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When is a restaurant not a 'restaurant?' France mulls power to decide

In France, there's dirty little secret that many people don't realize about the corner bistro – and no, it has nothing to do with chatty rats preparing vegetable stew à la Ratatouille.

More and more restaurants may not prepare the beef bourguignon or fondue in-house, instead relying on outsourced ready-made meals.

Frozen frites are grievous enough; but no one expects to be served a reheated cassoulet.

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Now the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) is reporting that a major restaurant union and group of lawmakers have joined together to propose a new measure that would ban dining establishments from labeling themselves "restaurants" if they misrepresent microwaveable food as quality cuisine.

As an amendment to a consumer-rights bill, the proposal "would limit the right to use the term restaurant to eateries where food is prepared on site using raw materials, either fresh or frozen. Exceptions would be made for some prepared products, such as bread, charcuterie and ice cream," AFP reports.

The gastronomic tradition remains such a point of pride in France that support for the proposal comes mainly from those who feel these sub-standard eateries are threatening the calibre of authentic French cuisine.

Since 1995, a law has been in place that restricts the use of the word "boulangerie" – the French word for bakery – to only those establishments that make all the baked goods from scratch.

More recently, several leading chefs who belong to the Collège Culinaire de France established a "quality restaurant" label to distinguish the establishments that value high standards.

Yet several restaurant groups are against the bill, insisting that it will further hurt employment (especially among young people) in a country that has fallen back into recession.

The opponents, who belong to an association of restaurant owners, have countered with an idea that would involve the creation of a new category, "artisanal restaurant" to demarcate places that prepare everything in-house.

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While this sounds needlessly pretentious, it does make you wonder what appellation would be chosen for the non-restaurant restaurants. Reheateries, perhaps?

Indeed, there are a growing number of web sites that underscore the anxiety over industrialized restaurant food. The AFP cites one in particular that, on its homepage, poses the questions, "How can a small restaurant offer more than 50 dishes on its menu?" and "Why do I have the feeling that I'm eating the same chocolate cake at many restaurants?" along with information about artificial flavours and frozen ingredients.

Food for thought.

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