Since arriving from Naples in 1850, Eric Giannettini’s family has run a small seafood business just off the docks of Cassis, a postcard-worthy inlet lined with single-engine fishing boats and terra cotta-roofed houses packed together in a tight maze. The city has around 8,000 permanent residents, which swells during the summer months when affluent tourists from Paris and points beyond head to the rocky beaches of the Mediterranean the area is known for. It reminded me a bit of Montauk, another gentrified fishing town located on the tip of Long Island, but with more cologne and much better wine (sorry Wolffer Estate). The drive from Marseille to Cassis is an easy 30 minutes and swings you by the Calanques National Park, a stunning union of white limestone cliffs and turquoise sea.
Giannettini is a funny guy and speaks great English, and when we met at his market-turned-restaurant La Poissonnerie, we got to talking about his special little place in the universe. He tells me about a recent lunch at Paul Bocuse in Lyon. “A plate with spinach, rice, chicken and white sauce is three stars?” he says recalling the meal. “I was suspicious, but I took my fork and I hit the chicken. And at the exact time I closed my mouth I became humble. I said shut up, Eric. Shut up! It was phenomenal. Incredible. It’s impossible for me to do what he did.”
I wanted to get inside this guy’s head a bit. Echoing what my colleague Richard Martin wrote in his introduction to Food Republic’s France Week, I wanted to figure out where French cuisine was today, in the opinion of a guy who had lived in Paris for 17 years, and then moved south to raise a family and work for the family business.
So, what is up with France?
You have many restaurants opening without any cooker.
Which is like the opposite of any French tradition you’ve grown up with. Isn’t that sacrilege, for a French restaurant to open without a real chef?
It makes no sense. What I mean is, originally, food was something that was homemade and was all about the family. Now, a restaurant is just a place where you eat, and you have some things which are prepared by large food companies. It’s like McDonald’s, or in New York Tuesday?
Ruby Tuesday or TGI Friday’s?
Never eat at a restaurant with a day of the week in the title. That’s just the rule.
That’s not a restaurant, it’s a place where you eat.
What about your place?
The fish is fresh. We don’t touch it. We don’t prepare it. We just take the fresh fish, you put it here on your plate, we do a vegetable too and that’s all. And you put olive oil and lemon and done. I don’t want perfection. No. I can’t afford it in my cuisine. We’re too small.
What are your customers like today, in November in Cassis? It’s the off-season, right?
Around 70 percent of my customers are regular customers. They are coming from Aix, they are coming from Marseille, they are coming from Brittany, they are coming from Australia. They are coming New Zealand, they often come from Scandinavian countries. I’m like a place where it’s a tradition to eat fish. Around 30% of my customers are people who I don’t know. And there’s been a decrease in that. Less new people. More regulars.
What was it like growing up here?
We grew up in a way where we had the grandfather, the cousin, the uncles, we all used to take a boat with bread, fruit and wine, and go out into the sea, 20 meters, and it was an amazing world. Amazing world.
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