When I first moved to Paris ten years ago, I was disappointed at how mediocre a lot of the restaurants were. Menus had not changed much since the Belle Époque and they repeated a well-worn mantra: entrecôte de boeuf, magret de canard, souris d’agneau. I called it the tyranny of meat-in-brown-sauce. But over the past five years a new kind of Parisian restaurant has emerged: young, hip, innovative, informal. The trend is dubbed ‘Bistronomy’ and it owes much to the internationalisation of Paris kitchens.
Twentysomething chefs from Australia, America and Japan are leading the charge and, increasingly, Brits are in the vanguard too. London’s influence as a global capital of cooking is making itself felt in the city that invented fine dining. ‘Gastropub’ has entered the dining lexicon and menus are changing to accommodate English delicacies such as lemon posset, elderflowers, scotch eggs, pickled walnuts, Stinking Bishop cheese, even Le Sunday Roast.
I talked to Edward Delling-Williams, one of the city’s leading young British chefs, in a cafe around the corner from his now-under-construction restaurant in Belleville. He cooked at St John in London before becoming head chef at Au Passage in the trendy 11th arrondissement.
‘When I was first cooking at Au Passage there was an open kitchen and people would hear my accent and say, “Oh I didn’t know English people could cook,” ’ he recalled.
While there he cooked with an Australian and a Fili-pino, who also had backgrounds in London restaurants and were unconstrained by tradition or nationalism. He married French ingredients with the nose-to-tail ‘whole animal’ ethos that he had learned at St John, and lightened it with the triumvirate of sweet-salt-acid he loves in Asian food. Lots of raw fish and vegetable dishes. Shoulder of lamb with sauce made from torn fresh mint leaves. John Dory cooked with Guinness, wasabi and capers. Deconstructed desserts of smashed-up cake and meringue. Every-thing scattered with micro herbs and pretty flowers. Au Passage was at the vanguard of the new kind of noisy, bustling, small-plate restaurant where the menu changes daily. The place was packed every night.
Delling-Williams believes that French restaurants had stuck to an Escoffier-style template that reached its pinnacle 100 years ago. ‘Paris is years behind London,’ he said, blaming a certain arrogance and xenophobia. ‘There’s a sense that ethnic food is supposed to be cheap.’
French palates do tend towards the conservative. They are not crazy about spice the way the English are. Cornichons traditionally accompany a rich pâté, but they don’t do much other pickling, and the sharp vinegar twang that the British love in their condiments is largely absent.
But growing numbers of Parisians eat Japanese noodles for lunch instead of croque monsieur (though they insist in pouring sweetened soy sauce on their sushi), so they are discovering new tastes. Gareth Storey, another Brit chef in Paris, cooked at Le Bal, a restaurant attached to an art space off the Place de Clichy, until it closed this summer. His menu mixed up English items such as Lancashire hotpot and devilled kidneys with French staples. ‘People really enjoyed the taste even though they were sceptical of the names,’ he told me. Le Bal served brunch with bacon and eggs, porridge and kedgeree. ‘I would make English muffins, black pudding, white pudding with pork and oats. People would go crazy!’ says Storey.
Despite their chauvinism, the French have long cherry-picked the best foreign ingredients. Smoked salmon and carpaccio are old staples; burrata and pata negra are new ones. A recent hamburger craze is well documented. (Since hamburgers are a mash-up of steak frites and steak tartare, it’s perhaps not so surprising.) Fish and chips is now a brasserie mainstay.
‘Jolly Good Fish and Chips; Fait Maison’ reads the sign at the Sunken Chip, opened in 2013 off the Canal St Martin by James Whelan and Michael Greenwold, two bright young Brits. ‘Just the idea of a restaurant serving one thing is weird for the French,’ Whelan told me over an excellent battered hake. ‘Malt vinegar, pickled eggs; they are weird too.’ Their clients are bemused Brits, a few older French with fond memories of fish and chips from English exchange trips, and hipster locals. ‘It’s generational,’ said Whelan, describing the proliferation of places with good food, no tablecloths and lower prices. ‘Geography has become irrelevant. The lifestyle around here is very bohemian; it’s an international neighbourhood. You hear as much English spoken as French, especially in
Whelan settled in Paris straight from university six years ago because his brother was working here. It struck me that I had heard the exact inverse of his story from a Frenchman in Borough Market. He came to London ‘for a week’ but stayed for a long time before returning to set up his own restaurant in Paris. Other young French chefs are learning to cook in London and bringing back modern British cuisine as a template for new ideas. Grégory Marchand called his restaurant Frenchie after the nickname Jamie Oliver gave him, and it’s now one of the most sought-out places in Paris. His time cooking in both London and New York have left their mark. His next door spin-off, Frenchie to Go, does bacon sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs. He’s just opened a restaurant in London, too.
Is it fanciful to imagine that this Eurostar generation is beginning to replace the old Frogs vs Rosbifs rivalry with a common cuisine? ‘After all,’ said James Whelan, ‘the French are really Anglophile and the English are really Francophile.’ He points out that the terroir of Britain and France is similar, the basic dishes are meat and potatoes, so ‘it’s not a huge leap’. A pork pie is pâté en croute, a daube is a stew, cheddar not dissimilar to Cantal; you say pithivier, we say pie.