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Why the French don't do restaurant 'doggy bags'

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Is there a place for doggy bags in French dining culture? Photo: Ipwrangler/Roland/Flickr
10:21 CET+01:00
For Americans few cultural differences between the US and France are as bemusing as the lack of doggy bags in restaurants. Here's why taking your leftover boeuf bourguignon home with you is unlikely to become common practice in French diners.

Hands up how many people have politely asked a waiter or waitress in a Parisian bistro or swanky Riviera restaurant if they can have a plastic box to take home their left over magret de canard or steak au poivre at the end of the night?

This kind of request is a traditional end of meal practice in the States as well as in many other countries, but it has never taken on in France, where cuisine is sacred but tonnes of food goes to waste each year.

The explanation of France’s aversion to sending diners home with their leftovers in American-style doggy bags starts with childhood, but extends well into adulthood with fundamental misunderstandings about the law, experts said.  

'Don't leave an empty plate'

According to one leading dining consultant some restaurant owners in France have been trying since the 1990s to make the doggy bag part of French dining culture, but have been failing.  It seems that French culture itself is the main obstacle to the practice of taking left over boeuf bourguignon home in a box from catching on. 

Laurent Calvayrac the founder of a French green packaging company, and a doggy bag proponent, said his countrymen are taught from an early age to eat everything on their plate.

“Like many French people I was raised with the instruction ‘You will finish what I put on your plate’. So even now when I go out to eat, no matter the size of the portion, I finish everything even if I’m full,’ Emballage Vert founder Calvayrac tells The Local. “So doggy bags are simply not part of the French way of doing things.”

This sort of shame over not eating everything on your plate extends to the fear of getting dirty looks from other people when you walk out of the restaurant with a doggy bag in hand. It’s the equivalent of failing to say thank you or hold the door open for someone, an act of impoliteness that shows a deficiency in one’s upbringing, Calvayrac explains.

Size matters

But after living five years in Canada, the businessman, a former government bodyguard, realized it was not so bad after all and he went on to invent a doggy bag for the French market.

Though the lack of doggy bags in France, and other European countries like Italy and Belgium, appears to have cultural roots it’s also influenced by the sizes of portions served up in France.

Because French plates aren't piled quite as high with steaming food as happens in restaurants in North American, there is simply less of a need for doggy bags.

SEE ALSO: Ten tips on French dinner party etiquette

Confusion over the law

Accordingly, as the doggy bag is a something of a rarity, restaurant owners also appear to be concerned they may be violating the law by letting diners walk out with food cooked in their establishment.

The head of French restaurant industry group Club de Directeurs de la Restauration d’Exploitation said his understanding of the law states doggy bags are illegal under health codes.

“There is a French law that prohibits us from letting clients leave the restaurant with food," Jean-Claude Eudes told The Local on Tuesday. "The restaurant owner is responsible if there is a case of food poisoning, and so clients can file a lawsuit."

To highlight the confusion surrounding what is permitted and what is not, Calvayrac says that, though common, the belief that doggy bags are illegal is actually incorrect.

“It’s false, completely false. There is a lot of work yet to be done on training and consciousness raising. Once a restaurant has served the food to a customer, it is relieved of responsibility for it,” Calvayrac said. “I think restauranteurs are maybe mal-informed to begin with and they maybe don’t fully realize people are interested in doggy bags.”

The issue of doggy bags has provedto be divisive among The Local's readers who have been reacting to the article on our Facebook page

Doug Urquhart says: "I hate the whole idea of doggy bags. Part of a good meal is its presentation, something which is lost when leftovers are shoveled into a paper bag. Why not reduce the portion size."

But Francis Grady disagreed. He said: "I have absolutely no scruples in asking for a doggy bag and my French friends follow suit."

The issue could soon become much less abstract in France as establishments that serve more than 180 meals per day will have to, by 2016, sort and reduce waste or face heavy fines. The anti-waste law has set a target of cutting trash in half by 2025.

Doggy bags good or bad? Share your opinion with readers in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.

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SEE ALSO: What the French find weird about Americans

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