The story of how Frenchie became one of Paris’s hardest reservations is now fairly well known. Six years ago, Gregory Marchand, who’d cooked at restaurants for Jamie Oliver (where he earned the nickname “Frenchie”) in London and Danny Meyer in New York, returned to his homeland to open his own place. He made it happen on a shoestring budget on a dreary street called the Rue du Nil in a residential neighborhood atop the 2nd arrondissement, in a former restaurant whose kitchen was walled off save for a hole in the wall from which Marchand would peer out in those early days, assessing how diners were responding to his ambitious, market-driven cooking.
He employed a small staff of international travelers, and because the restaurant was friendly to English speakers, it became a hit with visitors looking for a great meal in Paris without the language barrier. The French loved it too. Marchand once explained to me that he had an early and late seating back then: one for the Americans, one for the French. It’s always been impossible to get a reservation. The popularity allowed Marchand to make some moves, and he opened a wine bar (Frenchie Bar à Vins) and an American-style takeout spot (Frenchie To Go), and the street came to life as other purveyors snatched up the empty retail spaces. Suddenly, the original Frenchie was the oldest kid on the block. Marchand decided to give his restaurant a makeover.
Enter Emilie Bonaventure, principal at be-attitude, and an experienced achitect and designer who was also a regular customer. Seated in the new, improved Frenchie alonside Marchand on a recent night just before service is about to begin, Bonaventure tells me that she had never mentioned her profession to the chef; they’d merely spent hours talking about food and recipes in the past. Then, one day, she was having a bite with Marchand’s wife Marie when he approached the table to explain that the designer he’d hired to rehab Frenchie wasn’t working out. “He was a young guy,” Marchand explains, “and I was like, ‘He’s not listening to me.’ [I told my wife] ‘I don’t know about this guy.’ And Emilie was like, what are you talking about?”
It was then that Bonaventure revealed her background, how she’d worked for famed architect and designer Chahan Minassian for years, and that she’d worked on the design of Rose Bakery. Soon, she and Marchand started discussing plans to evolve Frenchie, and by this past summer, work was underway.
The first step was to rescue the chef from the dungeon-like kitchen. “Having Greg with us, with the guest,” is how Bonaventure explains it. They decided to create a semi-open kitchen, which created a new design challenge: “to have the kitchen in the restaurant, and to save the same number of seats, and play with it,” she says.
As a buffer, they created a sort of bar with a material meant to evoke the rooftops of Paris, which they had made custom to fit the space. From there, they changed every possible detail in the restaurant, from the ceramic plates to the coffee mugs, right down to the way the (lone) bathroom door opened. Bonaventure sourced vintage light fixtures from flea markets and auctions. Marchand requested knives from cult Corsican knife maker Simon Ciccaldi, who custom-designed them for Frenchie. And the team added a contemporary splash with the attention-grabbing painting by hot Parisian artist Thomas Lelu; the work, which reads “Whatever You Want,” doubles as a motto for Marchand and his staff, he says, referring to his focus on hospitality (he’s clearly influenced by having worked for Danny Meyer). Another wall features an array of frames — some empty and a few fitted with mirrors. Bonaventure says that she, Marchand and his wife added this sort of collage as an after-thought on a previously blank wall, playing off the idea of “visible, non-visible,” a sort of metaphor for the whole project, “We changed the restaurant: it’s visible but not that visible.”
Marchand sums up the vision more concisely. “Everything is real here,” he says.
Frenchie, 5-6 rue du Nil, 75002, Paris, France, 33 1 40 39 96 19, frenchie-restaurant.com
Read more France Week stories: