Thursday 17 October 2019

Precooked, microwaved ...and very expensive

Imported and poor-quality food in top restaurants has sparked a scandal in Paris. But is it really any different on our own turf

Mark Cribben of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms.
Mark Cribben of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms.

Suzanne Campbell

Earlier this week, top French chef Xavier Denamur claimed that three-quarters of meals served in French restaurants, brasseries and cafes are shipped from a factory and microwaved. It's not the first time in recent years that the once untouchable French Restaurant has taken a good bashing.

In this year's World's Top 50 Restaurants list, no French restaurants made it into the top 10 with Denmark, Spain and the UK dominating the list. The French government was so concerned they called on two multi-Michelin-starred chefs - Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy - recommending stricter criteria to be introduced on food with the 'home-made' label in restaurants which currently allows frozen and vacuum-packed food.

In Ireland we have no equivalent to the French "fait a maison" (made in the restaurant) label. But we do have the same problem distinguishing imported poor-quality or stale food used in restaurant meals from locally sourced dishes made from scratch.

Are we eating microwaved foods in "good" restaurants? Is sourcing actually as Irish and local as it makes out? In the post-boom recovery of our restaurant sector, rising costs are still making it hard for restaurants to stay afloat. So is the consumer being ripped off?

There are 50,000 food businesses in Ireland and many rely on convenience foods and other shortcuts as part of their everyday offering. At a low price point that's to be expected. If we want quick convenience food there's no point asking about provenance.

But when you're paying €40 euro or more a head for a meal are you being served good quality Irish food? We know that a considerable chunk of your bill is not going towards paying for the food on your plate.

In fact, that's probably the least proportion. Wages, insurance and commercial rates paid to city or county councils in Ireland are high, as is tax on wine, let alone the mark-up restaurants take on wine as it's the easiest way to make margin.

Currently, citing local food producers on menus is vogueish and any middling to upmarket restaurant is already doing this to attract well-heeled, food aware, diners into repeat business.

In the food business this is called the "halo effect". Supporting or supplying local produce confers an air of quality across your whole menu range even if a large amount of your ingredients are imported; particularly chicken and pork. Sourcing from local farmers or at least Irish, looks good - particularly in terms of beef and lamb - but it can be very expensive in the case of fresh local seafood or vegetables.

But when does walking a tight-rope between local and imported produce extend into food fraud?

Mark Cribben, from Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms, says his business has been particularly burned by "fake" local food.

"We've had six to eight restaurants with us listed on the menu when they were not buying mushrooms from us. We've had one well-known chef list our mushrooms on his menu without buying them.

"In one case, we sold mushrooms to a business in Dublin, who discontinued the order but still sold "Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms" in their shop. The FSAI investigated it and found them non-compliant - they were selling imported mushrooms as ours.

"It's absolutely disheartening. From our point of view, unless you're dealing with a chef owner, you can sort of tell. I deliver into restaurant kitchens and I see what goes on. Some food that is said to be local comes off the wholesaler trucks."

Cutting costs is the driver of food fraud. But is it to line the restaurant owner's pocket or simply to keep a business and employees afloat? A €22 "local rib-eye steak" is also paying for the 28 compliance inspections from agencies and their associated charges that restaurants deal with on an annual basis. Water charges, outdoor tables license, oils and grease license are also paid for by your meal bill.

"Many restaurant owners say that costs are out of control, and an unfair rates system drives them in the direction of convenience," says Georgina Campbell.

"There are certainly plenty of trucks on the roads jam-packed with pre-cooked meals, pre-prepared ingredients and 'solutions' for restaurants - all sorts of ways to reduce on labour, skilled and otherwise.

"But equally there are many dedicated chefs (and owners) who put their names to the integrity of their food, and have well-earned followings for that."

Adrian Cummins, from the Restaurants Association of Ireland, says that costs for many restaurants have become unsustainable. "There's huge pressures out there in the sector. Raw materials have really risen like the price of beef, where middle men are taking a huge cut. Rates are also a big problem where in the case of Dublin, commercial rates have risen 64pc from five years ago."

Decades ago, staff and food expertise were cheap both in Ireland and France. Boning out lambs or filleting fish was done routinely in even low-grade restaurants.

As labour law changed and employees needed to be paid more with more entitlements, labour-saving devices entered the kitchen.

Pre-made puff pastry, sauces and pre-chopped veg are common in many hotel kitchens. Plenty of chefs use microwaves to heat up rice or defrost stocks and sauces.

Legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli makes a sponge cake using a plastic cup, nitrous oxide and a microwave.

Heston Blumenthal uses a microwave for perfectly cooked fennel, and there are many quality local pizza joints that will give you a microwaved pizza slice to take away that still tastes like heaven.

But where does convenience extend into ripping-off customers?

"If you're selling a product that is not what's described on your menu then that's out of hand and there are no excuses for it," says Ross Lewis of Chapter One restaurant.

"Yes, it's become more expensive to run a restaurant but don't use a product if you feel you can't sustain the price".

At the top end it's easy to see how chefs like Ross Lewis with decades-long commitment to local food are not going to change their practice but below that level how do we know what we are eating is good food?

Chef-owned restaurants are probably a good guide to quality, also chefs in the Eurotoques scheme who have a commitment among their profession to local sourcing.

"I particularly admire chefs who stand their ground for quality in touristy places where it would be easy to get away with it," says Georgina Campbell. "The Winding Stair, for example, right beside the Ha'penny Bridge, or Treyvaud's in Killarney."

Plaques around the door may be no longer relevant unless they're very recent, but look for good word of mouth on chefs from local suppliers.

As Ross Lewis says: "All good cooking starts from good shopping".

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