"You usually sense it right away when walking into these coffee shops; there’s a great relationship between the employees and the people who go there. Working in food, working in hospitality, you know straight away that someone enjoyed what they ate, that they enjoyed their experience. I love the close proximity to people; I love this exchange, this instant feedback."
I sat down last Friday with Guy Griffin, the owner of Café Oberkampf, to discuss the development of the coffee shop and canteen, his perspective on the shifts currently being made in Paris’ food culture and how his own work contributes to this evolution in what is to be understood today as French food.
I come in and sip on an allongé in the time that it takes for Guy to finish up with another customer. The afternoon brings in a crowd of people with their laptops sitting behind me, tapping away. Others are reading and a few tables are occupied by couples reflecting quietly on the previous week. I sit at one of the counters looking out at the Rue Neuve Popincourt. This location doesn’t promote a chance discovery of the café. If you live outside the city, outside the particular arrondissement, it’s unlikely that you’re going to walk by Café Oberkampf, that you’ll become a patron simply out of convenience. But the coffee shop has developed a following, a dedicated clientele because of what it offers in terms of food and coffee and in the particular ambiance it emits. It provides a space to gather with friends and family for brunch or simply to convene with the comfort of a good book, all tied together by a latte, or maybe an avocado toast.
Guy and I first begin by noting this location, discussing the influx of coffee shops which seemed to take over Paris within the last five years, all centering around the 11th arrondissement on the Right Bank, one of the most densely populated urban districts in Paris as well as any European city. Guy cites low-rent as the initial drive for the development of this type of business.
“It’s young people who are starting these businesses and who are supporting them and going to them. Maybe it’s better to do it in a tourist area, but it’s not always easy to find rent in the Marais or the 8th. But these places are popping up everywhere. I just generated a list of about 65 coffee shops in Paris whereas maybe six years ago there were only four or five.”
“I think it’s also a generation thing. The 11th has quite a high density of people in their late twenties and early thirties, many of them working in freelance. This seems to be around the age when people want to make a change, when you want to create something for yourself and for others.”
But Guy expresses an individual case. It’s a story formed by a history of experience, an interest in hospitality and a love of food that has formed his current ambitions. Guy has always worked in food, beginning out of necessity as a way to pay for his studies. He seems to know every part, experiencing every aspect, both the glamorous and the less-so. He washed dishes when he was 16, working in nightclubs at one moment, and now expanding outwards to his own ventures in the industry.
“I’ve just always loved it, the food and the interaction with others. I majored in architecture and worked in that for about eight years and then three years ago I opened a restaurant with a friend (Marilou, an Italian tapas and wine bar over by the Canal Saint-Martin). He was my old boss and we teamed up and started a place together. I enjoyed it so much that it got to the point where I had to choose. I was doing the architecture agency during the day and the restaurant in the evening. It was getting to be too much, so I’ve taken a year off to open up the café here. Now I’m essentially doing this full-time, and in a couple of months I’ll be deciding whether this is really what I want to do.”
“For me, maybe it was due to some sort of boredom or being attracted to this coffee shop lifestyle. Someone brought up a point recently that in France there is this generation having trouble finding stable work. There aren’t a lot of long-term contracts, so it may be that people are frustrated with it and want to create their own thing and be their own boss. It’s that mentality that if something goes wrong then it’s your fault, or if it works then you can feel responsible for making it work. That’s a big part of it, the mentality that there aren’t many jobs around anyways so why not just do something for yourself. And this seems to apply everywhere, it goes beyond just the food industry.”
We move into this topic further, and I ask Guy about his specific desires to transition away from architecture work and move into the food industry full-time. “The whole coffee shop industry is a lifestyle choice for a lot of people. I’d rather get up early in the morning and work during the day. It’s a much healthier structure.”
“And the coffee industry is really interesting at the moment in Paris. My interest began first not in a business sense but in discovering it as lifestyle. My wife is Australian so she started explaining to me that there was this coffee culture in development and so we went to Australia and we saw these coffee shops and started going to a few places in Paris like Ten Belles, and I suppose at one point I just said, Well, that's the lifestyle I'd like to have.
And so Guy has applied this choice to the format of his café. Oberkampf promotes a healthy menu that distances itself from the pretension and ostentation that so many places adhere to nowadays. It’s something that developed from a background that respects and reveals the histories of two different food cultures, two geographical locations that practice a study of the landscape by what they produce and what they consume. “My mother is French, Pieds-Noir from North Africa and my father is English, so at Christmas we eat tagine. I’ve always grown up with this vibe. I’ve always been in contact with this type of food.”
This background has resulted in an interest in a healthy lifestyle that most of the expats in Paris seem accustomed to as well. “People from Australia and America, places like Los Angeles, Melbourne and New York, they actively practice this healthy lifestyle, and it seems like that’s the future, using fresh and seasonal products. The French will be interested in that soon. My clientele is maybe about 70% expats right now and the French fill in that other 30%, but I think that percentage will progressively change, possibly more 50/50 as the French become more into it.”
