France should be 'a paradise for food': How a passionate contrarian is fighting for tradition

In a country where there are many crises consuming its famed cuisine, one French restaurateur is fighting for greater transparency about what appears on every plate, the CBC's Michelle Gagnon writes.

Restaurateur wants everyone to know what goes onto their plates

Paris restaurateur and food activist Xavier Denamur works outside La chaise au plafond, one of the six hip bars and bistos he owns. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Xavier Denamur is in the way. He's standing in the narrow doorway of his Paris restaurant, Les Philosophes, holding forth about bread — its sound, its smell, its look, the butter, the flour, everything.

"We should find bread like this everywhere in France, but we don't anymore," he says as waiters deke in and out, obviously practised at dancing around the man with a mouthful to say.

Denamur speaks quickly, endlessly actually, as if he might never get to the end of the story. And he may not, since what he talks about are the many crises of French cuisine.

He's not particularly troubled by criticism so often levelled at high cuisine about its lack of creativity or authenticity, but he is preoccupied with provenance.

In the last 10 years, the hyper-restaurateur has become an activist, auteur and documentarian.

The plat du jour recently at Denamur's Les Philosophes featured filet of wild hake with organic tomatoes accompanied by a gratin of squash. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Part Jamie Oliver, part Michael Moore, he's a contrarian fighting for greater transparency in French cuisine. He wants everyone to know what goes into the food the French serve — in restaurants, schools, airplanes, everywhere.

"Normally, in prepared industrial food, they mix oil, sugar and salt. You become addicted. Like drugs. You die from that."

After dotting the last 'i' on the menu scrawled on the bistro window, he settles in. Interviews are old hat. One earlier in the morning, two tomorrow — he's completely focused and yet alert to everything around him.

He quickly cites a U.K. study released this week that claims that by 2030, one-quarter of France's population will be obese and more than half will be overweight.

Junk food republic?

The Global Panel report also claims that by 2050, junk food alone will cause more disease than tobacco, alcohol and unprotected sex taken together.

It's a dire warning for a country now ranked as McDonald's second-largest market in the world.

Of course, the idea of France as a junk food republic — the title of Denamur's documentary — runs counter to the image of French food as one of the finest cuisines in the world.

But, like any industrialized country, France struggles with the public health issues surrounding industrial farming, genetically modified organisms and processed food.

Sous-chef Kandiah Rajah prepares the plat du jour at Les Philosophes, one of Denamur's restaurants in Paris. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

"We should be Eden, a paradise for food. But the burger is in fashion in France," Denamur says, beginning his takedown.

"All the bistros have started making them. Me? Never. You don't know what you're eating. It's a mix of everything. Five Guys recently opened here. They claim their food is 'homemade.' So I went to check."

Claiming an allergy to additives, he managed to get hold of a list of Five Guys' ingredients, then took the chain to task in the pages of Le Figaro.

"I said, 'Look, this is not homemade. Homemade means you don't use chemicals. A mushroom is a mushroom. It's not water, salt, mushrooms.' When you look at any ingredient, it always starts with water. Strange that."

Fait Maison

Suddenly, his eyes shift to a middle-aged woman on his left.

"Excuse me, my accountant," he says. Their conversation is efficient, quick, cordial.

Minutes later, to his right, another employee is concerned about a large document that needs faxing. "Go ahead, we'll flood their fax. It'll be good for them," Denamur replies, the charming antagonist at work again.

"A lot of disruptions, I know. But I run six businesses."

The 'Fait Maison' label, seen here in the middle of the mirror, identifies restaurants that offer homecooked food in France. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

His tiny empire of hip bistros and bars lines the better part of a block in Paris's Marais district. But he's perhaps best known nationally for contributing to the creation of a new classification for restaurants in France: Fait Maison.

"It means it's homemade, cooked on location with raw, fresh food."

Three years ago, a controversy erupted over the use of packaged, prepared foods in French restaurants.

The media coverage was extensive and often included Denamur. One report even used hidden cameras to reveal kitchens equipped solely with microwaves, proof that their boeuf bourguignon and blanquette de veau came in plastic-wrapped packs.

"Twenty years ago, people made fun of me for writing where my food came from on my menus. Ten years ago, I started fighting for more transparency and nobody wanted to follow.

"But after five or six meetings at the ministry and a change of government, after 30, 40, 50 media reports, we have a new law and a new logo to be posted in restaurants."

'Dumbest fix imaginable'

Not every restaurant in the country cares to or can afford to go the homecooked route.

And the label has its detractors, too. Culinary critic Mark Bittman called it "just about the dumbest fix imaginable," citing exemptions to the law that let foreign farm-raised and frozen foods through the door.

But Denamur defends the classification.

"It doesn't mean that it's good, but it means there aren't any chemicals in your plate. And that's the big difference, because before, 30 or 50 restaurants could be supplied by the same commercial kitchen. Like a school canteen."

'The Ministry of Foreign Affairs present high cuisine as if it is the image of France. No. The bistro is the image of France,' says Denamur. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Denamur has already been called on by Air France to consult on its food services and he's now turning his attention to schools where he'd like to see more information on what goes into making lunch.

"Most of the time, there's a central kitchen that cooks for 50,000," he stops for effect. "Fifty thousand children. There's no way it can be good. It's impossible. Politicians don't care because they're children."

At this point, Denamur is booming. One of the terrace patrons edges our way and silently gestures to lower the tone.

Denamur says all the talk has made him thirsty. As he heads inside, the customer who shushed him comments, "You're very passionate, sir."

"Oh, yes. Always," he replies, clearly not the first time he's been told.

"I'm very passionate," he repeats, as politely as the antagonist can. 

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.