During the late 2000s and early teens, the Parisian gastronomic scene took on a fresh and youthful look. As part of the bistronomy (bistro meets gastronomy) movement, ambitious young chefs have opened casual bistros such as Frenchie and Aux Deux Amis, offering quality food and an affordable atmosphere. Two such chefs were Australians James Henry and Sean Kelly. “It was a very energetic time,” recalls 38-year-old Kelly. “There were a lot of discoveries, a lot of different concepts.”
Henri made his Parisian notoriety with the small-plate bistro Au Passage, and then in 2013 when he opened his own establishment, the hyper-seasonal Bones, he handed over the reins of Au Passage to Kelly, a former colleague at Cumulus Inc., a Melbourne restaurant. “There was influence from Paris and we brought in something from outside,” says Henry, 39. seemed to work for this city.”
After three years at Bones, Henry sold it and spent a year in Hong Kong. Back in Paris, he decided to focus on baking at the popular Ten Belles Bread. Kelly became a chef at the neo-bistro Yard and then, after the birth of his son, left the restaurant industry and moved to the kitchen of the Australian Embassy in Paris to spend more time with his family.
Meanwhile, the chefs kept in touch and began to hatch the concept together. The slower pace of their work gave them the mental freedom to plan, and Kelly, in particular, found time to immerse herself in agricultural research. On weekends, they cycled around the outskirts of Paris in search of abandoned warehouses. Their initial idea was to find an industrial building with outdoor space to open a new restaurant. Then, after visiting the Château de Saint-Vrens, a 15th-century country estate 45 minutes south of Paris, they changed their minds. “There was a lot of land, and that’s where Sean got the idea to do something very agricultural,” says Henry. “It spoke to him on many levels, both agricultural and philosophical. [level]and the way we live on the planet.”
Agriculture became the focus of their new Le Doyenne concept, which took five years to complete. In the process, the chefs and their families moved to Saint-Vren to pursue their agricultural dreams and escape city life. Then came the pandemic, which only confirmed that they were on the right track. Le Doyenne “was already Covid-friendly, with open spaces and plenty of room to separate tables,” Kelly says.
In preparation for their farm, they planted fruit orchards and revived a vegetable garden that had been dormant for 60 years, integrating and experimenting with early French ideas. market gardening and sustainable farming practices such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture. The farm has been serving top Parisian restaurants such as Le Chateaubriand and Mokonuts since 2019. The new restaurant, which has just begun taking orders, is due to open on June 30, while the 11-room guest house will open this summer. Chefs are betting that after a long period of travel restrictions, day trips or weekend trips for fresh farm food will be well received.
The long road to creating Le Doyenne, which bears the same name as the centuries-old Doyenne du Comice pear trees, included obtaining permission to rethink and restore the historic estate. The chefs worked with French architecture studios Ciguë and 1024, hiring local artisans to renovate historic spaces with their terracotta tiles, wood beams and carved stone fireplaces. The personal touches of the chefs, such as finds from antique shops, take their place in the refined interiors. More than 100 varieties of heirlooms and herbs are now grown in the restored greenhouse.
Over the past few years, the French countryside has attracted Parisian chefs to open restaurants and retreats with vegetable gardens: in the Perche region, the owners of the Parisian restaurant Septime bought the D’une Île hotel and restaurant in 2018, while former Saturne chef Sven Chartier and his wife Marianne opened the Oiseau Oiseau restaurant in 2021. Restaurant Le Doyenne, located in the Essonne region, is a joint venture between the chefs and their business partner, Antoine de Mortemart, who leases land and buildings to them. was his family’s country retreat for more than two centuries. The castle – once the summer home of the Comtesse du Barry, the last mistress of King Louis XV – is a stone’s throw from the former stables and staff quarters that now houses Le Doyenne.
The guest house gives the impression that the chefs invite visitors to their country house, where there are no minibars, TVs and reception desks. The light-filled spaces feature just the bare essentials, from a rustic wooden stool to antique reading chairs under old oak beams. A palette of ivory stucco and soft pink linens are paired with oak floors, while bathrooms are tiled in aqua, gray and blue.
“The farm is on the doorstep of the restaurant. Guests are free to hang out, walk around and watch how things are going,” says Kelly, who plans to run workshops related to agriculture in the future. For those who want to stay longer, there is the nearby forest of Fontainebleau, as well as flea markets in local villages.
The 40-seat restaurant will offer a seasonal set menu that encourages collective participation. “There are times when you share things with your dinner partners and tear them apart,” Henry says. Mokonuts owners Moko Hirayama and Omar Koreytem, who have visited the farm several times, are looking forward to a spirit like these outings. “We would go to the garden, dig up vegetables, and have an impromptu gastronomic feast together,” recalls Koreytem.
A summer dinner might start with Swiss chard and ricotta fritters called barbajuans, homemade sausages and vegetables from the farm, and then move on to a warm salad of peas, fresh sheep’s milk cottage cheese and aged sheep’s milk cheese. Next might be red mullet, grilled in a sauce made from her liver and artichokes, followed by a piece of forest-raised pork with marinated walnut tapenade. Vegetable stew and herb salad refresh the palate before homemade cheeses, raw milk ice cream soaked in peach leaves, and fruit tart.
The chefs have chosen Thibaut Chauvet, who previously worked at the now-closed Michelin-starred 108 restaurant in Copenhagen, as chief sommelier and restaurant director. Former Tartine San Francisco head baker Lori Oyamada runs Le Doyenne bakery, which provides bread to the kitchen, guests and locals, who can also buy farm-fresh produce from the grocery store. “It’s important to stay integrated into the community,” Kelly says. “If you’re producing food, it also needs to be available locally.”
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