The Changing Face of France's Bistros
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Stop into a bistro or brasserie in Paris these days and you might notice something different. Once an entirely French domain, more and more of these businesses are being bought and run by Chinese immigrants. As Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, these new owners are helping to preserve a French tradition.
(Soundbite of dishes clinking)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:
At Louve Anar(ph), a traditional brasserie near the Rue de Rivulie(ph), patrons sit at the zinc bar discussing the news of the day. On the other side, the tables are neatly set for the lunchtime crowd that is beginning to trickle in. The plates of the day: fisherman stew, chicken basquaise and roti de boeuf are scrawled on a chalkboard, just as they probably have been for decades. But the owners of this very French establishment are anything but traditional. Lahon Ip(ph) and Pasqual Pak(ph) were born in China, and their families emigrated to France when they were children. That's a detail that doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of Michelle Stuaff(ph) for the typically French meal she's just eaten.
Ms. MICHELLE STUAFF: (Through Translator) Today I had the fisherman stew, and I can tell you it's been a long time since I've had one that good. Lots of fish, and he had an incredible gui sauce(ph) underneath and a little elegant celery sprig to decorate it. And I accompanied it with a light Rose wine. It was excellent. (Laughs)
BEARDSLEY: Parisian brasseries and their accompanying bars and tobacco counters known as tabac were traditionally run by the Auvergne, French peasants from the central French region of Auvergnat. The Auvergne worked hard and often as a family unit to run the busy establishments. Gerard Bohelay, who heads the Paris Union of Brasserie Tabac, says the young French generations don't want to work that hard anymore. He says the Chinese have become the new Auvergne.
Mr. GERARD BOHELAY (Paris Union of Brasserie Tabac): (Through Translator) Today, in the Paris region, 45 percent of the buyers of pas sit tabac are Chinese because they put more money on the table. It's also a line of work that's very demanding, and they work hard. But I think they bring a real professionalism to this line of work.
BEARDSLEY: On the tabac side, customers file in and out buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. As the only point of sale for cigarettes in France, tabacs are highly regulated by the government. The privileged trade was once reserved for the widows of World War I veterans. Ip became eligible to buy a tabac when he became a French citizen at the age of 18. That was also when he changed his first name from Win Hon(ph) to Lahon. Ip is also authorized to sell Metro passes and postal stamps. He says the hours are long, but business is good.
Mr. LAHON IP (Louve Anar Owner): (Through Translator) You have to love what you do, and then it comes naturally. Of course, I do like to work, which I guess isn't true of a lot of young people today. And I don't think most people work as hard as we do.
Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: On the brasserie side, Pasqual works the room like a professional Parisian waiter, yelling in the orders to his French chef. At a corner table, neighborhood regular Lyon Seve(ph) and friends say they sometimes eat lunch at the Chinese restaurant across the street, but when they want a good French meal, they come here.
Mr. LYON SEVE (Customer): (Through Translator) I'm not worried about France losing its eating traditions. It's true, there are more fast-food joints now than 20 years ago, but the traditional is still there. And brasseries like this one will always do well.
BEARDSLEY: No one eating here today seems worried that the French brasserie tradition will be diluted by the new Chinese owners. Union head Bohelay says what's important is preserving the convivial atmosphere of a brasserie. `Thank goodness there are Chinese buyers,' he says. `What a sad day it would be if the neighborhood streets were lined with nothing but banks and office buildings.' For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)
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