My good friend Allison came to visit me in France last week. We were both looking forward to the trip for obvious reasons, but most importantly for all of the food. Fancy restaurants in Paris, seafood and crêpes in Normandy, home-cooking at my place. As we’ve grown older, we’ve both discovered our mutual passion for cooking. We have different ways of expressing ourselves in the kitchen, but we are both unmistakably gourmande. As a perfect stroke of luck, the Bon Appétit Paris issue came out a few weeks before she left. We made a list of all the different restaurants and pastry shops that we had to try, but also decided that a cooking class of some sort was in order. I spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect class, not too expensive, interesting, informative. I found one that seemed to suit us, but it was sold out. In desperation, I closed my computer and decided to thumb through my latest issue of Saveurs magazine to take my mind off of my to-do list. And there it was. Nestled in between articles and product reviews, a tiny article about a (fairly) new concept restaurant called Un Jour Un Chef*.
I immediately scoured their website to find out more. It’s a restaurant created by three food-lovers who are also passionate about sharing their knowledge of the business and helping others develop their culinary style and technique. Basically, the kitchen and a team of professional chefs is put at your disposition for a day of foodie bliss. You choose the theme and the menu: it can be recipes that you know by heart or something new you’ve always wanted to try. It’s open to anyone. The entire day is customizable and you can choose to do as much or as little as you want. There is no limit to what you can make or spend making it, and the best part: the entire day is free! It basically works out to being a day of free labor for the restaurant who then has less full-time staff, and an unbelievable amount of experience and creative expression for the “Chef for a day.”
It sounded absolutely perfect for Allison and I. I sent her an email immediately, explaining the concept and jokingly insisting that we do it. To my delight, she totally agreed. We knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and something that we would never forget. We imagined reminiscing about the details years later, and quickly started brainstorming for our menu. We knew that it would be American themed. All that was left to do was to choose very typically American dishes that could be dressed up and served in a semi-gastronomic restaurant in the center of Paris. After many emails back and forth and skype conversations, we decided on:
Appetizer: Spicy fried chicken strips on a bed of lettuce, mâche and pink endives with cornbread croutons and creamy buttermilk herb dressing
Main: Beer braised pork ribs with bourbon BBQ sauce, deconstructed green bean casserole and fennel and brown butter mashed potatoes
Dessert: Mini carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, peanut butter cookie with white and dark chocolate chips, red wine brownie with cocoa and marscapone frosting
Once I submitted the menu and got approval from Un Jour Un Chef, the preparations began. I received frequent emails and phone calls from the team so that we could finalize all the details of our menu and so that they could get everything we needed to make it. I spent long hours translating and converting all of the recipes, but in the end it was definitely worth it. Although some recipes were completely new to me (I’d never made ribs before in my life), most of them were tried and true and I made sure to insist on certain aspects of the recipes during our phone negotiations. Certain items like buttermilk and cornmeal were difficult to find, but we managed just fine using polenta and making our own buttermilk with milk and vinegar. We even brainstormed a perfect cocktail to go with what was shaping up to be a mostly Southern-inspired menu: a mint julep.
I picked Allison up from Gare de Lyon on Thursday afternoon and that evening we went to the restaurant for the first time to meet the team. Ludovic, a young and dynamic chef that had grown tired of the “trendy” food scene in Paris, Pauline, the reserved pastry chef and commis and Eric, the laid-back owner/concept creator, were all there to greet us and make us feel at home. As we stepped into the tiny kitchen for the first time, we were overwhelmed by the smell of carrot cake that was just coming out of the oven. Pauline had made the cake and the red wine brownies already, and Ludo was finishing the marinade for the ribs and had already prepared the cornbread (sans polenta, because they hadn’t received their delivery yet). As we weren’t dressed for cooking, we quickly approved of the preparations taking place in the kitchen and left them to it, excitedly looking forward to the following morning. We headed out to dinner that evening, dreaming of BBQ sauce and cornbread and peanut butter cookies…
The next day was chaotic to say the least, but in an oddly calm sort of way. The atmosphere was incredibly laid back, even in the most intense moments. We arrived around 9am to find Ludovic putting away the fresh fruits and vegetables that were delivered that morning, but worrying about the rest of the delivery that didn’t follow suite and that contained a couple of key ingredients: the peanut butter and polenta. We gave him the “bise,” had a quick espresso and changed into our chef’s vests. This was it. We were about to find out how this day was going to go down.