Guy applies this outwards to a more general look at the larger culture surrounding our diets and the distinctions made between the eating practices of different nationalities. “I think expats are going to impose on the French this practice of eating more and more fruits and vegetables. You also have these American chefs who are revisiting all of these vegetables in a lot of different ways and all of these restaurants focusing on a variety of fresh vegetables and poached fish and things like that. I think this is going to reveal to the French another way of cooking that’s still interesting, but different. They’re going to be educated in that way.”
It’s interesting though, because I think of what Guy is telling me and immediately turn to my internal catalogue of English food memoirs focusing on the authors’ transformative experiences of traveling to France, of seeing the markets and of being educated in a way of eating that never seemed to garner any interest in the United States. Where did this breakdown occur? When did this exchange of ideas and approaches to food across the Atlantic become mixed up? Guy cites a result of expectations, of thinking we know a culture simply by the ideas stereotypes generate.
“Maybe it’s the exchange of chefs and shop owners but it could also be this idea that if you go to New York and open a French restaurant, people will be expecting you to do snails and frog legs, all of these traditional dishes that no one’s really cooked since the last century. But it’s really more of a business venture that’s destined to be clichéd. It’ll only perpetuate the stereotypes. The contrast of this is that if you went to New York and opened up the type of restaurant that’s popular in Paris today, those that are experimenting with bistronomy, then I’m not sure that Americans are going to find it different enough for it to interest them. Everyone is looking for something different. They want the steak tartare, they want the escargot, but that’s not the reality anymore.”
“The Australians are great example of a hybrid of other cuisines. They’ve taken the best of European food culture; they’ve taken the coffee from Italy, they’ve taken all the Middle Eastern food and they’ve revisited them in some ways and developed them in others. And because Australians are big travelers, they’re spreading it out back to Europe. For me, they’re really number one in the coffee industry.”
This return in focus to specialty coffee generates a discussion of how this movement seems to be the product of what was once a particular interest made into a now-universal attraction. But I’m beginning to realize that the development is more than that, that coffee provides an individualized experience only in the moment of its consumption. That the differentiation in flavors is something you consider only as long as it remains physically present on your tongue, but once that feeling is complete, you are left with those around you to reflect upon it, to give definition to what was abstract just seconds before.
“Specialty coffee is a format that expats are looking for because that’s what they already had. It may be the ambiance as well; they may be looking for something more friendly than a bar or brasserie, maybe for a place where you can work or where you can feel okay coming to hang out on your own. These coffee shops are small places that make you feel comfortable and that allow you to connect with others who work and come here. I’d say that today, at least 60% of my customers are regulars. These are people I can recognize by face, all people who come from the surrounding arrondissement. It’s created this network of people, like a little community within Paris.”
I reflect upon this, the idea that coffee shops serve as a center within Paris to introduce and foster relationships around a similar interest in food and desire for conviviality. But then this drives me to consider social media’s documentation of these very establishments and its contribution to a culture which seems more and more concerned with interactions that take place from behind a screen, with conversations that involve never actually opening your mouth. Guy seems to share a similar concern with how Instagram has affected the experience of eating but also applauds it for the attention it’s brought to his café.
“I’d say about 90% of people who come in take a picture of their food. I’ve had conversations with other people in Paris who work in cafés like this and they’re finding that people are ordering all this food for the photo and not eating it. It’s also affected how I bring out the food. Normally in the restaurant business when someone orders something, you want to bring the drinks right away so they can enjoy them while they’re waiting. But now they want to get the photograph of the food and the coffee and I have to respond to that.”
“But then you just can’t worry about it. At the same time, the internet has been amazing. Instagram has been amazing. I’ve never had to do any PR, I’ve never had to ask for any advertising because from the beginning it’s always just been bloggers and then more and more people started writing about us and posting about us. So many things have happened without me having to worry about it. So with Instagram, you could say that you wish they could have experienced it differently but maybe ten people discovered your place because of this photo. There’s so much good that comes from it.”
I wonder then if all this advertising done through the internet will affect where these businesses choose to set up, rendering a concern with location almost entirely obsolete. Could this restructure Paris? Could this change the entire format of the city?
Guy is quiet for a moment, thinking of examples of this very phenomenon. “Well, there’s Tim from O Coffeeshop who’s going to be setting up a coffee shop soon in the 15th. There’s nothing like this over there, but he makes great coffee and does his own food as well,” Guy laughs as he mentions Tim being his only competitor for the city’s best banana bread. “So there’s really no reason his shop shouldn’t work because he has a great reputation in the coffee industry. There’s Hexagon Café as well who does incredible coffee but they’re extremely far out in the 14th. I can’t think of anyone else around there, so it does seem that location is becoming less and less of a concern.”
Guy considers my comment about the restructuring of Paris, citing Fashion Week as a clear example of this shift. “A few years ago it would have been on the Rue Saint-Honoré in the 1st but now it’s gone a bit higher up, near the Bon Marché and the Haut Marais close to the 11th. It’s because the brands are getting younger, so these areas are very much so up-and-coming. It seems like the center of Paris now is more Les Halles whereas before it was Saint-Germain.” So maybe these shifts are occurring, maybe we are seeing Paris change because of the interests of foreigners and the capacity of their influence. Maybe we are seeing a new city because of a younger generation’s desire to create something different, to generate a new-found professional and financial stability in the rise of coffee shops and other independent businesses.
