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.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.