We entered the kitchen and Ludovic didn’t leave us wondering for long: we were immediately put to work chopping fennel, onions, garlic and potatoes for the mash, and mushrooms, onions and garlic for the green beans. Next came an entire industrial sized bag of onions for the salad and for the French fried onions, bringing us to tears and making us wonder if we weren’t going to spend the entire day chopping vegetables. We weren’t.
The greatest thing about this restaurant in my opinion is that the menu changes every day. Everything is made from fresh ingredients, and you can voyage from France to American to Morocco to Italy in the span of a few days. However, this may not be a pleasing concept for everyone. The owners of the restaurant understand this, and have created a mix and match three menu spread. Each day you can choose from the menu du Chef (us!), the menu des experts (the professional chefs, who create a market-inspired menu each day) and the menu des associés (a traditional French menu). As you can imagine, two menus that change every day makes for a lot of work in the kitchen. This is where our vegetable chopping stopped and our cooking began!
The delivery truck finally came, and Pauline was busy making the peanut butter cookies. Ludo had to start his menu, and although he had already scored, seared and braised the pork, made the barbecue sauce (an amazing mix of sautéed shallots, butter and brown sugar, the rest of the beer marinade, bourbon, pomegranate molasses, tomato paste and “smoke” flavored oil) and assemble the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, there were still lots of things to do and no one but us to do them. It was our time to shine, and we were so ready to show off our culinary chops. The chicken strips needed to be marinated, breaded and fried, the cornbread finished and cooked, and the salad dressing made.
We started with the cornbread, mixing in the polenta and placing it in the oven. We used a large baking sheet and spread it thin so that we could easily cut it into croutons later. Next, we made a dry rub out of cumin seeds, smoked paprika, espelette pepper and fresh ginger. While the chicken absorbed those flavors, we quickly made buttermilk and prepared our bowls for the chicken strip assembly: buttermilk and egg in one, flour, polenta and spices in the other. We let the chicken set for about 30 minutes while we prepared the salad dressing, then fried it in batches by dipping them in the egg mixture, then the breading and cooking for about 8 minutes. For the salad dressing, we mixed garlic, lemon juice and zest, olive oil, tarragon, basil, parsley and chives with buttermilk and added in a couple of anchovies for a little extra flavor. We clearly missed a step during the emulsifying step, and Pauline had to come to our rescue while teaching us a valuable lesson about mixing textures: we tried to add more herbs and some marscapone to the thin dressing to thicken it, but if you want it to work, it has to be the other way around. She mixed up some marscapone and cream cheese then slowly added in the liquid until the texture was just right. We just had to adjust our seasoning afterwards!
Things were starting to heat up in the kitchen, and to add stress to stress, Eric kept popping his head in every couple of minutes asking when we would be ready to make our test plates, so that the entire team could taste our dishes before service. We stalled and tried to up the tempo, until finally he told us that the first customers were in the dining room and that we couldn’t wait any longer. Luckily, our salad was plated and ready. A bed of crunchy greens topped with two chicken strips inside of a red onion ring, drizzled with creamy sauce and a few cornbread croutons. Everyone grabbed a fork, and I’m pretty sure I held my breath as I waited for the verdict… Unanimous success! Everyone agreed that the salad was exquisite, and Eric even managed to squeeze out a very sincere and enthusiastic “mmmmm,” which prompted Allison and I to high-five before quickly getting to the main dish.
This one was a bit trickier to plate. Everything was extremely hot (Ludo told me that I would eventually develop heat resistance in my fingers and hands, which will be a very welcome relief! He actually lifted the frying chicken out of the oil and pinched it with his fingers to make sure it was cooked!) and the mashed potatoes had to be placed in a very slim rectangular mold, the ribs had to be cut into three pieces and the green beans expertly placed parallel to the mashed potatoes. Phew. We managed to plate one and it was also subjected to taste-testing… The green beans were a huge hit (who knew that something so basic and made from everything in a can could be fancified and enjoyed by difficult Parisian foodies?), the meat was tender and flavorful and the BBQ sauce was nothing short of amazing.
The dessert was the last to be tested, and it also passed with flying colors. The red wine brownies were incredibly rich and subtle, the carrot cake was perfectly carroty and spicy with a not-too-sweet frosting, and my famous peanut butter cookies were to die for. It was a good thing that everything passed the taste-test, because the first orders were starting to roll in!
“2 entrées du Chef, 2 plats du Chef, 2 desserts du Chef!” This was it. The first two customers ordered our food, which meant that it was time to get to work and stop jumping up and down and cheering. Allison immediately started preparing the salads and I took over plating the main dishes. We were barely done with the first appetizer when the next order came in, and so it went… 2 1/2 hours of reheating and plating and ringing that bell, running around like crazy and loving every minute of it, until all of a sudden Ludo told us to start boxing everything up, because service was over. It felt like an hour had gone by, but it was already 2:30. We started cleaning the kitchen and packing everything up for that night’s service, when Eric came to get me from the kitchen.
