Paris. City of Light, of art, of music and literature. Of diversity and inclusion. Whoever said Parisians treat us English-only speakers with disdain: not true! Being both monolingual and a useless follower of maps, I approached probably 100 busy people with lame questions on my recent trip to the French capital. To a garlicky escargot, they were friendly and helpful.
French wine? Think “France” and if wine doesn’t come to mind, you’re likely a teetotaler.
And the food culture? Did you know Paris has more than 9,000 restaurants? Not surprisingly, the food is as diverse and eclectic as the population in this city where the top four tourist attractions, in order, are Notre Dame Cathedral, which welcomed an estimated 12 million visitors in 2017; Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre (11 million); the Louvre (8.02 million); and the Eiffel Tower (6.2 million).
I connected with an outfit called Eating Europe for a four-hour culinary tour while in Paris. Their expressed focus is authenticity: a city’s real food, people and neighborhoods. It struck me as telling that, for our late lunch, they selected: a Moroccan restaurant. Former French colonies in Africa include Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon (and more). A 21st-century legacy is that North and West African foods, flavors and culinary traditions have become almost as ubiquitous as moules frites and the croque-monsieur.
Petit Club Africa Buzz
Enters Senegalese-Parisian Chef Raoul Coly who is elevating West African flavors to new heights of refinement and deliciousness at his restaurant, Ô Petit Club Africain, in the charming—nontouristy—Puteaux neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. His light-infused, colorful and art-filled eatery draws support from Paris’ financial and commercial La Défense hub, Europe’s largest purpose-built business district, where striking modern skyscrapers offset a bounty of outdoor art positioned along wide pedestrian tracts.
At lunchtime I meet Coly to chat (via an interpreter) and savor his flavors; the restaurant is comfortably full and there is a buzz of friendly energy. Bottles of gently brewing rum add an interesting decor element. Much of the art is from his personal collection, although he also hangs African-themed exhibitions in the space.
Coly captures my taste buds before the food comes, when I read the Senegalese proverb printed on the menu: “Only a child that has never travelled, would say his mother’s cuisine is the best that is.” Hear, hear! Let’s move with the times and enjoy the flavors of the present, I always think when people recite that old chestnut.
I Like to Eat!
Which is not to dismiss a mother’s impact and influence.
Coly is from the Casamance region in the southern part of Senegal, where rice is widely cultivated and the beaches are popular with tourists. The youngest of five children, he says it was natural that he would go with his mom to market after church and watch her choose the fresh produce, vegetables and seafood for family meals. And then, at home, help her conjure up her simple magical dishes in the kitchen.
By the time he was a teenager, he was buying from the market himself, experimenting with ingredients and adapting his mother’s recipes.
“I had a fascination with food and flavor from when I was young, most probably because I like to eat,” he laughs. He would cook for himself. He would cook for the family. Through food—the fresh seasonal local produce and the people foraging, growing, selling it in the markets—he learned a lot about the culture and geography of the region.
Inspired by this natural curiosity, he became a guide for overseas visitors.
Cupid Up a Palm Tree
One visitor—some 25 years ago—was a young French journalist and documentary filmmaker. She arrived in the Casamance region to make a travel documentary. Cupid was, perhaps, watching from a palm tree. Because by chance, she needed a guide and he stepped into the role. Also into her heart. And she into his.
After their 10 days together, her project complete, they decided he should follow her back to Paris. He had family in France and immediately felt at home there.
Twenty-one years ago they married. She still makes films. Their 18-year-old daughter is studying jewelry design. Coly initially worked in information technology for corporations.
Whenever he could, he would cook; the dishes inspired their friends. “Why don’t you open a restaurant and do what you love and you’re so good at,” he heard repeatedly.
Coly looked for restaurants serving the quality and flavors of what he was cooking at home but found none. In fact, he says, “African food had a pretty bad reputation in Paris.” He wanted to change this perception, to show people what African food could and should be like in terms of flavor and texture, freshness, variety, creativity and ingredients.
A Ferrandi Paris Culinary Plunge
Finally, he took the plunge. He resigned from the corporate world and in 2006 enrolled at Ferrandi Paris, the French school of culinary arts and hospitality management. In 2012, after honing his “French chef” repertoire in hotel and restaurant kitchens while planning and perfecting his own “ever-evolving” recipe palette, he opened his first bistro. It was tiny—and right next door to the present location of Ô Petit Club Africain, which he “graduated” to three years ago.
It is in this welcoming friendly space that I taste his delicious version of Thieboudienne (Senegal’s national dish), of Maafe (a signature dish of Mali), and a special chicken dish from Cameroon (with vegetables and plantains).
Other options might have been Yassa Chicken (a Senegalese specialty involving grilled chicken thighs in citrus marinade and onion sauce) or Tiere (a Senegalese couscous dish served with beef or fish). There are many West African options on the menu, among them his delectable Salad Diola, a Casamance regional specialty in that the “vegetable” mound the plump prawns sit upon is specially prepared salicorne algae, a kind of edible weed that grows in the rice paddies.
Coly’s early market forays are paying dividends these days, as are his charming personality and easy-to-engage-with manner. He is something of a star on a subscription TV magazine program called “Les Mardis de l’Afrique” (Tuesdays of Africa) on an independent channel in France. In a segment called Rendezvous with a Chef—the show’s focus is on discovering the cuisine, arts and crafts in various parts of Africa—his role is to visit rural and urban markets to meet “the old grandmothers and have them share their recipes so they are preserved.” So far, for this, he has been to (French-speaking) Senegal (no surprise!) and also Cameroon, Toga, Mali, Congo and the Ivory Coast.
The African Heart of Paris
Coly brings back spices and ingredients from his travels. He also imports directly. Then he goes to market. He suggests I pay a visit to what he calls “the African heart of Paris.”
As you might know, Paris—a city with a population of more than 2 million people—is divided into 20 “arrondissements” (districts). Coly steers me to the 18th and says I should stroll around the Goutte d’Or neighborhood, where I will find African markets, produce, restaurants and stores. I can get off at the Château Rouge metro stop, which I do.
And I find exactly what he tells me I will, a vibrant neighborhood filled with busy people and bustle, African fabrics, markets, cafes and goods.
Black Paris Walks
After exploring, I walk from Goutte d’Or to Montmartre and the Pigalle, which are close. You can do all three in one day the next time you’re in Paris. Or you might try a walking tour, perhaps Black Paris Walks aka Le Paris Noir or Entrée to Black Paris Tours. I plan to book one of these next time because when it comes to Paris, each visit is like an appetizer that whets the appetite for more. Ask Chef Raoul Coly. He knows.