The chef-proprietor of Le Grand Bain in Paris tells Janet Harmer why he loves being surrounded by the incredible restaurants and bakeries of the French capital
What was your first job in hospitality?
At the ripe old age of 14 I began work in the Rose and Crown, a family-run pub near Bristol. This is where I developed an early passion for cooking and became hooked on the environment of a working kitchen. I loved the fast-paced, long days and being part of a team.
What attracted you to work in Paris?
I had been at St John restaurant in London for four years and, while I loved my time there, I knew it was time to try something new. Paris was in need of a culinary recharge and I was aware of some places that were starting to do this. I got a job at Au Passage, which was one of the restaurants pioneering a fresh and exciting style of cooking. I spent four years there with an excellent team, all of whom are still good friends, including my now business partner, Edouard Lax.
You now run your own restaurant, Le Grand Bain. How easy was it to set up your own business in Paris?
Lax was working front of house at Au Passage and I was in the kitchen. After a few years we decided to start out on our own. We have a restaurant, Le Grand Bain, and bakery, Le Petit Grain, both on the same street, Rue Denoyez in Belleville. It was a big step for us and finding the right location took some time. Eventually, we stumbled across this gem, which needed to be completely gutted and redone. It took a lot of work, but we knew what we wanted to do so we were prepared for it not to be plain sailing.
Explain the concept of Le Grand Bain.
Le Grand Bain is part of the neo-bistro movement in Paris, which involves bringing the best possible local produce and food to its patrons in a casual and relaxed environment. We completely reconstructed the interiors of what was previously a tapas bar to create 38 seats with a central bar and open kitchen.
What do you like about living and working in Paris?
The incredible restaurants and bakeries. A personal favourite is Ten Belles on Rue Breguet, which provides a lot of the bread for some great restaurants around Paris. The bakery itself serves fantastic coffee as well as a delicious selection of cakes, rustic pastries and sandwiches. I also love Le Baratin, which epitomises the classic, old-school Parisian bistro and serves excellent organic wines. It attracts food and wine fans from all over Paris and is frequented by Parisian chefs and well-informed tourists.
Are the challenges as a chef in Paris the same as those in London?
Paris is steeped in rich gastronomic history - the very home of the traditional French brasserie. These restaurants serve classic French dishes that have remained on the menu, unchanged, for many years. We are, of course, pioneering something a little different by channelling the neo-bistro movement, with a menu that constantly changes according to seasonal produce. The challenge lies in finding a place alongside these historic and refined establishments.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in the UK?
In terms of food, I definitely miss the Brick Lane bagels and the Indian restaurants in Wembley. I also miss the chance to eat in all the new places. I have a list as long as my arm of places to go and eat in London.
How would you compare the eating out scene between Paris and London?
Generally, eating out in Paris could be considered more of a refined experience, with visits to boulangeries serving delicate pastries and macarons and authentic bistros offering traditional dishes. However, the London food scene is more diverse, with a vast range of different cuisines.
Has working in Paris enhanced your abilities as a chef?
Definitely. We're inspired by our surroundings; our ethos is to create a space in which people from the neighbourhood can pop in any day and always be able to get a quick bite and a glass of wine, or a 'La Grande Bouffe'-style feast. Working in Paris has also allowed me to transfer my abilities and skills to others. We started a programme where we teach asylum seekers to make our bread in Le Petit Grain, with the hope that person will teach the next person, and so on.
Would you return to live and work in the UK?
No, I don't think so. When I leave Paris, I want to move somewhere with a different climate and be closer to the sea. I would love to work with different produce and I don't think I would get that new sense of adventure and the desired level of learning by returning to England.Get The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).
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