Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Restaurant Cooking and "Fait Maison"

Unagi terrine -- Pacific Rim Restaurant, Ann Arbor
I have two food experiences on my mind today.

First experience: last night, we ate at Pacific Rim restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. Every dish was delightful. You see above the Japanese-style eel (unagi) appetizer, topped with seaweed. Under the quite generous portion of fish: a layer of avocado slices on a timbal of rice. The sauce was similar to that served with unagi sushi. I asked about the eel, which is smoked: the restaurant receives it vacuum packed. Each separate ingredient was delicious alone and in combination with all the other tastes. And in my opinion, the presentation was perfectly matched to the food -- not too showy, but genuinely attractive. I'm not usually so effusive, but this dish was a masterpiece.

Second experience: Reading recent news stories about a new law just taking effect in France. In the New York Times today are two stories: "Made in House? Prove It" by Elaine Sciolino and "French Food Goes Down" by Mark Bittman. The Guardian covered this news last week in "Will France's 'fait maison' law save its culinary reputation?" The law is complicated, and if you want to know the details, by all means follow one of these links.

In sum: the new French law requires that restaurants there disclose whether they actually prepare dishes in the kitchen, or buy them from mass-production gourmet food facilities and simply reheat or even microwave them. Actually, the law is very weak, allowing many dubious practices to continue. And if a restaurant says nothing, it's assumed that they obtain the food from suppliers of some sort. If restaurants want to indicate that they make it in house, they are permitted to display a symbol designating that they DO. (So French, no?)

"Rich sablefish marinated in miso and sake, pan roasted
with a soy-tamarind sauce and served over sautéed
nappa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and Korean vermicelli noodles"
-- description from the Pacific Rim menu
You can see above my choice of a main course last night. The sablefish, an Alaskan-caught species which the restaurant receives fresh, has a delicate and velvety texture, and was delicious with the soy-tamarind sauce. The vegetables were also delicious. I'm persuaded that every vegetable came into the Pacific Rim kitchen raw and un-shredded (though I didn't ask if that was the case).

Here's what puzzles me: if a little restaurant in a little town like this can make all these house-prepared dishes with skill and imagination -- what's the matter with the French? They invented most of the ideas used in American restaurants, though it's true this Asian-fusion cuisine is not due directly to French chefs.

Hamachi (yellowtail) served
with soba noodles, watercress-daikon salad and a soy-ginger vinaigrette

Len ordered a completely different fish with a different preparation -- Hamachi with soba noodles. We shared both dishes. All so imaginative and delicious!

A quote from the Guardian article: "A survey carried out by French catering union Synhorcat suggested 31% of restaurants (not including cafeterias, bars and fast food outlets) used industrially prepared foods. Others claim the proportion is much higher – Xavier Denamur, restaurateur and fresh-food campaigner and filmmaker, carried out his own personal survey, which took him to dozens of restaurants throughout France. He believes closer to three quarters of restaurants relied on industrially produced food."

A quote from Sciolino: "...there is broad consensus that consumers need to be warned when their boeuf bourguignon has been vacuum-packed with chemical additives, or their escargots à la Bourgogne made with soy filler and rehydrated garlic."

Everyone doubts that this new law will really work the way consumers wish it would, especially because the food processing industry has stonewalled effective regulation, but also because the rules are pretty weak and inconsistent and there won't be enough inspections to even see who's telling the truth.

Having heard Lenny mention that it was my birthday, the waitress brought this fabulous warm chocolate cake.
Obviously, the Asian fusion theme isn't part of the dessert menu!
Bittman says: "By relying increasingly over the years on fast and pre-prepared food in most arenas of our lives, we — including, at this point, the celebrated French — have allowed un-fresh food to take over. There are exceptions, of course — part of my work is looking for them — but that’s exactly what they are. The fait maison logo does nothing to address the fact that chains and pre-prepared food now dominate the restaurant industry globally. And whether it’s a chain, school, hospital, workplace, prison or restaurant, there’s only occasionally reason to expect fresh ingredients prepared on the premises."

I'm not really persuaded that Bittman's pessimism is justified. Last night wasn't the only good meal I've eaten recently. But I guess I'm just very lucky to have access and afford such foods.

The "fait maison" logo


~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae Happy Birthday!!!
I knew your birthday was this week but I haven't been able to get to my notes on my other computer because my mouse died! I'm on the laptop which has the bare minimum on it. Happy, Happy Birthday Mae!!!

I'm crushed to think that French restaurants are not on the up and up with their delivery of food. What a shame! I will have to read that article. Like you, I can't understand why your lovely meals were created on premise and such is not the case in some/most French restaurants. Gee, I hope they aren't the ones with the Michelin stars. I don't know Mae, the world of food is changing so quickly and not always for the better. Im so glad we drop up in a time when things were still fairly "real." Thanks for sharing this info Mae, btw, I love eel!

Tamara said...

Fascinating news about the French. Its not surprising to me that many restaurants in France buy in their food, it's probably one way to ensure a level of quality the public expects. Sadly. I also know that the French are not generally great at following laws, and possibly not also good at regulating them. I can only hope that the move to regulate the prodction of fresh food will move rstaurant owners to at least think about it. Looks like your dinner was delightful. Thanks..

Adria said...

The issue is actually pretty complex. First of all, there are indeed the "rip off" type of restaurants located in very touristy spots. Their menus are a mile long, offering anything from crepes to pizza to coq au vin. This is indeed a shame to the French culinary tradition. But there is a second main issue that provides the reason why the better restaurants are struggling to maintain quality: The French taxation system, which has become more and more difficult. Each employee hired costs the employer almost the double of that employee's salary (that is to pay for the extensive social charges). Waitstaff have actual salaries, healthcare, vacation time etc. So without going into all of the financial and legal details, the bottom line is it has become very expensive for restaurant owners to keep their heads above water. An anecdote: One particular restaurant that I know is always packed and the prices are kind of high. The owner confided in someone I know, saying he was having difficulty staying in business! This is the sad reality today in France. I hope the government will listen to our restaurant owners and loosen some of the financial constraints...

Mae Travels said...

To Tamara and Adria,
The many complex issues you mention are definitely covered by the articles I linked to, and by many other recent ones.

The hearings about the law must have been very interesting, as they seem to have discussed these issues, as well as the issue of the competition between traditional ways (now very difficult to maintain because of labor laws) and new ways including proliferation of chain restaurants.

The reaction seems to be to try to restore some of the old standards, while trying to please many competing interests.