In an interview with the Paris Convention and Visitors Center, Luc Dubanchet, president of Omnivore, shares his views on the Parisian gastronomic scene and reveals some of his favorite restaurants. He also tells us about the upcoming publication of the Omnivore Guide, as well as the World Tour Food Festival, taking place in Paris for the first time in March of this year.
Tell us about your background: are you originally from Paris?
Like most Parisians, I’m not from Paris! I was born in the Loire region and came to Paris twenty years ago for my first job; the launch of BFM Radio. But my first real contact with the city was a little while before that when I came to Paris to do some work experience at the radio station, Europe 1.
Was Paris an exciting or an overwhelming experience for you?
Both! I remember how excited I felt working as part of the team of such a legendary radio station, but at the same time, I had the feeling of being lost in the middle of Paris until I realized that the city is a pretty easy place to find your way around. All of the monuments and main streets are easily identifiable, as you have seen and read about them even if you are visiting them for the first time. So it’s easy to get your bearings. Then there is the river Seine which separates the two banks; like all new arrivals to Paris, it took me a while to figure out which was the Right Bank and which was the Left, before realizing there was logic to this. You could say that in terms of aesthetic, journalistic and human experience, my first few months in Paris were a real shock.
Now twenty years on, has your vision of the city changed?
I’m still not a Parisian! I was, when I lived at Cadet in the 9th arrondissement or at Épinettes in the 17th on a lively and colorful street. At one stage, I was lucky enough to live on the Butte Montmartre, a short walk from the Place du Tertre, but that was back when I was a poor young journalist, starting out, and when I had loads of free time to admire Paris from the steps of Sacré-Cœur. I’ve also lived in the 6th arrondissement near the Institut de France. Each of these different areas of Paris have their unique charm and character.
I now live in Vincennes just on the outskirts of Paris, mainly because there’s more space thanks to the nearby Bois (woods). Strangely enough, however, I’ve recently had a yearning to move back into the center of Paris: I’d love to live in a first floor apartment above a bar in a Haussmanian-style building on an intersection, which is totally stupid, of course. I’m sure all that noise on a daily basis would get pretty unbearable after a while. But I suppose I fantasize about the hustle and bustle of living right in the centre of things.
I travel through Paris, along the banks of the Seine, on my scooter every day. It’s unbelievably beautiful to pass by all those wonderful monuments along the river on my way to work. Of course, the traffic can be really tire- some sometimes even unbearable but that aside, I get to see the diversity, unique variety and incredible places that make Paris what it is. I still sometimes have to pinch myself and tell myself ‘You are so lucky to live here’! I think that people don’t realize how beautiful it is; especially pedestrians and people on two wheels in the street. But twenty years on, I still find Paris as attractive and romantic as it was when I first came here! I admit that I never thought I would become so attached to the place. I travel a lot and every time I come back, the city still amazes me. I like Montreal, New York, San Francisco … I like Asia, Tokyo, Sydney … but Paris definitely has a unique grandeur.
It’s my home. Yes, it’s a city that can seem a little haughty or cold with all of its historical monuments and places, but in fact these very monuments connect us to great events in history and are what make this city so astoun- ding. Very few cities have preserved their history like this, allowing one to have such a strong link to the past and this is what makes Paris unique.
And in recent years, Paris has become more beautiful: it’s cleaner, there’s more space … I think it’s fantastic to see so many people cycling around Paris! I love this city but I don’t see it through rose-tinted glasses either; I simply compare it to other cities.
In your opinion, where is the center of Parisian gastronomy today?
For the past four or five years, the restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements have been the real creative hotspots of the city. Space is more easily available and the chefs starting out today don’t have a lot of money and are looking for places with an affordable rent. This movement started in the Oberkampf district and has now moved to the area between Bastille and Nation: there are some real gems here and a strong network of restaurants and cavistes (wine merchants) has sprung up. Everything started with Iñaki Aizpitarte’s restaurant, Chateaubriand, on the boulevard Beaumarchais; he bought this old house that’s now become one of the most talked-about gourmet bistros in the city. Other chefs took his lead like the Swede Peter Nielson, chef of la Gazetta restaurant on the rue de Cotte. Nielson is another one of these pioneers. His former second-in-command has also set up his own restaurant; Rino on rue Trousseau, an incredible 20-cover restaurant that’s always packed. Last year, Bertrand Grobeau, a former chef at Passard’s L’Arpège, opened Septime on the Right Bank as he didn’t have enough money to open a restaurant on the Left Bank. A few hundred yards away at Bourse is Sven Chartier’s Saturne.
