In 2015 my wife and I decided we were going to open a restaurant in France. Knowing that I am an English chef wanting to open a restaurant in the country that considers itself the mother and father of all restaurants you might be correct in thinking we were crazy. But this was not our first rodeo!
I first met the lady who was to become my wife in the late 1980’s. We were students at the same catering college, albeit a year apart, and met on industrial placement. We went our separate ways, did different things with other people and got back together in 2005 and married in 2007. At which point she suggested, and I stress – SHE suggested, we pack up, move to Spain and open a restaurant! Which is exactly what we did. One year before the biggest financial crash in living memory!
It had always been my dream to live in France, so after 7 years in Spain it was my suggestion to pack up and move to France. My wife reminds me on a regular basis that France was my idea!
We had spent time in the Pyrenees Orientales on holiday and knew the area well and had even made some friends. We have Perpignan and the Mediterranean to the east of us and the majestic Pyrenees mountains to the west. We are literally one hour from the coast and one hour from the ski stations.
We found an old restaurant in January 2015 that had been closed for three years and decided to re-open it. Between March and May we redecorated, had a disabled-friendly toilet built, scrubbed the kitchen, bought new equipment for the kitchen and scoured second hand shops and the internet for restaurant furniture. We managed to get water and electricity connected, with a little help.
English Chef in France
We were quite obviously becoming a tourist attraction. Two questions were asked daily by the locals as they stopped to stare in – when do you hope to open? (early May) and you are English? (yes!) Our command of French at this stage was limited but we knew enough to know that the locals thought we were cuckoo and they were most likely running a book as to how long the crazy English would last!
Whilst we spent a large part of our days covered in paint, old kitchen grease and general filth, we also had to tackle the notorious French bureaucracy. We made two great finds, an accountant who spoke English, although he had never dealt with a restaurant, and a bank. Our contact in the bank had not a word of English but we had a mutual appreciation of rugby and food and got on like a house on fire! But I still had to spend three days on a French licensing course.
Along with twenty other hopefuls and wannabe licensees I turned up at 8.45 on the first morning feeling more than slightly trepidatious! After coffee and croissants (this is civilised!) and the ubiquitous “vous etes anglais?” followed by the not so civilised smirk! It was down to business. After the third day I left clutching my certificate and feeling like I had been let out of school early! Now was the time to apply for the licence, which is granted by the local town hall and which has to be granted two weeks before the restaurant is allowed to open.
Before the town hall would issue the licence they needed my business registration number. But before I could get the business registration number I needed the liquor licence! At which point my stumbling French switched to fluent Anglo Saxon! I started to understand why the locals were sniggering about us opening in May. If I am honest I put a signature in a box on a form where it may not have belonged and we got our licence and registration number – enough said!
We opened one week behind schedule on May 8th 2015! All the local interest in us became extreme caution. We opened to four people – all of them friends! As I said earlier, France considers itself the mother and father of all things “restauranty” and every French person is a frustrated chef. Their opinion of British food and British chefs is pretty well summed up by the fact that they call us “le rosbif”.
Over the first few weeks some of the locals were brave enough to try this novelty. Often appearing very nervous their expectations were clearly low. My wife became proficient at feilding the usual question of “vous etes anglaise?” But it was the follow up question that tickled us, which was asked with hope and expectation, “et le chef, il est francais?” Imagine their disappointment when finding out that, no, the chef was also English! As we got used to hearing, “Incroyable!”
Gradually we moved on and the French started to accept the fact that this slightly strange English couple might actually stay. But their comments regarding the food remain with us. “Ca change”, “C’est innovative!”, “Mmm…fait maison!” After nearly six years we are established, have a good reputation, are number two on Tripadvisor and have got used to the fact that the French remain nervous of us and still demand, “Et le chef…….il est Francais?”