A version of this article appeared May 18, 2013, on page A8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: France’s Plat du Jour: Frozen Meals.
Written by Gabriele Parussini
Rising Costs for Labor and Food Have Many Chefs Turning From Fresh Ingredients to Premade Dishes
« ELANCOURT, France—When Jean-Luc Madec opened his restaurant west of Paris more than 20 years ago, he would get up at 3 a.m. and race to the city’s wholesale market to select the best fresh food.
Nowadays, he can sleep in. With high labor costs eating into his bottom line, Mr. Madec uses frozen ingredients—and even complete main courses—for the dishes served at Les Templiers.
« It’s the only way we can survive, » he said. « But it’s also killing French cuisine. »
France is a country that prides itself on the quality and sophistication of its food—Unesco listed the Gallic meal as an global treasure and more than a third of the 18 million annual visitors to Paris put fancy restaurant dinners at the top of their to-do list, according to a 2010 survey by the Paris-Ile-de-France Tourism Committee.
But 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.
Instead, they have progressed from buying frozen vegetables and the like to outsourcing more and more work to industrial suppliers in an attempt to keep their businesses viable.
« Frozen food got a foot into restaurant kitchens two decades ago, and kept the door open to industrially prepared dishes, » said Patrick Rambourg, a culinary historian who worked on France’s application to have its cuisine recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
« Today, most restaurants in this country serve food that has been cooked elsewhere, » he said.
To be sure, France remains a beacon for talented chefs who devote hours to meticulous preparation of fresh food in their kitchens. France has the most three-star Michelin restaurants in the world after Japan, and leads in the one- and two-star categories.
Of the 80,000 table-service restaurants in France, fewer than 10% have labels certifying that most of their ingredients are fresh and that the dishes are cooked on site, said Gérard Guy, head of CPIH, one of the country’s largest restaurant and hotel organizations.
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.
But since having the label is considered good for business, Mr. Guy said it was fair to assume that most of those that don’t have a label are using a lot of frozen ingredients or industrially prepared dishes—or both.
Restaurateurs started buying dehydrated meat and fish stock in the 1960s, allowing them to skip long hours of preparation and simplify the cooking of sauces.
In the 1990s, frozen ingredients went from the family refrigerator, where they had been made popular by the rising rate of working women, to restaurant cold rooms. Industrially prepared food followed in the 2000s.
Mr. Madec said the economic gain for his business from buying prepared food is too big to pass up. Sitting at one of Les Templiers’ tables, he takes bœuf bourguignon, the classic dish prepared with beef braised in Burgundy red wine, as an example.
Adding up the price of fresh meat, wine and vegetables and the labor costs, a portion of the stew costs Mr. Madec €3.53 (about $4.50) to make. Ready-to-serve portions from Davigel, a unit of Nestlé SA, NESN.VX +0.37% allow him to trim that to €3.17 per serving.
The 10% savings is significant at a time restaurant profit margins are thin.
« As a cook I hate it, but the price pressure leaves me with no alternative, » Mr. Madec said, who charges €18 for the dish but says profit is still scant once other costs are counted.
Independently owned restaurants in France accounted for 60% of Davigel’s €800 million in sales last year, up from 40% in 2000, said marketing manager Ignace de Villepin.
The company has recently upgraded its product line, which includes classic meat dishes as well as desserts. Others, including the German wholesale giant Metro AG, MEO.XE +1.64% are also feeding demand from restaurants.
Restaurant owners argue that the 36.3% increase in real terms in France’s minimum wage since 1990 has forced them to cut costs aggressively to preserve their profit margins.
In 1995, Les Templiers’ lowest-paid employee cost Mr. Madec €12,610 a year. By 2012, that salary had doubled to €25,153, while inflation over the period was 33%.
Unions say pay should be even higher.
« Restaurant staff works nights and weekends, » said Denis Raguet, a union leader at Force Ouvrière. « It’s not an easy job. »
Governments have tried to give restaurants a break. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, cut the value-added, or sales, tax on restaurant meals to 5.5% in 2009 from 19.6%. In exchange, restaurateurs committed to cut prices, hire an additional 40,000 people over two years and pay employees more.
But Socialist President François Hollande, arguing that businesses didn’t stick to their end of the deal, plans to increase the tax rate to 10% next year as he struggles to raise more money to repair the country’s finances.
The growing dependence on prepared food has sparked a backlash from some restaurant owners who still make everything in their kitchens, including Xavier Denamur, who owns five restaurants in central Paris.
Helped by the recent discovery across Europe of horse meat in frozen dishes labeled as beef—which exposed the lack of checks in the processed-food chain—he has lobbied for French authorities to force restaurants to disclose where their food comes from.
« It’s the client’s right to know what’s on the plate, » said Mr. Denamur. « Otherwise it’s fraud. »
The extent of the practice is unknown to many diners.
« I guessed not everything was homemade, but I thought it was exceptional practice, like little white lies, » said Marie Gibert, a 23-year-old fashion photographer who said she dines out once a week on average.
Worried by what they view as declining standards, a panel of 15 top French chefs, including Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon, started a new quality label in April that will be awarded only to establishments that prepare their own food.
A diner « needs to be able to tell the difference between restaurants who have staff cooking in the kitchen and those who use microwaves to reheat industrial dishes, » said Mr. Ducasse.
Politicians are joining the fray, too. A group of Socialist lawmakers is working on a draft bill it hopes to submit to Parliament by the summer that would force restaurants to list dishes obtained from industrial suppliers on their menus—a practice already in place in Italy, Europe’s other culinary giant.
Mr. Madec, the restaurant owner, said the fallout could be harsh.
« We all agree in principle, » he said, « but if that bill passes, businesses like mine will be wiped out. »
Write to Gabriele Parussini at firstname.lastname@example.org