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Nov 25, 2012 05:44 AM

What does "fait maison" at a restaurant mean?

Literally, it means homemade. In reality, it means nothing.

This was on a TV show last night. Apparently, the only rule is that the restaurant has to do something to a dish before serving it. The example was a souris d'agneau (lamb shank). It was precooked, packaged, and frozen with gravy at an industrial food factory.

The narrator/chef put the package in a microwave to heat it. Then he plated it with rice and a garnish of parsley. He sprinkled a little salt on and called for a waiter to serve it. In fact, he said he could legally call it "fait maison" just by sprinkling on the salt.That's depressing.

Contrast this with the strict legal definition of "boulanger" or "boulangerie." French law defines a boulanger as one who chooses their ingredients, kneads the dough (presumably using a machine is ok), controls the rest of the process, and does the baking on site. No stage (French word "stade" in the law) of production may be frozen.

I haven't found the history of this 1998 law. Maybe the artisan bakers wanted to protect their turf from chain bakeries and supermarkets, which can only call themselves "dépots de pain." Or maybe the chains wanted to make it too expensive for small bakeries to compete.

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    1. re: Njchicaa

      Thanks for the translation, but I think the question was rhetorical.

      TV shows are TV shows. Need I say more?
      Yes: never trust anything shown on TV that was staged for demonstrating something. After trying to direct the shooting of five food-related documentary films, I have grown quite aware of that.

      I don't expect that the show mentioned the simple fact that being able to legally call something "fait maison" does not imply that many people will do it. For the sake of demonstration, the manipulation had to be presented as a fact.

      But in real life I have never seen "Jarret d'agneau fait maison" on a restaurant menu. That would sound very, very weird.

      In the great majority of cases (and I fail to remember any case in the minority) nobody feels the need to label "fait maison" or "maison" anything that is not prepared in the kitchen from scratch. What's the point?
      Actually "fait maison" or "maison" is a fairly rare mention on any menu. And it is rarely used abusively, even if there's a possibility to do that. If someone wants to serve you ready-made crap, they will not call it "fait maison crap", they will just serve it and that's that.

      I have certainly eaten, in one restaurant or another, some stuff that was plated after reheating and bought at Metro. Probably more than once. I don't remember seeing the "fait maison" mention anywhere.

      1. re: Ptipois

        First when I said "homemade," I was thinking more of the American restaurant equivalent to "fait maison."

        Second, I had not thought much about the "fait maison" before the show, although I had seen it. Today while walking from my apartment to the Bastille market and a bit around the general neighborhood, I quickly saw two examples of "fait maison." One was in a restaurant window; the other was on the chalkboard menu.

        Honestly, I have no idea how common it is for restaurants in France to cheat on the presumed (if not legally required) understanding of "fait maison." Certainly, there have been many articles and books (not just that tv show) decrying the number of restaurants that serve pre-made, frozen main courses. Apparently this does not have to be disclosed, either. So "fait maison" would just add insult to injury.

        I think the restauranteur interviewed was really arguing for a general disclosure requirement when industrial foods are served. He also pointed out the those foods may contain all sorts of additives that would not be in any normal recipe.

        1. re: RandyB

          Yes, I understand all that. My point is that the existence of a TV show hightlighting the fact that no law (as yet) defines what can be labeled as "fait maison" cannot be held as evidence that "fait maison" is generally the object of fraud.

          And it is above all that "fait maison" is a relatively rare occurrence on restaurant menus;
          it is not worth adding to cheat the customer since, theoretically, most of what is served is already supposed to be "fait maison". When it is not, restaurateurs just serve it, they don't bother to "add insult to injury" as you say.

          "Fait maison" is used mostly for manufactured foods that *could* be made outside of the premises and generally are (terrine, confit, jams, liqueurs, some pastries, etc.) when the chef has made a point of making them himself. From which you can infer that a salad or a soup won't need to be labeled "maison", but a tarte or a terrine will. Therefore it is more likely to be a sign of personal pride than of treachery. There may be a problem with terminology, but "fait maison" is not really part of it.

          You are not the first person who brought up the comparison between restaurants and boulangeries, saying it would be good to have a legal definition for restaurants and the food they serve of the same type as the one existing on bread and boulangeries. The argument is pertinent but flawed in practice, because bread is a simple product and restaurant food is an extremely complex product. It is easy to define a boulangerie as a place where flour is mixed with water, yeast and salt, then kneaded, shaped, baked and sold. It is not so easy to define a restaurant as a place where all raw foods are transformed, cuisined, and served. Restaurant cooking is based on many different things which naturally include ready-made goods, some of them industrial or processed to various degrees (hence powdered stocks but also soy sauce, chocolate, oil, sugar, fruit purees, nougat, dried fruit, chorizo…). Where do you draw the line? If there should be a regulation on industrial foods in restaurant kitchens, defining its contents would not be an easy task.

