Grenoble Life’s Shonah Kennedy talks to British restaurateur Steffan Edwards about setting up Café Mari, changing dining habits and serving machin anglais to the French.
Clip clopping down to the end of the small Rue d’Alembert on a cold Friday night, on the way to our office Christmas party, I couldn’t help but think “what restaurant could possibly be here?” and more importantly, “how much further?”! But then I saw the beacon of light emanating from Café Mari, which was the pre-arranged venue for the aforementioned event. Then I entered and began to drink in the cosy place, and THEN I commenced eating! What a gastronomical delight this little place has – it just needed to be shared!
Shonah: When did you come to France/ Grenoble?
Steffan Edwards: I arrived in France in 2003 just in time for the heat wave in Aix-en-Provence. I stayed there for almost two years. When my ex-girlfriend fell pregnant for the second time we decided that it would be wiser to be closer to her family (she was born here in Grenoble), so more than five years ago we arrived in Grenoble.
Shonah: What is your history in the food industry?
Steffan: My first job was when I was 14 washing up in a pub on Sundays when they had a carvery. The chef was the stereotypically fat and jovial who loved to cook almost as much as he liked to eat! From him I learnt the most important thing about cooking – you have to love to cook or you will end up hating your job and as a result your food will suffer. While I was still at school I had many summer jobs in London hotels and also an internship at the Hilton in New Orleans. At the age of 18 I knew that I was going to cook professionally.
After dropping out of university – because of foolishly taking a management course rather than a cooking course – I found my first full time job as a commis in a restaurant called Le Petit Max which, while I was there, won the Eros award from the London Evening Standard as one of the top 10 restaurants in London.
After leaving there I chose to change jobs frequently – sometimes as much as four times a year – to try to learn as much as possible about all aspects of cooking. I did stints in high class restaurants – 3 star Michelin – and also in local family restaurants. Each chosen because I thought I would benefit from them. When I thought I could learn more elsewhere I left and started looking for the next challenge.
After six years of working like this I decided to settle down and stick at a job, so I started working for Mark Hix at Le Caprice in central London. I stayed in the company for nearly three years working my way up to sous chef and also working in the two other restaurants in the group – The Ivy and J. Sheekies.
After leaving Le Caprice I was approached by a friend to help him in his new bakery – Flour Power City – to make the pastries, help with the baking and also to sell the produce at the now thriving Borough Market. After one and a half years of baking I was keen to get back into a kitchen, so I worked at the Drapers Arms – a gastro pub in Islington which was voted gastro pub of the year by the Evening Standard in 2003. That was when I arrived in France and to Antoine Cote Cours in Aix-en-Provence.
Leaving Aix in 2005 I took some time off to take care of my new born son and at the same time I started looking for a restaurant to buy. After being let down two times for the sale of two different restaurants I went back to full time work at Le Flagrant Delice in Grenoble. While working there I heard about the sale of a small café which would become Café Mari where I have now been for more than two years!
Shonah: Since you have been working here have you noticed any changes in trends/ palates/ peoples habits in relation to eating out?
Steffan: Some of the restaurants I have worked in have really suffered because of the recession, however in the café I have not really noticed the change, mainly because my prices are reasonable and people still like to enjoy a good lunch.
There has, however been a change in people’s palates with people starting to think more about their health – looking for the healthy option which is reflected in the menus we now see.
The consumption of alcohol has also dramatically reduced in the seven years since I have lived here. Gone are the days of two hour lunches with lots of wine to help wash down the food!
Shonah: Did you find it difficult to break into the “exclusive” French café market as a foreigner?
Steffan: It has always been a bit difficult to be accepted as a chef in France. There is still the stereotype that the British cannot cook and to convince the French otherwise is not easy. A typical example of this was when I put sticky toffee pudding on the menu. I had to bargain with my clients just for them to try it, but now when the same customers come to the café the first thing they say is: is the “machin anglais” still on the menu? It is my best selling dessert. (note from Shonah – and well worth the try – AMAZING dessert!)
Shonah: What is a “typical” meal at café Mari?
Steffan: There is no typical meal here. The plat du jour changes every day with dishes coming from France, Italy, the UK, India, China and even Thailand. There is a small menu – three starters, three mains and four desserts – which changes seasonally and has its foundations in classic bistro cooking with a slightly modern edge.
Shonah: Why did you open café Mari?
Steffan: I had always wanted to run my own restaurant even from my first time in a kitchen but I wanted something small to start with, which I could run by myself and have relatively small charges. Café Mari fitted the bill perfectly.
Shonah: How can people find you/ contact you?
Steffan: I am at 116 rue d’Alembert, 38000 Grenoble. Telephone: 04.76.96.29.55. Opening hours: Monday to Friday 7.30am to 3.00pm.
I also have a facebook page for the café – Steff Cafemari. I will start updating this more frequently.
Shonah: Can people organise private parties to hold at the café?
Steffan: I cater private parties for 10 to 24 people. Normally I will meet with the host of the party beforehand and we will discuss the style of food they would like, the budget etc. Then I send off some propositions and they choose the menu that they want, at the price they want.
Shonah: Any future plans for the café or expansion?
For the moment I have no concrete plans, but I would love to introduce the French to the idea of gastro pubs. I think the French already like pubs, but I have yet to see a pub serving food here and I am convinced it would work. Watch this space!