I have often wondered what it might be like to cook in a restaurant, but until now had never been curious enough to actually try it. The closest I came was during my first year in Paris back in 1995, when I made a modest living whipping up crumbles, cinnamon buns and scrambled eggs in the bookshop/tea room Tea and Tattered Pages. Working alone in that closet-sized kitchen with its dinky oven hardly prepared me for the drug-fuelled, foul-mouthed environment described by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential.
Thus I put on hold any cheffy ambitions I might have been harboring, channeling them instead into slightly less punishing occupations involving food. I might have gone on like this quite contentedly had I not met Claire Seban and Serge Haguenauer one night in Paris. This charismatic pair runs the little bistro La Table de Claire in the 11th arrondissement, and as soon as I set foot in the vintage dining room I felt at home. So much so that, as I interviewed Claire about her successful guest chef nights, I found myself offering to do a stint in the kitchen.
Claire and Serge gave up their day jobs as directors of a communications agency in Paris a few years ago to retrain as restaurant owners. Jovial, curly-haired Serge mans the front of house while Claire works with cool competence in the kitchen. She hasn't always felt so comfortable: as we chatted, she admitted that the chef d'un soir nights grew out of her anxiety at being all alone in front of the stove. Today she is the one who puts the guest chefs at ease, teaching them in a space of a few days how a professional kitchen works.
Wisely, Claire leaves nothing to chance. Before signing on guest chefs, she and Serge taste their specialties and decide how to adapt them for a restaurant kitchen. The cook then spends a day prepping the dishes with Claire before working alongside her for two days. When I visited, Judeo-Moroccan dishes from Viviane Dahan - who, like many of the guest chefs, is a friend of Claire and Serge - featured alongside Claire's modern bistro cooking. Without taking away from the homely quality of dishes like carrots in cumin, Claire presented them with a touch of restaurant finesse.
Everyone in the dining room seemed to know each other, and it turned out that two other diners had been guest chefs. One was an American physicist and self-taught Chinese cook who had prepared a Sichuan menu, while the other was a high-ranked French civil servant with a passion for cooking. His brief stint as guest chef led him to take over the kitchen of La Table de Claire two nights a week for a year, and he now plans to open his own bistro.
Claire's ingenious idea has led to the publication of a book, Moi, chef d'un soir, featuring the restaurant's first 20 guest chefs. Mathieu Garçon's beautiful photos capture the character of the bistro and the unique talents of each cook.
Next week it will be my turn. On the evening of July 17th and on July 18th at lunch and dinner I'll be serving a menu of classic Niçois dishes. Here is what Claire and I have planned:
Pissaladière (Caramelized onion tart)
Tartines de ratatouille au pistou (Ratatouille on sourdough bread with Niçois pesto)
Poulet au pastis (I like to call this dish "chicken bouillabaisse")
Les petits farcis (Little stuffed vegetables)
Lemon tart with olive oil
Strawberry and raspberry gratin
If you would like to reserve a table, please call the restaurant directly at 01 43 70 59 84 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
6 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
Oh, my! That sounds like the most exciting thing and the scariest all at the same time! I've always been a little scared of the idea cooking in a restaurant too, but also curious. I think this would be a fun, comforting way of doing it. What a great idea for a restaurant. I'll have to check it out on a future visit to Paris. Good luck and mostly, have fun!
Tami, I think "safe" is the operative word here! It's nice to be doing this with someone who has so much experience. My only fear is, will the tomatoes be as sweet in Paris?
Ahhh...wish I could be among the lucky diners! I love everything on your menu. Every one of the dishes sounds mouth-wateringly, classicly Nicois and I'm sure your culinary artistry will light up this little bistro. Would you consider posting the recipes after your guest chef debut? If I could find a way to extricate myself from economically woeful Southern California, I'd be there in a nanosecond. Keep us posted on this lovely adventure!!
Hi Beth, thanks so much for your encouragement! I won't be posting the recipes right away, but one by one they will appear in the future.