          1. re: RandyB

            I think current news confirms the relevance of the TV comment that I paraphrased here: "He also pointed out the those foods may contain all sorts of additives that would not be in any normal recipe."

            How about horse meat as an additive? Today le Monde reports tests showing over 13% of prepared beef dishes contain horse meat. I don't think it was restaurants that really make their dishes from scratch, i.e., fait maison, that were sneaking in the horse meat.

          2. re: Ptipois

            "I have certainly eaten, in one restaurant or another, some stuff that was plated after reheating and bought at Metro" I have one friend who like Pti, delights in uncovering Metro dishes lightly altered/adulterated.
            And as always i agree with her, this time about TV, which like Hollywood, presents a different reality than that we hope for.

            1. re: John Talbott

              I can't stand it when my Metro microwave dishes are messed by restaurants. Metro does a fine job on its own.

        2. I see the term "Fait Maison" more often in traiteurs, charcuteries and specialist food shops than in restaurants and almost always between inverted commas where I think it often belongs - as in: "we're underlining our ironic (ie misleading) use of the term "fait maison" by placing it between these inverted commas"...

          In my neighbourhood, there's a butcher who chatting about this and that, happily cuts through the cellophane of the huge tubs of his "home made" pâté (apparently, he resides in a factory) and a traiteur whose suppliers leave giant cans of his "homemade" hoummous outside on the street,

          Boulangeries have gotten better for bread. However, only a small minority of the vienoisserie (croissants, pains au chocolat, chaussons aux pommes...) and pastries (éclairs, st honorés, millefeuilles...) are made on the premises.

          1. I once ate at a restaurant in London where someone at my table asked if the "insert random dessert here" was homemade. The server replied with a definitive yes, to which my dining friend answered "So it is made in house ?", the nice and a bit clueless server said "No, it is homemade but somewhere else and they bring it everyday to the restaurant...".

            So was that homemade ? (after having had the dessert, I can say it wasn't).

            On a side note. Besides a few dishes, as Ptipois mentioned, that are "usually" not homemade, and therefore benefit from the added term, when a restaurant says something is "homemade" I always feel it means everything else isn't... Needless to say I try to stay away from those restaurants.

            1. It means the item is 15% more expensive than it should be.

              1. In fact "fait maison" means absolutely nothing as long as there is no legislation regulating the term.

                14 Replies
                1. re: Ptipois

                  That is the problem, because the majority of customers in French restaurants assume that it means what it says. And they may be more likely to order the item, and willing to pay more for it. I would like to believe, like you, that most restaurateurs would not abuse the term, but they are business people after all, and where there is easy money to be made by lying, and zero legal risk… well, buyer beware.

                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                    On the other hand, there is such a thing as bad fait maison.

                    1. re: Ptipois

                      Indeed. Bad fait maison knows no borders, only hubris.

                      1. re: Ptipois

                        Which raises a question: Would you rather eat bad "fait maison" or acceptable Metro fare? No fraud involved, no difference in price, same service/atmosphere, etc. But those are your only choices.

                        1. re: DeppityDawg

                          Metro fare can be pretty good, and - not that I mean to excuse restaurateurs who rely on Metro as a rule - I'd rather have some decent Metro fare than something on the bad side of homemade. But then we're in "a good sardine is better than a bad lobster" territory. It is absolutely no excuse to be a bad cook when you are a chef.

                          I also have seen starred chefs shop at Metro for particularly large fish that were impossible to sell through classic distribution because of their size. That is often where 15-pound turbots come from.

                          1. re: DeppityDawg

                            Getting back to the original post (mine), I think the question raised was what do consumers have the right to know, not what is "best" for consumers.

                            Why have, or enforce, the AOC labeling or "Made in ..." Sometimes a similar product from Asia cannot easily be distinguished from the local version. Manufacturers not protected by the labeling rules say consumers don't need the information, they should just taste the product and decide. They give the same answer for GMO crops and artificial flavorings.

                            If the menu says Escargots de Bourgogne but they serve a mix with 75% from Romania, is that ok if most customers don't notice the difference? I say no, absolutely not. That doesn't mean that a restaurant serving pure Escargots de Bourgogne prepared "fait maison" will never do a lousy job - too old, overcooked or reheated, etc. That is just a different issue.

                            Bringing this back to fait maison, there were two issues. One is whether customers have the right to know that a "fait maison" product is, for example, really a factory prepared dish that the local chef added salt and parsley to. To me, this is a case where "fait maison" is just false. The restaurant should say nothing. If a customer cares, they can ask, of course.

                            Second is whether there is a higher chance of unexpected chemicals or other adulteration in a factory product than one fait maison. In the TV show, this question was answered "yes" simply by reading the label of the frozen souris d'agneau. It is also answered "yes" by the recent horse meat stories. The horsemeat appeared in pre-prepared foods that were labeled "beef." Sure, a local restaurant could make the same substitution. It's just much less likely.

