A hot lunch is just the ticket

Food for thought: French dining

When the French banking conglomerate Societe Generale bought Hambros in 1998, one of the first people to get sacked was the head chef in London. The French company acquired Hambros for its financial expertise, but when it came to culinary matters, it was not trusting its kitchen to an Anglo philistine.

Yet, the cornerstone of France's gastronomical strength is not so much how well the nation cooks, but how well it eats. From the age of three, children at school are initiated into the great national table tradition of the four-course hot lunch. It begins with a cold entree such as cucumber slices or grated carrots in vinaigrette, followed by a main course - hachis parmentier or brandade de morue are classics - and finishes with cheese and dessert. Until recently, it was a ritual that was maintained throughout one's school years and into the workplace. And even as the four-course institution gives way to the more ignoble realities of a sandwich jambon-fromage gobbled hastily in front of a computer , the leisurely lunch is an ideal the French defend as vigorously as universal medicare.

The b3 cafeteria lunch and sheaf of employer-subsidised lunch tickets - tickets resto - are a fundamental part of France's paternal corporate embrace. In a series of articles on eating habits in the workplace in October 2003, the French daily Liberation reported that 75 per cent of all French companies have cafeterias that feed 65 per cent of the workforce in Paris and 50 per cent in the rest of France. And though the lunch break has been considerably reduced from the hour-and-a-half average in 1975, a study by Journal du Management this year reports that, among its readership, executives still spend an average of 56 minutes at the table.

But, the French, like the rest of the world, are succumbing to eating on the run. Jean-Pierre Poulain, a socio-anthropologist and author of a study on changing eating habits, laments that the French are now often skipping cheese and dessert at lunch. Many blame the 35-hour working week that squeezes the workload into a shorter period. But the fault also lies with cafeteria food itself, which, though grandiosely laid out in four courses, can be as uninspiring in France as it is in other countries.

The model for the restaurant d'entreprise is the school lunch canteen, which first appeared in Paris schools in 1877. However, by the 1960s, institutional canteen lunches were no longer cooked on the premises but pumped out of centralised factory-like kitchens that ensured low costs and hygienic standards. The process has been streamlined even further with kitchens that merely assemble food that has already been cleaned, prepared and cooked in industrial foo-processing plants.

Assembly-line lunch prep was a natural solution for the French, with their formidable agro-foodstuffs industry and appetite for rationalisation. It was the French, after all who invented food canning, and they are the world leader in the export of processed foods. But the result of all this industrialised efficiency has been industrial food, and la cantine - whether at school or at work - has become synonymous with soggy vegetables and tough meat.

To win back lunch-eaters, contract caterers such as Sogeres - the fourth-largest institutional catering company in France - have had to cook up something new. When Sogeres chefs were sent on a five-day training course with Alain Ducasse last February, they came back armed with sexy emulsion techniques. Instead of cardiac-arrest blanquette de veau and cassoulet, they now serve Cornish hen tenderly stewed in its own juices. Sogeres has also invented the "scramble" for hurried customers, where different courses are simultaneously presented on a compartmentalised, TV-dinner platter. And they have turned canteens into food courts - an Alsation booth serves choucroute, a Moroccan one, couscous and an Italian kiosk serves pastas, for example.

Institutional caterers such as Sogeres, Sodexho, Compass and Elior are reforming canteen food to preserve profit margins, but there are also ideological and palatable concerns at stake. Ideological, because a sandwich wolfed down between meetings is the beginning of the descent towards the American vices of snacking, obesity and gastronomic ignorance. And palatable, because the midday meal will soon be a bygone pleasure, a lost art de vivre if corporate France does not entice its workforce back to the lunch-table.