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Let Them Eat Cake

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

"Food shapes cities and through them, it moulds us" Carolyn Steel

In the summer of 1789, Paris was gripped by a series of protests, sparked by a sharp rise in grain prices. The production and price of bread was controlled by the state, headed up by the 'baker of last resort' - King Louis XVI. This meant that when harvests failed, popular unrest had an obvious target. On the 14th of July, the ‘bread riots’ escalated, and a mob of hungry peasants stormed into the Bastille prison. Hunger had unleashed a set of ideals which continue to resound across the world: liberté, égalité, fraternité

Last Bastille weekend, I had the chance to investigate three social food projects in Paris. These initiatives, and the people who run them, are forging stronger communities and reaching the most excluded members of society. They are enriching cultural life and tackling food waste. They are, in practical and emphatic fashion, embodying the values which remain at the heart of French national life.

Liberté – Refettorio

Massimo Bottura is one of the most influential chefs working today. As well as running a three Michelin star restaurant, he is a passionate advocate for reducing food waste. In 2017 Massimo published Bread is Gold, a set of transcendent recipes for stale and surplus ingredients. Following the success of the book, he founded Food for Soul. This cultural foundation exists to tackle food waste and hunger, using meals as a tool for social inclusion. The night before Bastille Day, I pulled on an apron at one of their most exciting projects

Nestled in the crypt of La Madeleine Church, the Refettorio is a radical new community converting waste food into feasts. Up to 100 guests are served in an elegant dining room, designed by the French artist JR. A four-course meal is selected, prepared and presented by professional chefs who rescue quality ingredients from the surplus of local supermarkets.

Upon arrival, I was absorbed into a hoard of Food for Soul staff and volunteers from around the world. Our guests started to arrive, warmly welcomed by the regular team members who had memorised their names and dietary requirements. The first creation was an entree of purple radish and apricot salad, punctuated by fragile shards of pork. This was followed by a deep bowl of seasonal vegetables steeped in Vadouvan – a delicate French curry sauce. The feast ended with homemade biscuits atop roasted nectarines, with white chocolate and lavender ganache.

When the last of our guests departed into the night, all of the kitchen and serving staff cleared up the crypt and sat down to eat the same magnificent meal. This came as a relief; three hours of serving delicious food is a guaranteed way to build up an appetite. I left La Madeleine with recipes and movie recommendations from the guests at my table, singed fingertips from carrying hundreds of hot plates and deep respect for the vision of this project.

Henri Lefevbre was a Parisian taxi driver who fought in the resistance. He subsequently became a prominent urban theorist, who coined the idea of a ‘right to the city’. Following a study of the Paris Commune, Lefevbre became convinced that the urban environment could be an incubator of revolutionary ideals and actions. The city can be understood as our attempt to create our own environment. However, the urban also remakes us, forming an important part of our personal identities and mediating our experience of everyday life. A right to the city articulates a demand, to collectively appropriate, reinvent and produce this process.

Homelessness is not, of course, a simple matter of lacking a roof. Social exclusion alienates homeless citizens from the collective exercise of shaping their urban environment. It also blocks them from enjoying the benefits, novelties and joys of shared city life. This exclusion has been exacerbated in 'iconic' cities, where the market value of sterile, Disneyfied streets displace any right of the occupants - and any chance of them finding affordable housing. David Harvey offers a succinct but glum summary of this marginalisation: "Quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money."

Restaurants are so ingrained into contemporary urban landscapes, that it is strange to think of them as relative newcomers. However, modern food culture arose from and remains shaped by the events in Paris just two centuries ago. As the Ancien Regime dissolved, so did huge numbers of jobs in aristocratic households. Unemployed chefs and servants started to make and sell a restorative meat broth known as restaurant. These new businesses became wildly popular among the general public, eager for an equitable public space serving wholesome food.

Upper class touches, inherited from previous workplaces, distinguished these establishments from existing traiteurs (where patrons ate a common table and brought their own cutlery). Most importantly, diners did not need to be a regular, known to staff and the other diners. Restaurant patrons could eat independently and anonymously, providing a steady stream of customers for the booming industry. In 1789, there were less than 50 venues where one could eat privately. By 1814, Parisians could book a table at any of 3000 restaurants, guided by Alexandre Grimod's L'Almanch des Gourmands, the worlds first gastronomic guidebook.

What does the right to the city look like in the gastronomic capital of the world? Lefevbre was an articulate theorist of life in capitalist cities, critiquing the alienation of everyday consumerism. It is hard to see emancipatory potential in the rash of luxury Parisian restaurants, largely catering for a small global elite. In fact, the rarefied dining halls of the ultra-wealthy reinforce the fetishisation of Paris, the city becoming a blank canvas for conspicuous consumption.

However, the production of exclusionary spaces should not exclude food from efforts to reimagine urban life. Access to a shared meal, drawing on the rich gastronomic resources of Paris, is a collective experience. The Refettorio, dreamed up by an Italian chef, is a compelling attempt to secure the liberté of all Parisians to enjoy the particular joys of urban life. Lefevbre would, I believe, have been a willing and happy guest at their table.

Égalité – Les Grands Voisins

As Bastille Day celebrations and Gilets Jaunes protests took over the city centre, a friend and I visited an oasis of calm in the 14th Arrondissement. Like any other superstar city, Paris attracts people from all over the world, hoping to build a new life. Many of these new Parisians come from nations formerly colonised by the French Empire, and arrive without the rights to work.

