seek this out, and restaurants would cater to it and find ways to transparently show that they are preparing things freshly.

A similar point is that people like to rail against companies “not making X like they used to”. But actually, many products that are well made and last a long time do exist. They are just not widespread, because most consumers prefer the cheap plastic version.

Pierre M. July 24, 2014 at 12:17 am

” I would stress there is no substitute for consumers who demand the right kind of food and who otherwise won’t buy it.”

There’s an easy clue to get : just look at the cities transportation infrastructures : there is almost no practical way to get fresh food done at a budget in a big French city like Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nice. Just because only deep frozen food can reliablily be delivered in

londenio July 24, 2014 at 12:53 am

I’ll soon start my seventh year living in France and at some point you can tell the food in many restaurants is coming from Sodexo. The pre-prepared food phenomenon is a problem with the small bistrot. It is evident and expected that company cafeterias and highway restaurants buy pre-made stuff. High-end restaurants, make their own food and they charge you for it. But the bistrots fall in the middle: small number of staff, small number of tables, and the need to offer a wide selection of dishes, at moderate to low prices. Take two menus from two urban bistrots and they would look almost exactly the same. And the dishes would look and taste very similar.

Related comment: if you are in Paris or any French city, try the Italian restaurants. They are invariably good. Not the same experience you would get in Milan or Naples, but the offer high quality food and sometimes creative dishes. I would say the same of Spanish restaurants in France (but avoid “tapas”). Final advice: any French restaurant that offers one dish per day (i.e. no menu) is always a good choice.

prior_approval July 24, 2014 at 1:31 am

But never get pizza in France. There must be exceptions, but taking into account that the regional speciality tarte flambée can be very well done, French pizza is a disaster. Possibly because when it comes to copying, the French just aren’t that interested, apparently.

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 3:44 am

I think mid-range food is often the worst value, for the reasons you describe. If you are a tourist on a budget, it is better to go with a high-low strategy than eat at mid-range restaurants. Eat some expensive meals, and eat very cheaply (sandwiches, street food, stuff from the grocery store) for your other meals.

Ken July 24, 2014 at 10:44 am

What most surprised me about French restaurants was the size of the menus. I always had the impression that French restaurants gave you very limited options, take it or leave it, but those options were done exceptionally well. I may have read too much into a Jeffrey Steingarten article about this.

Aidan July 24, 2014 at 12:55 am

I would agree with the view that well informed consumers can be at least as important as price in determining the quality of restaurant food.

I live in Italy and, no matter what price range they’re operating in, restaurants here tend to do extremely well if they produce good food and to die a quick death if they don’t. This applies as much to places selling pizza by the slice as it does to Michelin starred restaurants. A lot of this is a result of the fact that a huge part of Italian social life revolves around discussing food and sharing information that aids people in deciding where to eat. A competitive market ensures that food is generally prepared well in most places and that the information contained in the price is more an indication of the costs of the various factors of production (ingredients, rent, labour, taxes, etc.) than of the quality of the preparation itself. In contrast, a lot of the worst places to eat in Italy are the relatively expensive ones that cater to tourists. Typically, their customers visit only once, no matter how well or badly they make their food, so they haven’t got much incentive to do a good job.

If Tyler’s comment comes across as snobbish, it may be because “eating well” is often seen as a status marker in some places, like the United States. In places like France and Italy it is simply not. Everyone expects to eat well within the limitations of their budget and the market responds accordingly.

prior_approval July 24, 2014 at 1:26 am

Well, some governments don’t stop at national boundaries when it comes to labelling (in case Prof. Cowen missed this) –

‘The Italian government has for the first time identified 600 “authentic” Italian restaurants worldwide — and 18 of them are in Chicago.

They include Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan, a President Obama date-night spot; the 84-year-old Village, 71 W. Monroe, and its sister restaurants Vivere and La Cantina, and Gaetano’s in Forest Park, whose website touts its “upscale regional Italian fusion” cuisine.

“It is a big deal,” says Robert Allegrini, president of the Italian American Chamber of Commerce-Midwest. “There’s a lot of bad Italian food out there. There’s nothing worse than overcooked, oversauced pasta.”

Said pasta does not an Italian restaurant make. Nor does a bottle of olive oil on the table and Pavarotti on the sound system.

So what does?

According to Italy’s National Institute of Tourist Research, the arm of the Italian government that decides such things, a true Italian restaurant must meet this criteria:

The menu is written in Italian; at least half of the dishes and recipes are “of the Italian tradition”; at least one employee speaks Italian; the head chef has earned a Italian cooking certificate, trained in an Italian restaurant or cooked for at least three years; at least 20 percent of the wines on the menu have the Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Denomination of Origin, seal; the olive oil is DOP-certified extra virgin, and the restaurant makes known its commitment to using DOP-certified products on the menu.’ http://www.suntimes.com/lifestyles/food/4229350-423/18-chicago-italian-restaurants-earn-authentic-seal.html#.U9CYbCjeK_h

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 3:34 am

Interesting article, thanks.

Seems like mainly a racket for selling DOP stuff. The rest of the criteria are rather pointless.

Vivian Darkbloom July 24, 2014 at 3:11 am

I’m surprised the issue of organic labeling and certification has not come up. The issues here are very similar.

In many discussions with (hilarious) French vintners and wine producers, I’ve been repeatedly told that they would go for the organic (and even demeter) label if it were not so costly to go through the certification process, record keeping, inspections, etc. Often, the only difference between a product that bears the label and one that does not is that the cost of the former has been driven up by red tape. I expect the same will be true for “fait maison”.

“I would stress there is no substitute for consumers who demand the right kind of food and who otherwise won’t buy it. ”

Well, here’s the rub. Not everyone is in a position to personally know his or her wine producers, or to know what goes on in the kitchen prior to making that order, particularly if you are not a local. I can imagine Tyler entering a restaurant in, say, Marseille and, prior to being seated, presenting his list of “demands” for “the right kind of food”:

1. The produce must be fresh, not frozen;

2. The pastry crusts must be made in-house;

3. The fish must have been caught (on line) this morning;

Etc., Etc.

I guess if you’re eating at a Michelin three-star, most of this stuff can be taken for granted, but the Michelin certification accounts for much of the elevated price. And, in the kind of places Tyler likes to frequent, he’s likely be to thrown off a calanque.

dan1111 July 24, 2014 at 3:41 am

“Not everyone is in a position to personally know his or her wine producers, or to know what goes on in the kitchen prior to making that order”

If there is a lot of demand for knowledge, restaurants can and will cater to it. For example, they can have large piles of fresh ingredients visible in the restaurant or have an open kitchen that is visible to the diners.

Vivian Darkbloom July 24, 2014 at 5:35 am

Thanks, Dan. Add to the above list:

4. I demand to see your kitchen.

Axa July 24, 2014 at 8:54 am

There’s no substitute for well informed consumers about French food……could this be linked to the 80 million tourists that each year visit France?

Perhaps it’s just about expectations. Every tourist arrives to France with high expectations and they find……mmmm, reality. The very same reality you may find at home, a nice combination of good restaurants, fast food and frauds. I don’t see a NYT op ed about the restaurant food quality in Spain. Chefs in Spain are more hardworking following by heart grandma’s recipe or tourists are less snobbish?

Personal experience, I’d like to eat my tartare without being confronted by the menu or the waiter, thanks France.

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