Alice Quillet & Anselme Blayney

20th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

20th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

This interview with Alice and Anselme, owners of Le Bal Café and Ten Belles in Paris, happens in two parts. We’re due around to their place in Montmartre for breakfast on Saturday morning but Alice, the chef in the household, asks us if we’d like to drop by the night before to watch her making bread. For the past month she’s been experimenting with sourdough in all its crazy complexity – the recipe she’s using is 17 pages long – and she wants us to witness the process from start to finish. So when we arrive at Gare du Nord on the Eurostar, we make straight for their apartment near Place de Clichy to drink a few beers and watch the dough being prepped. Then we’re back bright and early the next morning for breakfast before Alice heads out to work.

Le Bal Café, just a few minutes away, sits next to a bookshop and an exhibition space in a building which, in the 1930s, was a dancehall of dubious repute (apparently there was a brothel upstairs). They opened the restaurant in 2010, serving gutsy British fare; co-owner Anna Trattles used to work at St John so offal is a regular feature on the menu. Two years later they opened Ten Belles in the 10th, addressing the need in Paris for a really good coffee shop. Anselme, who oversees the wine list at Le Bal, is also a coffee expert – he was instrumental in setting up the brilliant Belleville roastery in 2013.

When we arrive for breakfast, Anselme brews up some extremely good Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia while Alice gives her bread time to cool and their son Saul plays in the sunlight. She’s baked two loaves within large ovenproof pots which concentrate the heat – the Dutch oven technique. The bread, when she cuts it, has a beautiful crust with just the right softness inside. She serves it with soft-boiled eggs, avocado and a za’atar dressing. As the bread recipe is too in-depth to reproduce here (if you’re interested we recommend you buy the Tartine book), we asked Alice to tell us in detail how to dish up the perfect soft-boiled egg.

Continued below...

What prompted you to start making sourdough?

Alice: I was trying to find a breakfast bun to make at Ten Belles – people were coming into the cafe in the morning hungover and didn’t want to eat scones or banana bread – so I thought I should try to make a natural yeast bread. I’ve been working from recipes by Chad Robertson, the owner of Tartine in San Francisco, and Justin Gellatly who used to be at St. John1. My starters are called Justin and Chad [laughs] – Chad is here, Justin is at Le Bal.

So the bread you’re making now is from Chad’s recipe?

Alice: Yes. I’ve had a look at quite a few books about bread-making and Chad Robertson is definitely the god. It’s quite geeky, the whole bread thing. At first I tried to resist reading a lot, but then I gave in and read everything. It’s funny, because it’s quite scientific, but then it becomes quite instinctual. I’m only starting to get my head around it.

So when are you going to start serving it at the restaurant?

Alice: Never [laughs]. Because you’ve got to have the right oven – and a lot of time to spare. The sourdough that we serve at Le Bal is amazing2 so at the moment I’m just doing it for fun.

_MG_6611

Let’s rewind a bit. When did you start cooking professionally?

Alice: After university I was interested in becoming a cook and friends of my parents, Rose and Jean-Charles Carrarini, were opening the Rose Bakery in Paris. They asked me to help with setting it up and offered to train me in the kitchen. I was their first cook. That was in September 2002.

Had you always wanted to work in food?

Alice: I’ve been interested from a very young age but the Rose Bakery was my first proper restaurant job – I was there for a year and a half. When it opened, they were looking for front of house staff so I called up my old friend Anselme here and asked if he wanted to be a waiter.

What were you doing at that point?

Anselme: Pretending to study American literature at the Sorbonne. And liking the idea of it more than the actual work. I’d always enjoyed working in restaurants – that adrenaline rush you get with the service, finishing late, having a drink with the team afterwards… So when Alice gave me a call about the Rose Bakery I said yes.

You quit your degree?

Anselme: Yes, when it came to writing a 150-page dissertation on the rhythm of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road… I worked at the Rose Bakery for a year, then started looking for a job in wine3. I ended up in New York doing sales for a French producer across the US. It became more about selling tens of thousands of cases of wine than the wine itself, so when the opportunity arose to go back to Paris and start a restaurant, it sounded very appealing.

How did Le Bal come about?

Alice: While we were in New York, Anna [Trattles], my business partner, called to say that Rose and Jean-Charles had been offered a space and had suggested we take it instead. I spoke to Anselme and he said why not. We’d always talked about opening a restaurant and how we’d do it. This was a really good opportunity because it required very little investment, so we wouldn’t lose a lot of money if it didn’t work. We moved back to Paris and opened Le Bal in 2010, and then Ten Belles in 2012.

When I was a kid I used to find out what my friends were having for dinner before I spent the night at their house

Was it a lot of work at the start?

Alice: Yes, for the first nine months it was just Anna and I so we would do Wednesday to Sunday, 8am to 1am. Gradually we got more staff and scaled it down. Now I don’t work nights or weekends, though I do miss it.

How did you get into food in the first place?

