Secrets of French restaurants

The French love food, but it reaches a whole different level when someone you know works in food. My husband’s cousin went to a “lycée hôtelerie” which is a specialized high school to go into the hospitality industry. He studied cooking, and the whole family looks forward to his menus every year for Christmas eve, and we take every opportunity to ask him our food and wine questions. Recently, during a birthday party, he was telling us some of the behind-the-scenes secrets of French restaurants (and maybe restaurants around the world, but he’s only ever worked here).

For example, a lot of places get “potato pulp” delivered, which is just potatoes already peeled and mashed a bit. People were a bit scandalized, but he said it’s still a fresh product, and the chef still has to flavor it and present it correctly. It’s just this way, the restaurant doesn’t have to hire one person to sit there peeling potatoes all day.

Since we were eating cake, he told us that a lot of pâtisseries order the genoise and other parts of the cake and put it together themselves. So this was probably why my MIL had trouble getting the cake she wanted before noon. If it’s a cake they make entirely by themselves (a lot of the things with cream), it takes longer. This revelation caused even more scandal, because things like genoise and ladyfingers are so easy to make yourself, why don’t they? But again, it’s a question of time and manpower. If you want to be able to offer people twenty different kinds of cake on a daily basis, either you don’t sleep, or you do some culinary cut and paste.

However, it’s not like they buy their potato pulp or genoise from the local grocery store. There are specialized companies that make things that you can’t buy unless you’re a restaurant. So the quality is still there, even if the process has been mechanized.

My MIL gave me gift certificates for cooking classes at the cafe run by one of this cousin’s old teachers. This weekend I did a macaron class. And there were even more secrets revealed!

I already knew that Ladurée is all machine made, but I didn’t know that most macarons you get almost anywhere have probably been frozen. In part due to the same time/manpower issue, but also because unless you like really crunchy macarons, freezing and letting them come back up to room temperature makes them softer.

I found it interesting to hear that egg whites are sold to professionals in a more ready-to-use form. This has the advantage of making them more sanitary, and keeping the quality regular, since you can get exactly 100g of egg whites each time. Though I’ve never noticed a big difference in baking with large versus extra large eggs, on a professional scale, being able to control things like that makes sure everything comes out the same way for everyone.

For me, knowing all of this does not making anything less delicious. But some people were quite upset to learn that things aren’t made 100% from scratch. Does any of this surprise you? Will you be asking if your next gâteau is “fait maison”? (I’m not even sure they legally have to tell you, and if they put it together themselves, technically they still “made” it.)

8 thoughts on “Secrets of French restaurants”

  1. A friend of mine works for a big industrial catering company and he says it’s amazing how many restaurants have things delivered pretty much ready made. More even than what you described, and even restaurants with Michelin stars.

    On the one hand, I think people should judge the product for how it tastes and pay what they think it’s worth, but on the other hand, if people decide if a price is reasonable based on something being made from scratch, it’s a bit dishonest if it’s not.

    1. I think that’s what bothers people most, paying more for something when you think it’s from scratch. But is it for the time, the expertise, or the taste? All three? Do we pay more Michelin stars because they’re sitting there peeling potatoes by hand or because the chef went to a fancy school or because they do creative things with food? I have a friend who sells baked goods at craft fairs and on Etsy, and working out how much to charge can be hard . . . too much, people won’t pay, too little, they won’t think it’s that good! If the big restaurants started charging less, would people still think it’s that good? So many questions! I much prefer discussing stuff like this than political debates with the in-laws, lol.

  2. A macaron class sounds great! I suppose if it’s literally just the potatoes have been peeled and smashed a bit, that’s one thing. If they were using dehydrated potato flakes or something or microwaving pre-made things I’d be a bit more put off.

  3. Super interesting! There’s been a lot of discussion lately here in Paris about which restaurants serve home-made food. I don’t have any issues with food being semi-transformed upon arrival to restaurants, but I do have issues with those that serve completely pre-made canned or frozen foods and then just reheat them and pass them off as their own!

    Also, C in his previous life planned on becoming a baker so he could get a visa for the US, so he did a patisserie course and ended up doing a stage at Pierre Hermes. He spent 3 mo learning how to make those “damn macarons” (in his words lol), so I can say that the ones at Pierre Hermes are still hand-made (or at least were until a few years ago).

    1. I’m always wary of places that put “fait maison” next to some desserts, because then it’s like, what are the others?? Probably frozen. I’ve definitely gotten some desserts that were still a bit cold on the inside.

      Good to know! I will have to check out his macarons the next time I’m in Paris!

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