French cuisine? He's got it licked


The smallest restaurant in Paris is run by an Englishman who has never learnt (officially) how to cook.

The smallest restaurant in Paris is run by an Englishman who has never learnt (officially) how to cook. The results are extraordinary. Chris Wright's tiny bistro - Le Timbre (the postage stamp) - is beginning to attract the admiring attention of the French culinary press. "I had a chef, a young Frenchman, a great lad in many ways, except he didn't like working during meal times, which was a bit awkward for a chef," said Wright, 32, who comes from Whitefield, just north of Manchester. "So, I thought, I'll have a go myself."

For a Mancunian to emigrate to Paris and start a successful restaurant offering classics of French cuisine is as unlikely as a French footballer going to Manchester and inspiring United fans to sing "La Marseillaise". On second thoughts, someone called Eric has already done that. Since Wright is (inexplicably) a Manchester City fan, we will let the comparison drop there.

Le Timbre, which is in the sixth arrondissement between Montparnasse and the Luxembourg Gardens, has one small room, with space for 24 customers, a chef and a waitress. Whether that makes it the smallest restaurant in Paris is a matter of dispute. (Wright says he knows one around the corner with room for just 21 diners.)

This is a part of Paris where you can find wonderfully exotic combinations. The Brazilian all-night samba club across the street has gone bust. Wright's restaurant used to be a Sri Lankan crêpe house. But there is nothing exotic about Le Timbre. It is an under-stated Parisian bistro, of the kind that is hard to find nowadays. The meals offered by Wright (menu from €22 {£15} at lunch, €31 at dinner) are French standards: rognons de veau (calf's kidneys), parmentier de queue de boeuf (oxtail and mash).

The free listings newspaper, A Nous Paris, described the results as "sumptuous", "convincing" and "talented". Their only complaint was that Wright speaks French "like Jane Birkin", with an approximate knowledge of grammar and a complete indifference to which nouns are "le" or "la". I had the rognons de veau, one of my favourite dishes. It was about the best that I have tasted. The Australian foodie couple at the next table raved about their meal: far better, they said, than the €60-plus dishes they had eaten at a posh restaurant off the Champs-Elysées the day before.

Wright took a few informal cooking lessons from a friend of his original, wayward chef. Otherwise, he learnt by trial and error, and by "cooking the dishes that made me want to come to France in the first place". "A lot of it is a question of the ingredients," he said. "If you buy only the best possible stuff, there is a limit to how much damage you can do."

Wright is a fine arts graduate who drifted to Paris eight years ago, and worked as a waiter and, finally, a restaurant manager. He started Le Timbre (3 rue Sainte-Beuve, near Metro Notre-Dame-des-Champs, telephone: 00 33 1 45 49 10 40) just over three years ago. He is now fully booked every evening and has a steady lunchtime trade.

Contrary to received opinion, Wright says, starting a small business in France is not difficult. The problems come if you want your business to grow. Wright would love to open a bigger restaurant, but the high social payments and red tape for hiring staff are daunting. "In Britain, everything is done to encourage a business to get bigger," he says. "Here, everything seems to encourage you to remain on a small scale, working six days a week, hiring as few staff as possible."

On the plus side, he says, that preserves traditional ways of doing things, which explains why French cuisine, when it comes to mid-range eating, is "still the best in the world". On the other hand, at the top level, he says, the cost of hiring staff has discouraged the innovation needed to keep haute cuisine at the cutting edge. This is a theory which could be applied more widely to the French economy.

In the meantime, the next time you are visiting Paris, if you want to experience French cooking at its best, at reasonable prices, as practised by a young man from Whitefield, try Le Timbre.

A song and dance on the Metro

In an attempt to persuade Parisians to enter and leave Metro trains in a civilised manner, the city's transport authority, the RATP, has placed stickers with spoof dance steps on some of its station platforms. The stickers encourage those waiting on the platform to "stand still" until their "partners" aboard the train have safely "danced" past them. Some chance.

The RATP would be better advised to teach politeness to its staff. Metro workers frequently go on strike to "defend public services", but they have a bizarre idea of service to the public. The other day, I bought a carnet (book) of 10 tickets at my local station. The man behind the glass plonked them down on the counter. The force-nine gale which mysteriously haunts all Metro station entrances, even on the calmest days, snatched up the tickets and blew them for several metres in each direction.

I asked for new tickets. I was told to get down on my hands and knees and find the old ones. I danced with rage. The man behind the glass ignored me. Maybe this is another type of traditional dancing encouraged by the RATP.

Widow Twanky

The Paris press club has drawn up its short-list for the prize for the funniest political saying of 2005 (intentional or unintentional).

My vote, as always, goes to Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the silver-tongued prime minister, famous for his empty aphorisms or Raffarinisms. In a debate on longevity in France, he explained: "Widows generally live longer than their spouses."

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