Alice: My mother likes to take credit for this but she’s a terrible cook. Well she’s not terrible but she has frozen chopped onions in her freezer because she can’t be bothered to chop them.

She’s a lazy cook?

Alice: Yes, but it’s also because she’s had to do it from a very young age for three kids so it’s more out of necessity than anything else. I had two French grandmothers who really enjoyed food: one did really traditional stuff and the other moved to London in her twenties and became very cosmopolitan – we’d go to her house in Golders Green and eat really interesting ethnic food. But I’ve always been interested. When I was a kid I used to find out what my friends were having for dinner before I spent the night at their house.

What’s your favourite meal of the day?

Alice: It’s weird but I don’t really have regular meals since we opened the restaurant. I try to have staff breakfast in the morning when I can, but then we don’t have lunch until 3 or 4. I like staff meals at the restaurant, it’s always fun4. When I’m at home, I can very easily not eat until 3 o’clock… We made a decision six months ago to eat vegetarian at home.

Have you kept to it?

Alice: Yes, mostly, but it wasn’t very strict to start with – it was more to do with the fact that we don’t have good butchers in this area, so let’s just be vegetarian. It’s been interesting.

Isn’t Le Bal quite meaty?

Alice: Yes. For example, yesterday I made terrines and veal head and lamb sausages – so yes it’s very meaty. We decided when we opened that we wanted to do modern British food because Anna had worked at St John, so nose-to-tail and lots of offal. Traditionally Paris is the offal capital of France but we quickly noticed that young French people – and I hate to say it but women in particular – are not that into offal.

In terms of restaurant and food shops, is Paris a good place to be?

Alice: Yeah. We went back to New York a couple of years ago to do a coffee shop recce before we opened Ten Belles and went to 16 restaurants in a week and just as many coffee shops. And I came back thinking, oh, New York doesn’t have the monopoly on cool restaurants any more. I felt quite good about what Paris is doing. At the moment there’s a trend for small neighbourhood restaurants headed up by really talented chefs who do tasting menus5. You get big plates with the portions to the side and some foraged thing – a few leaves, usually a fruit or a pickle – then some barely cooked meat. That’s the trend – that’s what young male chefs in their 30s are doing.

Do you think it’s overdone?

Alice: A little bit. I’m more willing to go to a Szechuan restaurant than I am to eat in another one of those veal-tartare-and-coriander-flowers places.

Do you eat out all over Paris or do you tend to stick to one area?

Alice: No, we eat all over. It’s so easy to get around. At the moment the trendy restaurants are in the 10th, 11th and 9th arrondissements. It feels like restaurants are opening all the time at the moment. In fact we’re looking for a location…

You want to open a new restaurant?

Alice: I’d like to but I want to find the right place. Every time we see somewhere, it’s snapped up within two minutes. Everyone seems to be looking for a space. For a while it was good because the dining scene here was so shit, you could be a big fish in a small pond. The pond is getting a bit bigger now, unfortunately [laughs]. But it’s exciting as well.

A lot of winemakers who make natural wine are not as serious as they should be. It’s more about being part of the gang rather than making good wine, because there are no rules

You mentioned you ate at loads of restaurants in New York. Do you plan your travels around food?

Alice: Yeah. We went on our honeymoon to Japan specifically so we could go to Shikoku Island, where they do sanuki udon. My brother’s getting married in Bolivia in April and I’m thinking of doing a stage at Gustu6 when I go – if my brother’s okay with me doing that. But we don’t always travel for food or coffee. In May we went to Abu Dhabi, which is not a coffee-producing country and which has the worst food in the world – and it was actually quite refreshing not to be a slave to our stomachs.

_MG_6829

What ingredients would you always spend money on?

Alice: Coffee, wine, butter. I spend a lot on flour actually. It’s ridiculous: when you feed your starter you have to get rid of 80% of what you’ve made. Every day I’m throwing out 200-500g of flour that I haven’t used for anything apart from feeding the starter. It’s like feeding a child.

What happens to the starter when you go away?

Alice: We’re going to Copenhagen soon, but only for two days so I’ll put it in the fridge and it should be fine. I feed my starter once a day; our friend James feeds his twice a day; Chad Robertson at Tartine feeds his three times. So I’m nowhere near hardcore.

How much coffee do you drink in a day Anselme?

Anselme: When we first opened Le Bal and had an espresso machine and I was probably drinking 10 espressos a day. That was partly because we were working 8am to 1am every single day. But it all became a bit too much so now I’m down to two mugs in the morning and an espresso after lunch, and maybe another espresso at around 4 or 5.

So filter in the morning, espresso later on.

Anselme: Yeah. I can’t do espresso in the morning, it’s too strong. Espresso’s great but it’s like a magnifying glass on one particular aspect of the coffee – it’s just so intense that it’s hard to see the subtlety and variations. Whereas with filter coffee there’s a parallel with wine, which is more my background, and the notions of terroir and geography and roast style…

How’s the wine list at Le Bal?

