Paris chefs' fish 'perks' questioned

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If you have the good fortune to dine at one of France's top restaurants, check the price of the fish course. If you think it a bit excessive - more even than the stratospheric price you doubtless expected - you may be right. As many as 30 of France's top chefs are currently under investigation for allegedly taking kickbacks from a fish wholesaler, it was revealed yesterday.

One of them is the head chef at the Hotel Crillon; another, the head chef at the Tour d'Argent restaurant (standard dinner for one - 1,000 francs, or pounds 140, without wine). Another the newly retired head chef of the French foreign ministry - a noted showcase for French culinary prowess - who had been in the post for 10 years. The names of the first two have not been disclosed. At least 27 others, apparently covering the best-known restaurants in Paris, are also said to be under investigation.

The lawyer acting for the foreign ministry's former chef, Marcel Le Faou, confirmed yesterday both that his client was under investigation and that he had accepted certain "perks". But, he said, they were "a tradition and custom in the profession" and their value had not exceeded 1,000 francs a month. He stressed that the "perk" was "extremely modest - not much more than a tip" and that his client was well-respected and a member of the Culinary Academy of France.

The fish merchant involved has been identified by the court conducting the inquiry as Scotfish. The director of the firm, which supplies many of the best restaurants in Paris and has several outlets in the city, is also said to be under investigation. The company's telephone entry lists it as "purveyor of fish, shellfish, oysters and lobsters".

The investigation was opened just before Christmas, the peak season for shellfish sales: oysters are de rigueur for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve feasts.

The receipt of benefits in kind is taken for granted in France, as in many other countries, and habitually escapes the tax net. The nature of the current investigation suggests either that the sums involved are especially large, or that a personal grudge is involved. It just might indicate a new rigour on the part of the French tax authorities towards benefits in kind - but then why start with fish?

The Tour d'Argent has a prime first floor site on the Left Bank overlooking the river Seine. The restaurant is one of the most expensive, although not necessarily the best, in Paris. Possibly the snootiest dinner venue in the capital is a table beside its large picture windows looking out over the Notre Dame cathedral.

The restaurant recently announced that it was fully booked for New Year's Eve, 1999.