                            I have eaten horse meat and have nothing against it. But it should be MY choice. Same goes for "fait maison."

                            1. re: RandyB

                              I think everyone here will be mostly in agreement with you in principle. But then there are the practical questions. Concerning the first point, Ptipois already explained how difficult it would be to make "fait maison" an enforceable legal designation. On the other hand, "difficult" does not imply "unnecessary" or "not worthwhile", and laws exist in part to draw somewhat arbitrary lines in gray areas. On the other other hand, choosing to eat in a restaurant means letting someone else make some choices for you about what you're going to eat and letting go of the idea that you can know every last detail of where the food comes from and how it's prepared.

                              As for the second point, industrial food preparers are at least supposed to declare their ingredients truthfully, and there is supposed to be some verification and accountability. The system is not infallible, but at least there is a system. For a homemade dish someone can just say "so sorry, family secret"...

                              1. re: DeppityDawg

                                I said it certainly would be "difficult", but I do not mean undesirable. I'm 100% with Xavier Denamur on that subject. It is all a matter of proportion and common sense. There certainly is a middle ground between slipping your souris d'agneau ready-cooked with its colloidal sauce from a Metro plastic pouch and hiking through the Cambodian mountains to get peppercorns from the vine for your restaurant. Evidently some foods are always bought ready-prepared: spices, condiments, and of course there are dry goods, cheeses, and even some recipes that are just as good if not better if made elsewhere (canned cassoulet, confit de canard). The problem is mostly "plats cuisinés" and sous-vide dishes that could and should be made from scratch on the premises. According to what I've heard recently, a legislation could be on its way to control that sort of thing and get the labeling to be more accurate.

                                I totally agree with you on the last part of your first paragraph: 'letting go of the idea that you can know every last detail of where the food comes from', etc. It is only when you get an unpleasant feeling from something that your alert lights go red.
                                As it happened to me last week, as I was visiting a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower (you won't go there). The day's special was gaspacho soup. Actually they had remixed (proper use of the term!) some store-bought Alvalle gaspacho soup (the taste is unmistakable) with some old bread and added some Cayenne pepper to make it taste more homemade. It was a disaster. There is really no way to see that coming. Except maybe going to a trusted restaurant.

                                1. re: Ptipois

                                  Ditto, Ptitpois.

                                  For those unfamiliar with Xavier Denamur, he is a chef on a crusade against the declining quality of French restaurant food and the illusory quality of Michelin stars. He produced a movie on the subject called "République de la Malbouffe" (Republic of Crap Food). You can google him in English or French for lots more info.

                                  He admits he invented the now widely quoted statistic that 70% of all restaurant food is industrially produced. No one knows for sure what the real number is.

                                  1. re: Ptipois

                                    I agree very desirable. It's really needs to be a law to rid the industry of deceptive practices. Raw ingredients are easily excluded, supplied finished products like cheese can be dealt with by specifying that if not house made then the supplier should be specified (as many do with cheese suppliers). Food that is bought in should, by law, not be labelled as home made, or represented as such. Even those like confit or cassoulet should be included - after all one places do their own and o it well.

                                    1. re: PhilD

                                      Did it ever happen to you - it happens to me regularly - to be proposed some house wine, and when you ask "where is the wine from?" you get a dirty look?
                                      And if you insist, you get snapped at - "it's a vin du Languedoc" or something else, as if there were product origins to be ashamed of?
                                      Likewise, if I ask about the origin of some ingredients, I see some faces darken.
                                      That kind of thing tends to spoil my experience.
                                      Wishing to know the provenance of things is a basic need of customers that should be readily understood by restaurateurs. Some do not always get it.

                              2. re: DeppityDawg

                                I'd rather eat bad fait maison with fresh ingredients than Metro fare. Once you are accustomed to " non industrial food" , you can tell when something is real, fresh and home-made ! . Industrial for has this particular, unexplainable but tastable flavor ….. Problem is most restaurant customers eat industrial pizza's and stuff at home and are therefore incapable of making the difference,.. not their fault .. it is just because their palate is too accustomed to junk food

                                1. re: LMDLV

                                  I don't know... when I buy a Knorr soup, it always have this same taste (across all flavors)... although they say they don't use "exhausteurs de gout", they still list "extrait de levure" as an ingredient, which is just that...
                                  But every time I go to one of those fast lunch places when I work in an agency, that serves soups, salads, sandwiches... and I get a soup, it's "natural"... ahem... "homemade"... but bland ! It seems most people don't even know how to build flavor from a simple soup.

                                  So to go back to your comment... which do I prefer ?
                                  - "Yeast extract" tasting soup, which tends to unify all soups ?
                                  - Or bland tasting soup... which does the same...

                                  I can't answer this.

                                  1. re: LMDLV

                                    You probably never had some really bad fait maison, lucky you.