Hot French summers with customers eating lunch on a terrace, perhaps a fountain bubbles away in the background. The countryside’s scents fill the air with rosemary, lavender, wild thyme and food. The prix fixe menu offers the best of the region and contains dishes which reflect the mood in which I woke up that morning as I gathered my thoughts in the kitchen with the first of many espressos of the day. That’s my ideal French bistro.
I don’t have a bistro in France. I don’t have a bistro at all. I considered leaving behind a professional career in England to open a bistro in France. I considered if that was a good idea, whether or not I could do it and what it would look like. Its foundational requirements were good food, cooked well, at reasonable prices. I even had a site in mind.
It was in the Loire and was right on the cycle route, it had a sweeping street frontage and was fitted out – it used to be a bistro. It hadn’t been for some time owing to a dispute between the owner and the Mayor and village was poorer for it.
It seemed mere trivia that I had no experience in restaurants or catering and no money. Surely just the romantic notion of opening a bistro in the Loire was all that one needed to succeed. It may have been the amount of rosé consumed during the Bastille Day celebrations in the village but that evening in 2010, I sauntered up to the Mayor and asked her whether or not I could have the licence to take over the Bistro.
“Non!” She said. My request was simply out of the question. And that was that. Off she went to mix with the locals. I’ve since heard that the owner converted the beautiful building back into his primary home.
Back to reality and it occurred to me that if I was serious about this then I should be taking some classes, learning some techniques, talking to people who run successful restaurants, working in kitchens and continually experimenting and practising all the while trying to hold down my day job. I can dream as much as I like about the French summers, food and rosé but that is removed from the reality of opening a bistro.
Thanks to tremendous support, long conversations, time in kitchens and generous friendships I tasted what is required to run a bistro and re-train as a chef.
Meeting @FoodUrchin gave me the initial kick that I needed to host a supper club ie cooking for strangers who pay for dinner. The supper club returned some constructive and encouraging feedback from @r_mccormack and @somersetchef – they were honest about my skills. A chance meeting at @lucmartin’s London supper club held @chancerylondon introduced me to @janiestamford.
Janie summed me up within 2 minutes “Lawyers! What’s it with you? You’re the stereotypical MasterChef contestants.” Janie became a close friend and let me ask a lot of questions about the catering and hospitality industry – turns out she knows a bit about that.
Janie’s observations shifted my focus from chef-patron to restaurateur, but not before she introduced me to @hayden1974 who let me into his kitchen for the day to see what it is really like as a cook. Janie was right, if anything I’d make a better restaurateur than chef and a few gins with Zak who owns @chancerylondon confirmed that.
It wasn’t all take and @timhayward gave me the chance to write for Fire & Knives about my contrarian take on London’s food culture. Tim’s ‘Fitzbillies’ story also inspired and shaped the place I wanted to open: a restaurant that moves through the rhythm of the day from coffee and light breakfast to lunch then dinner.
And what would this journey be without having delved into food television? I was given a lot of insight from @japster2008 on this world. Lack of cooking talent and credibility aside, it was clear that I had a face for radio.
When I first mentioned this bistro in France idea to my food scenester wise owl chum she cried “Are you fucking crazy?” I am not that crazy but having looked at bistro life and tried it to some extent I know that I’m just not cut out for being a chef patron. I would, if anything, make an excellent restaurateur but I just didn’t have that amount of devotion. Besides, I’d much rather eat in the bistro.
This took place during 2010 to 2012.
3 thoughts on “How not to open a bistro in France”
I wonder what would have happened if the Mayor had said yes. Looking forward to the next chapter.
Oh B! The end of an era! Reading that back made me quite emotional. Not because of all the name checks (though thank you, you’re ridiculously sweet) but because it’s so inspiring. So what if you didn’t actually open the bistro. You went further than 99% of people to see where your dream was a feasible reality. In another life, I think maybe it could have been. It’s been a pleasure being a small part of your journey. Jxx
An excellent insight – thanks. We rarely hear from those who thought about it, but didn’t do it. Yet we often witness the aftermath of those who did do it, but shouldn’t have. Maybe it will happen one day … maybe the time just wasn’t right.