Across the street from the historic Richelieu site of what is now the National Library of France stands an entrance to Galerie Vivienne, one of the famed covered passages of Paris. The shopping arcade was built in 1823 as Galerie Marchoux (inaugurated in 1826 and renamed Vivienne shortly thereafter) in a neoclassical Pompeian style according to plans drawn up by architect François-Jacques Delannoy, whose design included winding staircases, arches, and half-mooned windows, along with reliefs of nymphs and goddesses, mosaic floors, and a rotunda (capped with a glass cupola).
Situated in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement on the equally-as-celebrated Rue Vivienne, the passage is home to an antiquarian bookseller, a toy shop, a leather watch band shop, and an adorable (and immensely friendly) French bull dog called Django, amongst other parlours and personalities. The aforementioned entrance, framed by ionic columns and hanging lanterns, is sandwiched between an antique map shop and a now-vacant atelier, this atelier, of course, being the old boutique of none other than legendary French designer Jean Paul Gaultier.
Now, after a brief hiatus, the former showroom is expected to reopen its doors this coming May as Da Roco, the long-awaited brainchild of Parisian restaurateurs Alexander Giesbert and Julien Ross. Co-owner Giesbert sat down to chat about his inspirations, his love of food, and the future of French gastronomy in an interview with The Cambridge Globalist.
A dream born in childhood
Bearded, curly-haired, and spectacled, Giesbert, 31, sits across from me in his office on the upper level of Galerie Vivienne. We speak loudly, our voices straining to be heard over the cacophonous clangour of drills and hammers just below; construction is well underway for the impending opening of Da Roco, the fourth instalment in Giesbert’s soon-to-be quadrilogy of “new wave” restaurants founded alongside London-raised business partner Ross. Da Roco was preceded by neoclassical bistro Roca (2013, 17th arrondissement), pizzeria Roco (2014, 17th arrondissement), and “fine kebaberie” Rococo (2015, 10th arrondissement).
“I took a liking to restaurants early on,” says Giesbert, the son of artist Christine Fontaine and American-born award-winning French author, journalist, and television presenter Franz-Olivier Giesbert (Le Point; Le Figaro, 1988-2000; winner of Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française for his novel L’affreux, 1992).
“My father took me to restaurants when I was a child and taught me to appreciate the industry. Very often, he was acquainted with the chefs and the owners. We would go into the kitchen and he would have me taste things. So the idea of launching my own restaurant was something that I have dreamt of since my very childhood.”
Having received a baccalaureate in economics, Giesbert pursued the same subject in his first year of university. “But that was not going very well and it was necessary for me to find something that I considered enjoyable,” the restaurateur recollects. “I wanted to work with something concrete, manual, and I loved good meals and restaurants, so I told myself that culinary school would be a good idea.”
Giesbert ended up pursuing a degree at Paris-based Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts (École Supérieure de Cuisine Française (ESCF)), a part of École Grégoire-Ferrandi, which offers some of the most prestigious professional training programmes in all of France. Considered the Oxbridge of culinary schools, ESCF has trained such legendary chefs as Jacques Lameloise (three Michelin stars; Knight of the Legion of Honour), Didier Elena (two Michelin stars), and Matthieu Viannay (two Michelin stars). Giesbert graduated in 2007 after three years of study in the culinary arts.
Like father like son: hard work paves the way
Giesbert attributes much of his success to his willingness to work hard, a trait that he says he inherited from his father, whose contributions to journalism and literature render him a household name across France to this day. “[My father] is also obsessed with good meals and food. He is very hardworking and appreciates a job well done. Receiving pleasure from work and satisfaction from accomplishment are [virtues] that he conveyed to me,” says Giesbert.
The young chef also found role models and mentors in people he worked with over the course of his career. “I spent two years at a neighbourhood bistro called Le Troquet (1999, 15th arrondissement). Christian Etchebest, who was its owner back then, taught me to form a connection with clients, to welcome them properly, and to try to create an ambience that enables them to not only enjoy their meal but to have a good time, as well.”
Giesbert met his business partner Ross four years ago whilst working at a restaurant called Métropolitain (2011, 4th arrondissement). “I was the sous-chef (second de cuisine) and he was the restaurant manager (directeur de salle). We got on with one another instantly in our work and understood each other well. Soon enough we decided to launch something together,” he said.
Ross is the cousin of French restaurateur and sommelier Charles Compagnon, the founder of new wave Parisian restaurants L’Office (2011, 9th arrondissement), Le Richer (2013, 9th arrondissement), and Le 52 (2015, 10th arrondissement).
“Julien was not someone whom I knew before, that is he is not a childhood friend,” clarified Giesbert. “It is better this way, because, first and foremost, it is important that we work well together.”
The evolution and future of French gastronomy
The concept of the restaurant, as we understand it today, appeared in France in the mid-18th century and was elaborated and sustained, culturally and financially, by the nouveau riche in the decades that followed the French Revolution. Though the restaurant, as an establishment, soon spread across the world, the French restaurant industry remained the epitomic embodiment of elegance and service, and French cuisine, in particular, was considered, over the course of centuries, the most coveted and celebrated.
Due to the various climates that can be found across the country and the breadth of diverse alimentary products originating and/or growing in each of these climates, French cuisine was always been “very complex, complete, and rich in [often widely differing] technique,” says Giesbert. “However, today, French gastronomy is globalised, whereas before it revolved around itself.”
