Using a nickname bestowed on him by Jamie Oliver, Gregory Marchand has captivated Paris with his unique spin on classic bistro dishes. Now, after further success in London, is he ready to take on the world?
Orphanages don’t normally come to mind as centers of culinary creativity. But growing up in one was a formative experience for French star chef Gregory Marchand. After the sudden death of his widowed mother, he was sent to an institution in his hometown of Nantes, where he received his first exposure to the possibilities of gastronomy. Slowly learning his way around a kitchen, at age 15, he volunteered to make dinner one night when the orphanage cook was away. He whipped up escalope normande—typically veal with cream and mushrooms—to the delight of his friends. “My grandmother would cook this dish for me,” Marchand says. “It was the only one I knew how to prepare. I had to use chicken instead of veal, because of the food costs at the orphanage. But with the cream and mushrooms, what’s not to like?”
Today, the 39-year-old is acclaimed as one of Paris’ most celebrated chefs, with a suite of restaurants anchored by his beloved bistro Frenchie (he also operates an outpost in London’s Covent Garden). San Francisco-based designer and Platinum List expert Ann Getty calls his fare “delicious, innovative and not overly complicated,” and The Guardian last year observed that “it takes superhuman effort to score a booking” at Marchand’s flagship in the Rue du Nil in the city’s Second Arrondissement.
One of the first eateries to define the “bistronomy” trend when it opened in 2009, Frenchie—referencing a nickname bestowed on Marchand by former boss Jamie Oliver—had an unpretentious setting, affordable prices and a curated menu featuring daily market ingredients; it garnered immediate praise from guests and critics. Today, the restaurant serves an ever-evolving five-course menu. When I last visited, the bill of fare included foie gras with melon, crispy ham and lemon; Banka trout with red peppers, zucchini and crispy gnocchi; and smoked and glazed eel with eggplant and falafel. Occasionally guests will be served one of Marchand’s favorites—foie gras with smoked eel, beets and horseradish. “I love it,” he says. “For me, it’s a great ‘Frenglish’ dish.” Others crave his sweetbread nuggets with cauliflower: “People ask me about it all the time.”
His unique take on bistro classics is informed by a variety of influences. Aftergraduating from cooking school in Brittany, where he learned the basics of French cuisine, Marchand landed his first job working for venerable chef David Nicholls at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. In his book Frenchie, Marchand calls the experience “the first time in my life that I felt part of something,” and as he toiled alongside a brigade of cooks, subjected to the highest standards, he realized his passion for the profession. He was then transfered to the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong, where he was introduced to French-Asian fusion. But he eventually yearned for a change and decamped to Andalusia, where he worked barefoot at a beach bar, making simple Spanish fare such as pulpo a la gallega, fresh fish a la plancha and customary Iberian tapas.
Arthur Potts Dawson, the nephew of Mick Jagger and veteran of London’s River Café, then recruited Marchand for a new venture he was doing in Marbella—which was interrupted when Potts Dawson was himself recruited by Jamie Oliver to return to London to become executive head chef for Oliver’s first nonprofit restaurant, Fifteen, which trains unemployed young people in the culinary arts. He invited Marchand to come along.
“Working at Fifteen taught me a lot about myself and how to deal with people,” says Marchand, who had endured difficult colleagues in the past. “It made me understand how important a healthy culture is in a kitchen.” Along with a new perspective, the chef gained a new nickname—Frenchie—coined by Oliver. Marchand ultimately became head chef, bonding with the youth he was both directing and mentoring.
In 2006, toying with the idea of opening his own restaurant, he decided to try his hand first in New York City, where he moved with his soon-to-be-wife, Marie. He began working with Michael Anthony, the newly appointed chef at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern. At the time, the restaurant’s farm-to-table style was part of an embryonic movement that would revolutionize the culinary scene. “Today, when important decisions need to be made, I often surprise myself by thinking, ‘What would Danny Meyer do?’” Marchand says. “At Gramercy Tavern, I learned about great food, yes, but also about how the hospitality industry should work.”
Two years later, the time felt right for him to strike out on his own, but back in Paris in 2008—in the middle of the global economic crisis—Marchand, a soon-to-be father, found himself without a job. He applied for unemployment while exploring his options. After combing several neighborhoods, he found a spot he liked, tucked away in the garment district on a quiet cobblestone street. Steps away from Rue Montorgueil, the area known as “the belly of Paris” made sense. He convinced a friend to loan him the money, and after two weeks spent repainting, replacing the bar and buying secondhand furniture for his new home, Frenchie opened in April 2009, with dishes evoking Marchand’s Anglo-American experiences. Le Figaro named it one of the year’s best openings, while critic Alexander Lobrano, a month after its debut, called it “exactly the type of happy, homey restaurant you’d love to claim as your neighborhood hangout.”
Two years after that came Frenchie Bar à Vins, whose small-plate menu features a selection of delicious cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy in the U.K., as well as delectable smoked Banka trout with cauliflower, toasty brown butter and sunflower seeds. In 2013, Marchand completed his Parisian trilogy with the opening of Frenchie to Go. Inspired by his experiences in New York and London, the eatery serves as an ode to the take-out counter, with staples like pastrami sandwiches, hot dogs, bacon scones with maple syrup, and doughnuts. Now, after the success last year of his London restaurant, Marchand says a second cookbook and a New York residency are in the works. With Frenchie’s constantly expanding empire, Marchand’s “neighborhood hangout” is developing a global presence.
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