The British Women Shaking Up Paris' Dining Scene

Photo: Courtesy of Le Bal Cafe.
Any British visitor to France will be familiar with the jokes about our cuisine – boiled lamb with mint followed by jelly and custard, anyone? But in Paris, imaginative British food made from top quality ingredients is in the spotlight; kedgeree, carrot cake and cheddar are all on the menu, and a handful of British women are helping shape the culinary revolution.

It’s all part of a wider trend of embracing foreign influences, says Franco-British chef Alice Quillet. She and her British business partner Anna Trattles, who used to work for St John Bread and Wine in London, run the kitchen at Le Bal, an exhibition space in the fast-changing 18th arrondissement, where kedgeree is one of the most popular brunch dishes.

Paris was the undisputed gastronomic capital of the world for many decades, but elsewhere, a culinary revival has been underway. In the past ten years, the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in London has almost doubled from 32 to 63 and with the number of French expats in London making it France’s sixth-biggest city in terms of population, culinary influences from overseas are increasingly in demand.

Photo: @rachelkhooks

“I think it mainly has to do with the generation of Parisians travelling and coming back to Paris and wanting to experience the same kind of international flavours they have experienced in other cosmopolitan cities,” says cookbook author and TV chef Rachel Khoo who moved to Paris 12 years ago, beginning the supper club in her tiny Paris flat that would lead to her first cookbook in English, The Little Paris Kitchen.

“Paris is a cosmopolitan city like London and New York with an international audience. There's a demand for new innovative ways of eating, from people who have experienced supper clubs elsewhere – you could call it culinary globalisation – or who are simply open to trying out different things,” Khoo says.

Whether it’s Parisians snapping up crumpets and cakes from Marks and Spencer and Pret A Manger, the arrival of a fish and chip shop, The Sunken Chip, near Paris’ trendy Canal St Martin or the sales success of high-end British products like Neal’s Yard cheeses and Tyrrells crisps, British food is having its moment across the channel.

“People in the French food industry used to play it quite safe and although that has changed a lot in the last ten years in Paris, with a wave of international chefs opening their own places, we were willing to take risks because our schtick from the beginning at Le Bal was to do modern British food,” Quillet says.

Another British woman, Rose Carrarini, opened the Rose Bakery on the rue des Martyrs in 2003. “It was a project to bring simple fresh foods, mainly organic, to a Paris that wasn't doing anything like this,” Carrarini says. “There was a complacency in cafes and restaurants at that time, chefs sticking to the good old formulas and serving uncreative foods. There was a little hesitation and scepticism on the part of Parisians but within three months we were working well and continued to please.”

Khoo also shrugged off the “rosbif” jibes to whip up contemporary versions of classic French dishes for her supper club diners. Her non-French background helped when she was starting out in France. “I felt that because I didn't have any history with French food that I could cook the way I wanted – ripping up the rule book and playing with different flavours and techniques,” Khoo says. “It was liberating having that kind of freedom. I think the pressure of having such a renowned culinary heritage can carry the burden of high expectations sometimes,” she adds. “I remember having a few Parisian friends say that my version of French classics reminded them of a modern take on their grandma’s dishes.”
Photo: @Lebalcafe

“A lot of French people’s experience of British food is going on an exchange and having toast with Marmite,” says Quillet, explaining that when they took over at Le Bal “a lot of people said British food was horrible, so there was a lot of negativity but also some curiosity. Traditional regional British cooking isn’t actually that different from traditional cooking from the north of France.”

Six years later, the pair have since won over sceptical Parisians with classic brunch dishes, British cheeses and old-fashioned favourites. “Parisians go crazy for English-style baking. They love things like Eton mess and sticky toffee pudding as they don’t have steamed puddings in France,” Quillet says.

Quillet and Trattles also run the Ten Belles coffee shop near the Canal St Martin and are opening a new bakery in the 11th arrondissement this summer.

Likewise, The Rose Bakery, where diners tuck into quiches and slices of carrot cake, is expanding, opening up a new shop selling UK products including jam and chutney, Neals Yard cheeses and ice cream.

Frances Leech, a British blogger and pastry chef who trained and works in Paris and has also co-written a culinary guide to the city, describes a wider Anglophone community emerging in Paris’s restaurant scene, with Australian-run specialist coffee shops inspiring Parisians to value high quality coffee as they do wine. She rates Melbourne coffee shop-inspired Holybelly, near the Canal St Martin in the tenth arrondissement. “It does things like pancakes and eggs, a really good twist on a British breakfast and it’s going absolutely nuts because it’s new and different.”
Photo: @holybellycafe

Khoo, who is now based in London and working on her new project Khoollect, also says a Franco-American chef, Alix LaCloche, who uses carefully-chosen, seasonal ingredients to create simple and fresh dishes, is among the Parisian chefs she admires, while when she moved to Paris, a source of inspiration was Trish Deseine, a cookery writer from Northern Ireland who lived in Paris for many years and has sold hundreds of thousands of cookery books – in French.

Leech, who gives pâtisserie lessons at La Cuisine Paris, also cooks at Freegan Pony, a volunteer-run restaurant that recovers and uses unsold food that would otherwise go to waste, which she says is tapping into another small but growing movement in Paris, for vegetarian and vegan food. “There’s a new awareness of the environment and animal welfare, even if the average French person is very much a meat eater”.


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