I had no idea what he wanted, but I was thrilled when he took me into the dining room to see an adorable French couple that absolutely wanted to meet me and to find out the secret to my moist and flavorful chicken strips. I was slightly embarrassed by my dirty vest and overall unkempt look, but was quickly made at ease by all of the wonderful compliments that were coming my way. Eric bragged about my perfect French and everyone pretended to not believe I was actually American. They loved everything on the menu and were especially charmed by the salad and the peanut butter cookies. Oh, those cookies. They were the big hit of the day (with the ribs and the chicken, which we sold out of and had to make more for the evening service!), and a few minutes later Allison and I unwittingly stumbled upon a room full of lingering customers (OK, 5 or 6) who greeted us with an ovation and lots of oohs and aahs and compliments. They loved the peanut butter cookies, and I think I convinced them that peanut butter is just about the best food ever ;)
After the wave of compliments, we were finally able to sit down and enjoy a lunch of our own. We were a little disappointed to find that we weren’t eating our menu, but were relieved when we learned that we’d have it that night. We were also perfectly OK with eating whatever the offered us (yesterday’s leftovers) because it was followed by four different kinds of dessert, courtesy of the lovely Pauline. Oddly shaped bites of our red wine brownies, delicious fruit salad, a speculoos and caramel Charlotte and a chocolate and raspberry mousse cake. Yum. We had a great time unwinding and chatting with everyone, but it was officially break time and we needed to get out of the restaurant.
We headed for the famous “promenade plantée,” a cozy little garden created on the top of a series of arches that was just a few blocks away. Once we left the restaurant, I think we realized just how physical our day had been, and the fatigue started to hit. We found a bench and talked about the day’s adventures so far, and wondered about what the evening service had in store for us. Our backs hurt, our feet were sore, and mentally, well, my brain was feeling a little cloudy. We decided to have a quick drink before heading back to finish up around 6:30.
We weren’t sure what to expect for our soirée, and also weren’t sure what we’d be capable of. I was more tired when I stepped foot in the restaurant that night than I was that morning after a late night and a lousy night of sleep. Luckily we were told that the evening service is much more relaxed. They tend to be busier at lunch, plus at night the customers tend to take their time, sipping on an apéritif before the meal and drinking wine throughout. We began by taste-testing the famous mint julep, starting our night off right with a little cocktail.
We then helped Ludovic prep a little for the next day’s service (we had to say goodbye to Pauline, who was off for the night) and got everything ready for reheating and serving for the dinner service. We had a lot of fun laughing with (not at!) Ludo who seemed to have a mysterious burst of energy and spent the next few minutes snacking on anything and everything we could get our hands on (including the delicious French fried onions prepared that morning, just coated with cornstarch and fried, they stayed crispy all day!) and taking lots of pictures. After about another two calm hours in the kitchen, plating a few dishes and winding down, we were able to change and have dinner with our friends who had just arrived.
Before disconnecting completely, I had a little chat with Eric, who told me that the entire menu was perfect, and that he had a great time working with us. This last boost made my post-shift beer and mint julep taste that much better. We spent the next couple of hours laughing and relaxing with our friends, and savoring the fruits of our labor. Everything was amazing, and even though I had already made and eaten some of the elements at home, it tasted way better after a day spent crafting each dish with professional chefs.
If you live in Paris or are coming to visit and speak at least some French, I highly recommend this restaurant. If you are a passionate home cook, an aspiring chef or just love to eat, you should definitely take advantage of this amazing experience, or at least come and taste the fresh and seasonal cuisine that Un Jour Un Chef serves up seven days a week. I was delighted to find that every single thing on the menu was made from scratch, even the pâté served with the traditional French menu des associés. This is something that is unfortunately becoming rare in the city, so if for no other reason than knowing that for 25 euros you can have a three-course meal that is entirely made from scratch, you should eat here! Also, this is one amazing bunch. From the beginning until the very end, I felt like I was part of a close-knit family. They made us feel comfortable and useful the entire time, and we shared a lot of silly moments together that made the day one to remember. I hope I’ll be able to go back and cook again, solo this time. I wonder what kind of menu I’ll be able to dream up next time?
Un Jour Un Chef (*One Day, One Chef), 4 rue Biscornet, 75012 PARIS, métro BASTILLE
+33 1 43 43 00 08