The chef expects that French cuisine will become increasingly influenced by traditions from across the world in years to come. “Traditional French cuisine has not become outdated, per say, but it has been set aside to a certain extent, [because], now, regardless of where you are in the world, you have access to all products and all techniques. The culinary basics might be French, Italian, Chinese, etc., but the resulting food is globalised,” he says.
Globalisation has also left its mark in terms of restaurant ambiance. “It is typically Anglo-Saxon to play music in a restaurant. You see this far more in New York than you do in Paris,” says Giesbert, whose restaurant Rococo customarily plays American and British hip hop music, including the soundtrack to 1990s situational comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There will also be music playing at Da Roco, though the specific genre has yet to be determined.
In some ways, however, the French restaurant industry is slowly restoring traditions that it had previously left behind. Giesbert tells me of a new gastronomic label that has appeared in France. Called ‘fait maison’, it guarantees that dishes served in a particular restaurant are homemade, i.e. made entirely from scratch. “[Getting this seal of approval] is becoming a big thing, because, nowadays, many restaurants do not [fully] produce what they serve and clients are just starting to realise that.”
It is acceptable to purchase ketchup or bread, says Giesbert, but many restaurants are taking it further: “They buy fish that is already cut into fillets, frozen chocolate cakes [to be defrosted before serving], readymade ice cream, readymade pizza dough, readymade tomato sauce, ham that has already been cut into little pieces,” he elaborates.
Restaurants gradually began to abandon the need to serve entirely homemade dishes with the advent of modern freezing, says the chef, but the practice became commonplace over the past thirty or so years. The primary consideration in choosing industrialised products – i.e. those that were produced in factories – over ‘fait maison’ is financial, as using pre-produced food is more cost-efficient than paying for the labour necessary to make meals from scratch.
“If you produce everything yourself, you must find a way to pay your staff and to then sell what they have produced at a cheap [or accessible] price. The cost of labour is becoming increasingly expensive and if you pay your staff more, you are obligated to sell at a higher price. Clients, on the other hand, will not buy at a higher price,” he said. The situation is complicated further by the fact that the official workweek is restricted to 35 hours in France.
For Giesbert, however, if a restaurant does not strive to produce almost everything it serves from scratch, it ceases to be a restaurant. “A restaurant must be a producer. That is important. And ‘fait maison’ is not normally something that you need to justify. This new label has appeared in France almost as if making something yourself is extraordinary. [It is not] and such labels are useless. Customers need to simply learn to eat well and understand what it means for something to be good.”
The young chef is committed to ensuring that most of what is served in his four restaurants is homemade. “Generally speaking, we make almost everything. At Roca, we do not make the bread; but that is not a tragedy. When we make tiramisu, we make even the ladyfingers.” Even condiments, such as mustard and ketchup, are made from scratch at Rococo.
From a showroom to Da Roco
“Our second restaurant – Roco – is an Italian pizzeria. It has been well-received and has a super ambiance, so we wanted Da Roco to be a slightly grander version of that,” says Giesbert. The new restaurant has been envisaged as a joint pizzeria and trattoria, offering both “refined” pizzas made with dough that is left to mature over the course of four to five days and traditional Italian primi and secondi (first and second courses, respectively). Though Giesbert will remain the creative mastermind behind Da Roco’s menu, he intends to hire formally-educated Italian chefs to actually prepare the meals.
Da Roco will, expectedly, respect the ‘fait maison’ tradition, but will not seek any official labels, including the organic appellation. “My priority is to use high-quality products that taste good,” says Giesbert. “We end up buying a lot of organic food, because high quality products often happen to be organic, but the word organic does not really mean much to me. It is just a label that guarantees that food was produced without pesticides and does not necessarily guarantee quality. Sometimes, non-organic alternatives are of superior quality and offer a much better taste.”
Giesbert and Ross are collaborating with two architects – Olivier Delannoy (of no known relation to François-Jacques Delannoy, the original architect of Galerie Vivienne) and Francesca Ericco – to create a “chic, modern, sophisticated, but welcoming” environment. The restaurateurs did not deliberately seek out the former atelier of Jean Paul Gaultier to be the scene of their new restaurant. Instead, the space was proposed to them by an architect friend who was working on the property after the designer’s departure. “The estate managers of Galerie Vivienne were hoping to use the space for a new restaurant. We got lucky, because we had the contact.” The finished product is expected to cover 400 square metres, occupy two floors, and have a seating capacity of 170 places. There will also be a bar.
Though Giesbert was hoping to pay tribute to Gaultier in Da Roco and even invited the designer to collaborate on the project, the latter preferred to leave the former showroom in his past. “There will [therefore] not be too many references to Jean Paul Gaultier at Da Roco. However, I have decided to dress the waiters in marinières (long-sleeved cotton shirts with horizontal blue and white stripes traditionally worn by members of the French navy). It was not [Gaultier] who created them, but they were an emblematic garment that he used a lot in his work.”
Giesbert believes that the bulk of Da Roco’s daytime clientele will be fairly well-to-do professionals in the 30-40 age group, with a generous percentage of them holding upper management positions. “There are a lot of headquarters, internet companies, start ups, and fashion houses, such as Kenzo and Céline, in this neighbourhood,” he says.
“But we expect to welcome all people who want to enjoy themselves and have a good time,” he concludes.
Interview with Alexandre Giesbert translated from the original French