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Tastes of the nation: how does British food fare in Paris?

Tastes of the nation: how does British food fare in Paris?

by Hugh Thomas 19 December 2017

Hugh Thomas talks to the British chefs cooking in the restaurants of Paris to see how French attitudes to British cuisine have changed.

There’s a little joint in Paris’ ninth arrondissement dealing out fried ‘poisson du jour’ avec frites (strangely rectangular, thinly battered fish fillets with stale chips), wrapped in faux newspaper sporting the headline ‘The Daily Catch’. A red phone box provides entry to les toilettes, and mains are followed up with a soggy carrot cake that would make Mary Berry whimper.

A caricature of ‘British’ cuisine, certainly not the only one in Paris and, you could argue, probably not too far off the real thing. ‘Typical English food’ one Google review reads, not specifying if they think that’s a virtue or vice. ‘Authentic fish and chips’ reads another. Are they wrong?

Either way, this seems to be how some of the locals like it. ‘The French love fish and chips, bacon and beef stew, and scones,’ says Jean-Charles Carrarini, ‘because they all remind them of their stay in England when they were young.’ Jean-Charles, along with his English wife Rose, opened Rose Bakery, a scone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge, in 2002. They serve crumbles, chocolate brownies, sponges, carrot cake, sticky toffee pudding, Earl Grey: not your average Parisian pâtisserie, in other words.

But also one that, thankfully, doesn’t hang pictures of the Queen on its walls, or openly celebrate cockney rhyming slang. Rose Bakery has amassed a riotous following, not necessarily for being British, but for being good when the city needed it most. ‘We arrived at the lowest point of the Parisian dining out scene,’ says Jean-Charles. ‘Since then, a lot of chef-patrons have opened their own places, and the food is much better in general.’


One of those chef-patrons is Brit Ed Delling-Williams, who runs Le Grand Bain in Belleville. Since he arrived in Paris via the acclaimed St John in London, Ed has also noticed how the city has made up for its culinary shortcomings. ‘In the six years that I’ve been here,’ he says, ‘there have only been a select few restaurants that you could go to for, I don’t know, Chinese food specifically from an area like Sichuan. Now, there’s more of a palate for it, as people are trying a lot more different things.’

This notion that Paris is behind some other parts of the world ­– London, especially, as Ed confirms ­– may come as a shock. Surely Paris has been a leading light in dining out culture since records began? Well, no. But then, it needed to have a period of decline if it was to spawn the Bistronomie movement when, in the 1990s, young chefs trained in classical French cooking ideals started to reject what they’d been taught. Could it be that these holier-than-thou attitudes towards the ‘inferior’ British palate are still lingering?

‘You’ve got to remember the French dominated the world of cuisine for 100 years,’ says Ed. ‘The reason we eat the way we eat, with knifes and forks, and setting, and the plates, and main course, starter, etcetera, is French.’ Public consensus might tell you France’s culinary heritage is the antithesis of Britain’s, but then you realise that, aside from their own odd traits, they’re more closely related than some might be comfortable with. In that situation, who’s to say one country’s cuisine is better than the other?

Ed tells me of an indicative episode he experienced recently at work. ‘Three girls had just finished and I was outside having a glass of wine,’ he says. ‘They said thanks very much, it was lovely. I said something in English, and they said, oh, you’re English? Wow, how did you learn to cook like a French person? I said, do you have any idea how insulting that is? In terms of diversity of food and restaurants, London wipes the floor with Paris. And they laughed. I asked them when was the last time you went to London, and they said they’d never been.’

Ed stresses this is by no means exhibited by everyone. And his Paris-based compatriot Harry Vidler, Jones Café head chef and also an alumnus of St John, thinks this ignorance is on the mend anyway. ‘The stigma of English food and chefs is starting to change. Not so much the food itself,’ Harry says, ‘but the acknowledgement of English chefs coming to Paris to bring their own personal taste and style.’

This tests the theory that the British and their palates are unsophisticated. What the French now accept is that as long as it tastes good, and is made well, then that’s fine. Ed sometimes serves beef Wellington or pork pies, which he says tend to get the thumbs-up. And, before Le Bal Café closed and the owners opened Café Otto in its stead, English chefs Anna Trattles, Alice Quillet and Gareth Storey would serve Lancashire hotpot, kedgeree, bacon and eggs, ginger beer and proper tea, and would host kitchen takeovers from the likes of Lee Tiernan and Tom Adams. In fact, as long as it’s not Christmas cake, traditional British dishes are likely to be enthusiastically received now more than ever. ‘No one here understands Christmas cake,’ says Ed. ‘No one gets it.’ Needless to say, it’s not featured on Le Grand Bain’s menu this year.


Generally speaking, people are becoming more open minded and better exposed to diversity in cooking thanks to social media, and there’s the idea that something doesn’t have to have a label or a category in order to be good. In other words, the cuisines of the world are, to some extent, blurring into one. ‘There’s not so much of a British concept anymore,’ says Ed, ‘or a French concept. Or anything. There are restaurants like St John, that everyone says is British. But when you delve into it, they use snails, chorizo, olive oil. Britain’s never grown olives. Even the cookbook jokingly says ‘a kind of British cooking’.’ This reminds me: St John have their own winery. But it’s in The Minervois, and they make Grenache. It’s as British as Charles de Gaulle wolfing down a croissant while humming the tune of Frère Jacques.

Just like St John, Lyle’s, in Shoreditch, is what many consider the benchmark of ‘modern British’ food. If, indeed, it can be called British. ‘If you look at Lyles, that restaurant is essentially the Bistronomie movement of Paris in a London restaurant,’ says Ed. ‘But they’ll say that is modern English. You could take that restaurant, put it in Paris, and someone will say it’s modern French.’

Ed disclaimers this with praise for the ‘fucking brilliant’ Lyle’s and it’s ‘fantastic’ head chef James Lowe. Still, a little while back, when I spoke with Ed for another story, he didn’t seem to miss much about London. Not in a life and work capacity, at any rate. Ed and many of his compatriots don’t appear to be leaving soon, so is British cuisine to stay in Paris too? If you ever try and play spot the difference with beef Wellington and filet de boeuf en croûte, you’ll realise it’s been there all along.

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