Then of course, there’s Charonne, which is a pretty lively place and the very happening and increasingly popular rue Paul Bert. This district has a certain cachet; it’s less showy than the 3rd arrondissement or the Marais, where it’s hard to get something decent to eat. But, there are plenty of good places scattered all over Paris, the rue de Lancry for example, where Le Verre Volé opened over ten years ago. Strangely, ten years ago I would have put money on the 9th arrondissement and the rue des Martyrs becoming the place to eat but that hasn’t happened, perhaps because of the cost of property in the area.
Unfortunately, creativity does not a fortune make! But that’s what’s great about Paris too: there are always places to create things on a small scale, opportunities for young people, 25 to 30 years old, who can open up a place for €100,000.
There is a real revival; cavistes (wine merchants), restaurants, local trades are preserved – something rare in big cities. There are very few gastronomically deprived areas in Paris; there’s always a baker’s, market, bistro, wine store or cheese seller less than 200 m away!
I’m not one of those Parisian foodies who will travel halfway across the city to get the best cheese or the best cut of beef. I don’t like categorizing or breaking up the city into zones or segments. Paris is a bit like a treasure trove and that’s what’s so interesting! As part of my work with Omnivore, I go everywhere; I visit every new place that’s opened up. It would be too easy to just visit the restaurants of chefs coming from well-known establishments.
Where did the idea for the Omnivore Guide come from?
Omnivore came out of a desire to talk about cuisine d’auteur (designer/signature cuisine), creative cooking and to shake up the established order of traditional, bourgeois restaurants in favor of more open, accessible ones. The idea is to spot and list restaurants with menus starting out at €14/€15. There’s no rating, no stars. But we’re selective. Less than 200 restaurants are chosen for the guide with a double page spread of descriptions, opinions and photos for each one. Unfortunately, we can’t put all of the new restaurants opening up in Paris in the guide but thanks to our new Internet site, we can talk about them there. The guide’s philosophy is quite a participative one: we ask the reader to take an active part. It’s a guide for the curious amongst us and is quite dense. It reads like a novel. Omnivore is published once a year, there’s also a world guide and we’re releasing a Paris Guide soon.
The World Tour was born as part of Le Havre Festival in Normandy, where it was organized over a period of two years, before moving to Deauville for four years. It’s a fantastic opportunity to bring together chefs from all over the world and get an insight into the wonderful wealth and variety that exists on an international level. After having welcomed all of these international chefs down through the years, it seemed only natural that we should return the visit. The World Tour Food Festival is a type of a road show with Paris as its home port. All of the chefs taking part in the international editions of the World Tour have at some point, passed, pass and will pass by Paris which is, in a sense, the main stage of the festival.
The program of events is different for each stage and adapted to the host cities. We hope to welcome 15,000 festival-goers to the Parisian edition which offers visitors a ‘sweet program’, a ‘savory program’ and for the first time, a ‘chocolate program’. Food tasting events, a market and dinners will be taking place all over the city. Paris was lacking a big cuisine festival, one that offered a lot of variety and involved lots of different well-known personalities. A visitor can come to the festival, participate as a spectator, see French chefs, as well as those from his/her continent or country and then in six months time, attend the festival taking place in his/her own city whether it be Tokyo or San Francisco. I love this idea of convergence, of everything coming together. It makes sense whether you’re a tourist, a journalist or a food professional.
Throughout the year, we also organize other events, like the monthly dinners at the Centquatre which offer diners a four-course menu, with a glass of wine, for the price of €39.
In your opinion, what does the future hold for the Parisian gourmet scene?
I’m very optimistic. Despite all the bistros in Paris, there was a danger of falling into a ‘classical’ cuisine. If Paris turns into a museum and stops re-inventing itself, it will die. Paris is wonderful when it’s creative but something has to spark that creativity and this new generation of chefs-auteurs has found the winning ticket. We have what it takes to get more people to participate in this new and evolving gourmet scene in Paris; not just because the city is beautiful or attractive but because it’s a real hothouse of ideas, in terms of fashion, design, photography, literature and cinema. Their evolution goes hand in hand with what’s happening in gastronomy. The city has an astounding amount of imaginative talent on offer.
Because of all this innovation, we’re in a phase of reinvention, renovation, movement, excitement. And it’s just the beginning. More and more exciting and high quality restaurants are just waiting to open: pop up restaurants, temporary eateries, and miniscule places with just three forks and two spoons. The public demand is out there!
Top and home page photographs provided by Ze Kitchen Galerie.