May I Talk to the Chef?

Denis Egger

Denis Egger worked as a bank employee for over twenty years. A few months ago, he decided to give up banking and to let free rein to his childhood passion: cooking. Now, once a week, he sets up a clandestine restaurant in his apartment, a stone’s throw away from the Bastille. In the richly decorated living-room, where he receives strangers for an evening of gastronomy, shelves are weighed down by piles of cooking magazines and the dining table takes pride of place. “I was raised in a bourgeois family; to become a chef was not considered a respectable career,” he says. “This is my revenge.” If his initiative works out, he might end up opening a table d’hôte. “Restaurants are too impersonal, I want to keep the human touch that I get with such dinners.”

Clandestine dining is taking hold over France after private supper clubs mushroomed all over the United-States. According to Saïd Younes, the founder of restoclando.fr, a website that lists hosts ready to cook for strangers, the concept is simmering in the country, ready to kick up next spring. He says that in the midst of the economic crisis, the idea is appealing for the social aspect it encapsulates.

“It’s a general trend, people want to know who is living next door. There are tons of new initiatives based on exchange and sharing out there,” adds Jordane de Villaret, who registered on restoclando.fr after dining in a clandestine restaurant with her boyfriend. Tom Brami, who created the platform livemyfood.com, based on the concept of food-surfing, agrees that there is a “return to human values” and that several new concepts are surfing the wave. Clandestine restaurants is one. Modeled on the idea of couch-surfing, food-surfing – welcoming tourists who want to get an inside glimpse at the French lifestyle – is another.

Even though both concepts share common features – namely that strangers gather at a private home to enjoy the culinary talents of their hosts – Tom Brami emphasizes that some clandestine restaurants are “just about business.” In opposition, he sees food-surfing as the right way to achieve a more genuine, social approach to cookery. Whatever the differences may be, Saïd Younes and Tom Brami both say their websites are successful. Livemyfood.com has gathered 1,700 people in just two years. Restoclando.fr does not want to disclose the number of visitors that are drawn to the website, but says it is climbing sharply.

Three Courses with Wine for 45 Euros

For his private dinners, Denis Egger, who is both a member of restoclando.fr and livemyfood.com, receives up to six guests. Because he has recently devoured the sitcom Sex and the City, the evening starts with a Cosmopolitan cocktail. For 45 euros per person, he serves a salmon terrine followed by a sautéed veal and a chocolate fudge cake. The menu is washed down by two bottles of Morgon. “That is quite an opulent meal,” he says. “Contrary to a restaurant, the idea is to share rather than to cut corners.”

Denis Egger's apartment

Celia Tunc could not agree more. This member of livemyfood.com has received guests from France, but also from Brazil and Mexico. All of them had a keen interest in gastronomy, some of them even contributing to culinary blogs. That makes it is easy to strike up a conversation over a trou normand. “It is like a dating website but designed for those who enjoy a common passion : gastronomy. You make friends fast this way,” she says. Celia Tunc is still in touch via Facebook with some of the tourists for whom she cooked.

“There are so many facets of a culture that show through cooking,” says Tom Brami. “Food-surfing allows tourists to discover a country other than by reading a guidebook.” Catherine Brami, his mother, pushes the argument forward: “It’s a way for foreigners to understand gastronomy. I have been invited to dinners in England where hosts served Martini throughout the whole menu. They had no idea it was an aperitif!” With this in mind, Denis Egger has prepared a pile of ready-to-give copies of his best recipes in case some tourists want to brush up their skills in French cuisine. “I don’t have any secrets, cuisine is a treasure-trove, not a private property.”

“I spent a nice evening even though the food wasn’t that good”

He also points out that his cooking is more authentic than what you find in most restaurants. “Take the escalope milanaise. In most places it is prepared with turkey even though it is supposed to be veal,” he explains. “That’s an absolute disgrace.” Celia Tunc concludes : “In a restaurant, it is all about fancy napkins. Now people want a more genuine and social approach.”

There is also the excitement of entering a stranger’s home to savor a pot-au-feu. “For the guests, it’s a risky bet,” says Catherine Brami, who recently went to a dinner organized by a Franco-American living in Paris. “It’s a bit like ‘Knock-knock, who’s there?’ But I spent a nice evening even though the food wasn’t that good.” No doubt that the originality of the concept is a big turn-on. “Look at all the restaurants opening up in Paris. They are all the same. Same decoration, same food in the plate. Last year it was all about beetroots. Turnips this year,” Celia Tunc says. “You bet people want to try something different !”

But the idea of a hidden kitchen whose existence is mainly known by word-of-mouth also has its limits. Denis Egger gives fliers to people he bumps into in the street. But even with the help of the Internet, he finds it hard to fill up every week without having the advantage of a proper network yet. “The ‘underground aspect’ is double-edged,” he says.

Non-regulatory kitchens

Clandestine restaurants try to keep a low profile for fear of being controlled by tax officials or by the health department. Catherine Brami says she is a caterer on the black market because building a kitchen that would respect regulations would be too expensive. “I called the Chamber of Commerce and it turns out I can make cookies but I can’t make éclairs because they contain cream. It’s very complicated and I am earning peanuts! I will make the investment if I decide to do it full time.”

Indeed, some hosts end up opening a restaurant. This is the case of Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian who ran a private supper club, Hidden Kitchen, before launching their own restaurant – the Verjus – on December, 1st. But for Denis Egger, organizing dinners at his place is not a first step towards establishing a restaurant. “I like the social interaction. I like to see my guests appreciating what I am doing. I could not have that with a restaurant.”

As for Tom Brami, he is convinced that concepts based on alternative consumption are the new hype. “I am not a prophet, but I feel that in a world turned on its head, we have pertinent ideas.”

Follow on Twitter: Rémi Noyon

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