Les Grands Voisins provides accommodation for up to 100 people at a time, whilst coordinating a rich mixture of commercial and cultural activity. Community life is centred on the Oratory, a bustling restaurant. In a kitchen staffed by recent arrivals to the city, hyper-local ingredients mix with a living recipe book that provides influences from around the world. Since opening in 2018, The Oratory has won the Trophée de l’Economie Sociale et Solidaire and favourable reviews from La Monde and Le Parisien.

Fiery Cameroonian chicken and fried plantain is served on a beautiful outdoor terrace. The restaurant and bar provide critical funding to the rest of the project including art galleries, construction workshops and a bakery. However, payment is not limited to euros. Guests can get a hot drink in return for an unused Metro ticket, which can then be used by the residents to travel around the city.

This ecosystem is hosted within the historic building of Saint Vincent-de-Paul hospital. Founded in 1650, this institution has held patients, plague victims and orphans, in a space now occupied by asylum seekers and refugees. Dynamics between doctors and patients, or carer and orphan are rarely equal. Whilst many of the residents are unable to secure work visits, Les Grands Voisins has worked to ensure that the project does not reproduce power relationships between workers and beneficiaries.

A local currency has been created, using ‘time tickets’ in denominations of 15 minutes to one hour to allow the legal exchange of time and expertise for goods and services. This initiative facilitates direct and inclusionary economic activity between all of the projects which call Les Grands Voisins home. Residents who have been granted a work permit can enjoy the opportunity to join the staff at the Oratory restaurant, which in turn funds the rest of the project.

This is a self-contained economy, consciously designed to maximise inclusion and solidarity amongst residents and their guests. Les Grands Voisins is a community based around the power of communal eating, with an award-winning restaurant fuelling a host of deeply impactful projects. Adoption of a local currency challenges the economic exclusion of asylum seekers and refugees, ensuring they can participate in the life of the project as equals.

Les Grands Voisins has transformed an abandoned hospital into an egalitarian space for building collective lives. It currently provides a dignified home to 100 people and a supportive environment for a multitude of independent businesses and projects. Housing status can be one of the most conspicuous signals of inequality, particularly for those who are unable to participate in the mainstream economy. By ensuring the site enriches the cultural and gastronomic life of the neighbourhood, Les Grands Voisins has put forward an exciting vision of what it might mean to be a citizen in Paris, rooted in good food and a spirit of égalité.

Fraternité – Jim Haynes’ Embassy of World Passports

Jim Haynes is potentially the world’s most interesting man. As a young man in the US Military, he was posted to Edinburgh during the Cold War. Having acquired fluency in Russian, he would stay up late listening in on intercepted radio broadcasts, reporting back whatever he had gleaned about life inside the Soviet Union. Scotland was the site of a dramatic career shift, leaving the military to start a radical paperback bookshop. This would quickly become the scene of an infamous photo, depicting a scandalised customer setting fire to a banned copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Jim (second from the right, standing in front of a stuffed rhino head) was just beginning a long career of breaking literary and social conventions.

In the following years, he would help to found the iconic Traverse Theatre and modern Fringe Festival, before moving to London at the height of the ‘Swinging 60’s’. He became internationally renowned for his fervent desire to bring strangers together, publishing a book filled with the names and contact details of thousands of Polish people who were happy to be contacted by utter strangers. This analogue prototype of today’s social networks, pre-dated Facebook by decades and was subsequently expanded to include contacts in Russia and Romania.

In 1973, he moved to Tombe de Issoire in Paris. For the past 40 years, Jim has hosted a Sunday dinner party every week with an open invitation to the world. I dropped in on Bastille Day, along with 20-30 strangers. We were met by the enthusiastic team of chefs, friends and housemates who ensure that the diners are well fed and happily chatting. For a small, optional, donation, we are treated to beer and wine, and three courses representing classic French summer cuisine. Vichyssoise, a cold potato and leek soup to kick-off, closely followed by tarragon chicken salad with wild rice. Finally, we enjoyed some Tarte Tatin with pistachios and Chantilly.

The food was delicious, but the people filling Jim’s home took centre stage. I met a trio of Harvard educated mathematicians from Russia, who politely listened to an Irish poet list every book reading in Paris. An impressively jetlagged American family arrived, young children in tow, who had moved their entire lives to Paris that very day. A few hours prior, they had dropped their suitcases into their new transatlantic home and headed across town for their first dinner. Igor, a Parisian sous-chef who had recently joined an elite jazz school, was a regular attendee and had contributed the dessert.

There is something about a good meal that can erode the natural barriers between people. Too often, visitors experience an alien city, to use Rebecca Solnit’s memorable summary, “a mass of strangers who would remain strange”. Jim beseeches all of his guests to ‘arrive comfy and arrive hungry’, a motto which could be equally be applied to Paris as a whole. Fraternité, a sense of collective belonging, can be forged in Jim’s home over the simple act of sharing a meal with fellow travellers.

Three hours of convivial socialising later, we emerged from the flat to watch the Bastille Day fireworks together in a local park. Just as our city shapes us, food shapes the city. Paris is not only the birthplace of modern food, it is the product of historical struggles to feed itself. 260 years after a fateful bread riot in the heart of Paris, there are plenty of revolutionary food projects worth celebrating.

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