Guy’s perspective on this topic is idealistic but not impossible. “I think that maybe with all of these places opening it’s going to reinforce this idea of having little hoods, little communities so that each area will have its own coffee shop that you’ll make into your regular spot. You’ll be able to just go downstairs, down the street, and do a takeaway coffee. I do think we are going to get to a point where it’s not going to be location-specific, especially if it stays in this format, where the food offers remain roughly the same. Yes, people will always travel to Hardware Société, they will always travel to Holybelly, but I think soon it will become that people won’t travel so much to come here or to Steel or Cream because our food offerings are roughly the same.”
But then Guy looks at this reflection of coffee’s influence in relation to the food culture of Paris, making a prediction of how future interest in coffee will manifest itself in the larger restaurants and as a component of the larger discussion of food. “I think at one moment, everyone will understand that coffee is going to be a very important part of the restaurant business. You’re going to have to serve good coffee everywhere, all the time. People are going to be more and more demanding about that.” He looks around at the café, “Maybe this sort of format won’t exist, but you’ll be able to go to your local bistro and get a really good coffee. There’s going to be a real barista behind the machine. I’m not sure how long that will take because it’s quite an investment, the machines are really expensive and it takes a lot of training. But that’s the direction we’re moving towards.”
“And it’s interesting as well, because I feel as if the specialty coffee won’t be a subject at some point. In America and in London, it’s the norm and it’s less of a conversation than it used to be. So by the time Paris catches up, people will be moving on to the next thing. And the same thing is happening with food, we’re making up for lost ground, we’re taking it up a level. I sort of feel as if France has always been thought of as the bistro that will serve you a Croque Monsieur with the rude waiter that’s only made glamorous because you’re eating it and having this experience in Saint Germain, on the terrasse. That’s my image of what people think of France, but maybe that’s just the internal view. I do think that soon we’re going to be considered once again as the food center of Europe and the world. ”
That’s when I outwardly laugh, returning again to every cookbook, every food magazine, every article I’ve read which praises the French for their dedication to quality, to artistry when it comes to what constitutes as a meal. With this glorification, how is France not already considered to be a culinary capital?
“Well,” Guy says, “I think that will all be justified soon.”
We come to the final topic of our conversation : the development of food becoming this highly-aestheticized, popularized phenomenon that everyone takes interest in, that everyone has an opinion about. It’s a discussion which ties together all that has come before it, the drive to photograph your food, the trends which come and go, the values in relation to food which travel from country to country.
“I’m not sure what started it, but there’s all these podcasts about food, there’s the glorification of celebrity chefs. So maybe it could be tied to the media. I saw this happen in architecture as well. There’s this point when I wasn’t doing as much interior decorating because everyone felt that they could do it on their own because of what they had seen on television or what they had read in magazines. It’s no different with food. People are shown that it’s not that hard to cook, that it doesn’t take much longer at home, and you’re satisfied with what’s happening. There’s all these cookbooks coming out as well, all these blogs, Instagram. I think the fact that it’s so easy to have a blog or an Instagram account makes people want to share their opinion. And so suddenly everyone’s doing it, everyone’s writing, photographing, and focusing on food.”
“It’s a discussion of food tied to human psychology. It’s a reflection of who you are. Maybe if you eat healthy then you’re a good person, and that’s the way society is going to judge you. And now that our lives are more and more exposed by social media there’s that pressure to keep up with all of that. It’s interesting to see what sort of pressure there is through social media. We have people coming in asking if we do latte art because they want to take a picture of it. They don’t ask about the milk, they don’t ask about the coffee, they really don’t care if it tastes good or not because that’s not what people comment on. Instead, they’ll say “That’s so beautiful” as opposed to asking whether or not it was good. It’s all about the visual. So there seems to be two sides of the food industry; there’s the side of people who are really interested in it, who are really passionate about all of it, and then there’s people who feel like they have to talk about it because that’s what society demands of them. It’s what the world is today.”
Having just moved to the 11th, I take a walk down the Rue Neuve Popincourt on the Sunday afternoon following my conversation with Guy. I’m not surprised to see a crowd coming out the door, people sitting on the two benches leaning up against the storefront, coffee in hand. I stop for a second, just to silently applaud the promotion of community I see displayed before me. People hang out here, people gather. It’s a liveable space, made even more inviting by the people you’ll find inside. The scene enforces what I already believed : Café Oberkampf is a malleable space, it adapts to what is asked of it, for any person, for any moment of the day. I’ve only been in Paris a year, but it’s made evident in this moment and this visual that the city is changing alongside of and as a result of its food. It’s becoming more intimate just as it’s becoming a more globalized city. It’s becoming a creative center supported by the independent ideals of the people who inhabit it.