French restaurants prepare pro bono response to COVID-19


RUEIL MALMAISON, FRANCE – It’s rush hour, culinary speaking, at the Sapristi restaurant outside of Paris. Cooks dice onions, stir sausages, slice tuna into thin pieces, their work is clean and loose.

Chef Gilbert Benhouda ticks the menu of the day: pasta with tuna and capers; sautéed chicken with mushrooms and parsley; roasted sausages and potatoes.

“Today we produce 1,300 meals,” he says. “That’s enough for three days.”

The chefs do not cook for their usual clientele, but rather for the exhausted ranks of coronavirus responders. Their obligatory masks and bottles of hand sanitizer – not to mention the empty tables right outside the kitchen door – underscore the grim new world facing the restaurant industry in France.

As the country begins to emerge from a two-month lockdown next week, Sapristi and other restaurants will remain closed.

“We are not dead, we are not alive, we are in the middle, in an artificial coma”, declares Hakim Gaouaoui, owner of the restaurant chain Les Bistrots Pas Parisiens which includes Sapristi.

Across Europe, the coronavirus has closed thousands of restaurant establishments, inflicting a multibillion-dollar blow on them. And while a handful of countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, have announced plans to reopen restaurants, the pandemic is shaping a radically different dining experience, at least for the foreseeable future.

The top restaurant of the Les Bistrots Pas Parisiens chain with a view of Paris. (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

Economic blow

Few places feel the impact more than France, where gastronomy is anchored in its heritage. A recent survey reveals that nearly two-thirds of French people go to restaurants at least once a month. Now, industry experts fear that the pandemic could lead up to a third of establishments to bankruptcy.

If they go bankrupt, they risk bringing down other businesses with them, including food deliveries and small farmers.

“We deliver to over 200 restaurants,” explains fruit and vegetable supplier Murat Can. “Whether we are working or not, we have to pay over 200,000 euros ($ 216,000) in monthly fees. ”

In an open letter published in Le Figaro newspaper last month, more than a dozen top chefs appealed to President Emmanuel Macron for an immediate reopening, warning that otherwise “many of us may not get back on our feet.”

Some are now following Gaouaoui’s path in making pro bono efforts and interim measures to stay current and afloat.

One recent Saturday morning, Benhouda and his chef colleague Yoanne Flament loaded a car with trays of sous vide dishes cooked in Sapristi’s kitchen.

First distribution destination: Hôpital Foch in Suresnes, west of Paris.

“We have taken these meals since the start of the epidemic”, explains the deputy director of the hospital, Floriane de Dadelsen, praising the Gaouaoui channel and others for “real solidarity”.

The police consult the map of Bistrots Pas Parisiens Solidaires to see what they are going to eat.  (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

The police consult the map of Bistrots Pas Parisiens Solidaires to see what they are going to eat. (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

At a police station a few miles away, officers greeted the chefs with smiles, served them coffee and waved to them as they left.

Launched shortly after France’s lockdown began in March, Gaouaoui’s new charity now delivers around 3,500 meals per week to hospital staff, police, firefighters and garbage collectors. The restaurant chain funded $ 60,000 of the cost and raised an additional $ 11,000 in private donations.

“We want to get people talking about us, to realize that we aren’t just sitting at home doing nothing,” Benhouda says. “And we hope people will remember us when we’re ready to reopen. ”

Chefs Gilbert Benhouda and Yoanne Flament consult their meal delivery with the deputy director of the Foch hospital, Floriane de Dedelsen.  (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

Chefs Gilbert Benhouda and Yoanne Flament consult their meal delivery with the deputy director of the Foch hospital, Floriane de Dedelsen. (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

Bringing gastronomy to life

Another Sapristi staff member, Denis Janvier, said he offered his kitchen services as a “civic duty”. Apart from that, he is locked in his Parisian apartment “being careful about the money”.

For now, the French government is taking a large part of the bill for idle catering workers. Despite this, the lockdown is hitting the industry hard. Gaouaoui estimates that his channel is losing more than $ 100,000 a day.

It is a dizzying fall for the entrepreneur of Algerian origin, who began his career at 18 in the delivery of pizzas. Today, Gaouaoui is considered the ultimate French success story, with a chain of nearly a dozen restaurants. In 2019, he won the Entrepreneur of the Year award from the prestigious Gault & Millau gastronomic guide.

“When you’re someone like me, out of nowhere, who built it all, I’m not afraid to start over,” he says.

Gaouaoui hopes he doesn’t have to.

Restaurant owner Hakim Gaouaoui and his staff taste food for their next business offering deliveries and take-out as the restaurant's dining rooms remain closed.  (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

Restaurant owner Hakim Gaouaoui and his staff taste food for their next business offering deliveries and take-out as the restaurant’s dining rooms remain closed. (Photo: Lisa Bryant / VOA)

Earlier this week, he joined his team to sample food for the chain’s next launch: a take-out delivery effort, to bring in cash and keep in touch with customers while restaurants remain closed. Other entrepreneurs, including Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, are embarking on the same path.

Gaouaoui does not want to reopen under any conditions. Plastic screens and social distancing go against his philosophy.

“Most people go to restaurants not only for the food, but also for the ambiance,” he says. “They want to be together, and if that’s not an option, it just doesn’t make sense.”