Fait Maison

Have you ever seen a “Home-Made”sign in front of a restaurant while driving down the road and wanted to stop for that apple pie with vanilla ice cream? If you are only slightly annal then you might pause, knowing full well that commercial establishments are not zoned for residential, wondering whose home those delights were actually made in. On further reflection you might believe that “Home-Made” is similar in status to “New and Improved” and you should speed up. Do you still believe that your favorite breakfast joint makes the corn beef hash or baked beans from scratch?

Home-Made is just starting to become the next hot foodie topic. We have all seen the hot new chef on the cooking network and blindly assume that all chefs in top restaurants make everything from scratch. However, trends begun at establishments like the Willy Street Coop, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc. towards understanding what you are actually eating has been gathering steam; the main stream media is just now catching on to the new national/global movement towards real food. More and more local restaurants are highlighting their local ingredients on the menu, Farmers’ Markets are popping up everywhere and many regional and national grocery store chains are focusing on “local” produce, albeit at much higher prices than the conventional commercial versions they prefer to sell.

If you were part of the business conference scene during the 1980s into the early 1990s then you remember the rubber chicken, poorly timed service and generally under cooked meals. Then magically that all started to change in the mid to late 1990s as sous vide became popular in the larger convention oriented hotels chains. The food was consistently cooked, all 600 or 700 participants served in a relatively short time-frame and the food quality improved significantly. Sous vide has been around for a long time, since 1799, but only started to gaining popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. By itself, it is a legitimate cooking method that has many benefits however there is a dark side.

We have long had commercial bakeries supplying restaurants with their daily bread. We have commercial pastry shops serving up flour-less chocolate cakes, fresh fruit tarts, cream brulée, etc. to our restaurants. One way to improve margins is to reduce employment costs, cutting out high-end patisseries and boulangers is one approach. Sous vide has created an industry that commercially prepares meals, flash freezes them and delivers them to our local restaurants where the top chef is reduced to a re-heater expert only in the use of a microwave or hot water bath. We all loose as individuality is lost in the shuffle, local employment diminishes, and local ingredients are absent; restaurants loose creativity and sink to the least common denominator.

The drive for profits and industrial consolidation is running headlong into the groundswell demand for more “local”. Artisan chefs are not receiving the credit they deserve. France, where else, took the first step to ensure that consumers know where their food is made. The French National Assemble passed a law on 27 June requiring every item made in a restaurant be labeled ‘fait maison’ on the menu. Those menu items not identified as being ‘fait maison’ are presumed commercially prepared at some remote site. Next time you are in Paris, wondering whether or not a restaurant’s ravioli includes Polish horse meat or braised boar, check the menu and order ‘fait maison’ with a greater degree of certainty that you will get what you want along with the knowledge that it truly was prepared for you by the chef. Of course the chef could tuck in horse meat or prepared, sous vide, the ravioli last year and froze it only to take it out of the freezer when you ordered it. Ultimately restaurants run on margins not reviews.

Applaud France for once again putting consumer interests over those of making money by sleight of hand. Industrially prepared food exists and will continue to exist at our Fast Food restaurants, they make no pretenses. they will continue to sell their products at low prices, at low margins and making it up in volume. Costs are keep low by mass purchasing power and centralized food production. If you don’t like that, don’t eat there. But respect them for not trying to pull the wool over your eyes and start questioning all the “home-made” claims you encounter, the answers might just surprise you.

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