People of the pandemic: Parisian chef turns restaurant into local farmers’ market
Amandine Chaignot swapped her chef’s hat for a greengrocer’s apron during the first French lockdown to support producers and feed Parisians in search of quality products. Her small farmers’ market, a breath of fresh air in a time of crisis, inspired others to follow suit. This is the third installment in a series about people who found a new calling during the pandemic.
Parisian chef Amandine Chaignot is never where you expect her to be. In fact, she was never supposed to work in the restaurant business at all. Born to scientist parents in 1979 in Orsay, south of Paris, the young Chaignot appeared set for a brilliant career in science. “I grew up in an engineering bubble between Polytechnique, INRA, CNRS and CentraleSupélec,” she said, listing France’s top academic research institutions. “I was destined to go down that path.”
But it wasn’t meant to be. After a year and a half at pharmacy school, she threw in the towel. It was by pure chance that she discovered the food business, during a part-time gig at a pizzeria. The energy, the movement, the adrenaline of a restaurant shift – she loved it all.
She began training as a chef, going on to cut her teeth alongside some of the greatest chefs in the restaurants of Paris’s most luxurious hotels (Le Bristol, Le Meurice, Le Crillon, Le Plaza Athénée) and London (the Ritz, Hotel Rosewood).
Soon she won competitions and prizes – such as the Bocuse d’Or and the Meilleure Ouvrière de France (MOF) – and began making a name for herself. In October 2019 she opened her own restaurant, Pouliche, a stone’s throw from the teeming rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement (district) of Paris, offering modern gourmet cuisine.
A bridge between Parisians and produce growers
In a twist of fate, five months after the restaurant opened, France went into lockdown in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19. Lockdown came as a severe blow to the small new team, but the energetic young entrepreneur refused to give in to despair.
Holed up in her Parisian apartment and talking to out-of-work producers, she soon realised there was a lack of fresh produce on the streets of the French capital.
So she came up with an idea: to turn her restaurant into a farmers’ market and embark on a new stage of her career.
“The producers with whom I’ve worked for 10 years were in despair. I also saw that Parisians were eager to cook but struggling to find high-quality fresh products. So I decided to act as the bridge between producers and consumers.”
After a week spent contacting producers and stocking and displaying the goods, she was ready to welcome the first customers to her new grocery store. Some 20 producers supplied her with asparagus, strawberries, honey, citrus fruits, spices, bread and wine, arriving as soon as they were available.
“The customers were surprised at first. Then word of mouth spread really quickly,” she said. Social media also helped spread the word about her new business.
Temporarily renamed “Le marché de Pouliche” (Pouliche’s Market), her converted restaurant was appreciated as much for its charm as for the quality of its products. “At the time, there was disposable plastic everywhere and plexiglass in front of everyone; I wanted to make the place look both pretty and cheerful,” Chaignot said. With music playing at full volume, the young grocer offered artisanal Montalet cured meats and Kalios olive oils, along with culinary advice. “People laughed when they saw me struggling with the accounting,” the chef recalled. “There was a beautiful carefree atmosphere despite the difficult situation.”
Grocer, chef, YouTuber
Her farmers’ market quickly took off. Customers poured in from 10am to 2pm. “There were days when people queued all the way up to rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis,” Chaignot said. After that, other restaurateurs, out of work because of the lockdown and inspired by Chaignot’s idea, followed suit and launched their own local markets.
Chaignot could have stopped there, but that would have been out of character. When she was not in her grocery store she was at her stove, preparing 20 to 50 meals a day for hospital staff in collaboration with the NGO Solidaire, since catering services at the beginning of the pandemic were failing to provide enough meals for the many caregivers at hospitals.
And Chaignot still found the time, during her rare free moments, to post some easy cooking tutorials on YouTube, to help inexperienced cooks during the lockdown.
Since Covid-19 restrictions on restaurants were eased on May 19, Chaignot has reunited with her team and customers at her restaurant at 11 rue d'Enghien in Paris. Things have returned to normal – or nearly normal. This month, Chaignot is due to open a new café, at Place du Théâtre de l'Atelier in the Montmartre neighbourhood where she lives. The Café de Luce, named after her grandmother, will be a typically Parisian bistro where you can drink a café crème (coffee with milk) with a croissant at the bar and eat frog legs for lunch.
So no more grocery? Chaignot does not rule it out. “I’d like to continue with that. We just have to think of a viable model,” she said with a mischievous smile.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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