Anselme: We opened with 15 different wines on the list and then developed it up to around 100. Now we’re back down to 50 or 60. I think as a customer I’d be really happy with it. There’s not a single wine I don’t like on the list. My philosophy was always, whether you’re buying a €20 bottle of wine or a €80 bottle, it’s got to be amazing in its own right. You shouldn’t have to be rich to sample good wine. And I try to have as many different styles by the glass as possible. It’s not rocket science but it’s a mix of well-known and lesser-known winemakers.

_mg_6870

Do you serve natural wines?

Anselme: I’ve been on the fence about natural wines for a long time. I’ve had some amazing bottles and some really terrible bottles. The problem is if you want to do it properly you need an incredible amount of fridge space because they are wines that do not do well over 14C. And a lot of winemakers who make natural wine are not as serious as they should be. You get a huge amount of duds.

Are they getting any better?

Anselme: Good winemakers are always going to be good and lazy winemakers… well, they can get lucky one year. I’ve never been part of the whole natural wine craze. The wines I like generally come from small properties where the grapes are organically farmed and biodynamic. Some are natural but I don’t like winemakers who boast about being natural because it can be a load of bullshit. It becomes more about being part of the gang and being cool rather than making good wine, because there are no rules really. The only rule is, okay I don’t add anything to my wine, but it’s not controlled, it’s only as good as the winemaker’s word.

_MG_6910

How do you divide up cooking duties at home?

Anselme: I take care of Saul while Alice cooks.
Alice: You do cook sometimes.
Anselme: But I’m a lazy cook. I like cooking for occasions, when working with something really beautiful, a nice piece of meat. But not really on a daily basis. I like to spend four hours building a BBQ and getting the charcoal just right.

Is he good at barbequing?

Alice: Er… yes. Well, I’m the one who tells him when he should turn the meat or take it off or wrap it in foil or whatever.
Anselme: It’s hard because obviously Alice is cooking on a professional level. So I sort of take it for granted.

_MG_6933

Is Saul interested in food?

Alice: It’s funny: on summer holidays and stuff he’ll eat anything, then as soon as we’re home he’s like, oh I just want to eat pasta. I tried to give him tortellini last night but he wouldn’t eat the filling because it had too much flavour.

What’s his favourite food?

Alice: Ketchup [laughs]. And pasta. At the moment he’s obsessed with raisins.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Alice Quillet and Anselme Blayney
Paris, October 2014

To eat:

Freshly-baked sourdough bread
Soft-boiled eggs »
Za’atar dressing
Sliced avocado

To drink:

Deck & Donohue beer (the night before)
Belleville coffee (the morning after)

What’s your comfort food Alice?

Anselme: Cheese.
Alice: [laughs] Sometimes I really want to eat this garlic soup that my mum and grandmother makes. It’s basically just garlic, vermicelli, eggs and vinegar and it’s really nice, but it’s more comforting when I’m not the one making it, do you know what I mean? It’s better when my mum makes it.

What about you Anselme?

Anselme: Pasta.
Alice: I think Anselme was a cat in a previous life, because he eats tin after tin of sardines or anchovies.
Anselme: Anchovies or sardines mixed in with pasta – even better!

You can find the Le Bal website here and Ten Belles here

Alice has just launched a live storytelling event series in Paris called Amuse Gueule. More info here

_MG_6968

  1. He recently started his own bakery in London, Bread Ahead
  2. “It’s from Jean-Luc Poujauran, who serves all the best restaurants in Paris. There’s a long waiting list for his bread but I interviewed him for Monocle right before we opened Le Bal and that’s how we got his bread.”
  3. A couple of wine epiphanies set Anselme on this route: one was drinking a Gevrey Chambertin with his father at Bistrot Paul Bert in Paris
  4. “One of favourite staff meals is rice, fried egg and kimchi,” says Alice. “I’ll usually base it around a starch – pasta, rice or lentils – and some of my staff don’t eat pork so we have to accommodate. In my baking craziness before the summer I tried loads of different rolls and buns and breads and doughnuts: that was popular.”
  5. This is what’s known in France as “bistronomy”, a rebellion against the typical stuffiness of Michelin restaurants by cooking high-end food in humble venues
  6. High-end restaurant in La Paz opened by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer which focuses on local produce, much of which cannot be found outside Bolivia

Posted 20th March 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

More Interviews

Tom Jaine – The food writer and publisher assembles lunch at his Devon smallholding, recalls his upbringing at a revolutionary restaurant and admits to his 12-a-day instant coffee habit

Alison Roman – Over a long summer lunch at her Brooklyn apartment, the food writer and ex-pastry chef trades dinner-party tactics, reveals her biggest food heroes and explains why recipes exist to be subverted

Asma Khan – The founder of Darjeeling Express makes mutton keema for lunch, recalls cooking lessons in her family’s Calcutta palace, and explains why she only employs women at her new London restaurant

Bea Pérez & Pepe Flórez – The owners of Bodega Vidas show us around their vineyard, explain how they swapped science for wine, and prepare a very special – and intensely meaty – local delicacy