Striding through his newly opened wine bar, Ô Chateau, on a recent Tuesday morning in Paris, motorcycle helmet in hand, Olivier Magny apologizes for being a few minutes late. He’d had a TV interview late the night before, the young sommelier explains, about his best–selling book, Dessine–moi un parisien (“Draw Me a Parisian”), already in its fourth printing since its November 2010 publication. And, after working 14–hour days at Ô Chateau, Magny is tired. Yet you’d never know it by looking at him. With his clear blue eyes, sandy hair, and tanned, boyish face, the 30–year–old appears far younger, and he gives off a restless energy, as though he can barely contain the ideas buzzing inside him. In the past seven years, he’s built up a successful wine–tasting business, now with more than 40,000 clients; opened a spacious wine bar and tasting center with three private tasting rooms and a 500–bottle cellar; and penned a runaway hit, with an English–language version due for release this summer. Magny is currently working on a TV series on French wine, and in his spare time serves as a consultant to the Hôtel de Crillon. In response to all this, he laughs, “My life is very random right now.”
Though Magny’s always loved to write, wine is his first love. He launched Ô Chateau at 23, initially as a vehicle for tastings (hosted in his parents’ living room) designed to educate people about French wine in a fun and nonintimidating way. “I like helping people understand what’s behind wine,” Magny says. “I choose wines that have a story to tell.” His new wine bar operates on the same principle, serving 40 wines by the glass (thanks to a high–tech inert–gas preservation system), from tasting pours of a modest 2006 Château Coutinel (€1.40) to a glass of highly coveted 2004 Château Pétrus (€239). The fact that Ô Chateau offers so many wines by the glass is quite unusual for Paris, as is the fact that all wines are served in Riedel stemware. “Despite the fact that many of the best wines in the world come from France, the wine scene in Paris is lame,” laments Magny. “There are either snobby hotel bars or bobo vin naturel wine bars. We [Magny and business partner Nicolas Paradis] wanted to create the sort of place where we’d like to hang out and drink wine.”
With everything else going on in his life, Magny never planned to write a book, and was caught completely off guard by the success of Dessine–moi un parisien. The book evolved from Stuff Parisians Like, the tongue–in–cheek blog Magny created in 2008 to poke fun at the cultural idiosyncrasies of his fellow Parisians (http://www.o–chateau.com/stuff–parisians–like). Magny wrote the blog in English as a sort of French spin–off of the satirical American site (and book) Stuff White People Like. The response was enormous—French and foreigners alike have devoured his witty musings on everything from Nicolas Sarkozy to Berthillon ice cream. The English–language edition, Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the “Quoi” in the “Je Ne Sais Quoi” (Berkley Books), debuts July 5. As an amuse–gueule, Magny shares observations and excerpts from his blog to debunk ten commonly held (mis)conceptions about Parisians and their foodie persuasions:
1. Americans think: Parisians are all naturally skinny, and eat whatever they want.
Actually: Parisians are always on a diet. They are all absolutely certain that they are too fat. Most, therefore, constantly watch what they eat—especially girls, who mostly run on salads, sushi, sparkling water, and cigarettes. I’ll let you imagine the fun had at a dinner table with a Parisian girl.… In restaurants, even Parisian men eat salads these days. That’s how bad it is.
2. Americans think: Parisians are passionate about wine and drink it with nearly every meal.
Actually: Parisians are drinking less and less wine—in fact, 45 percent of French women never even drink wine. France is the only developed country where wine consumption is actually going down. I find my American clients to be more knowledgeable about wine than my French clients. The growing passion and interest in wine one may find in the United States is clearly MIA in France. It’s a pretty funny thing to witness. Come nighttime, most young Parisians would rather drink beer or Whisky Coca than wine.
3. Americans think: Home to Ladurée, Pierre Hermé, and hundreds of other fabulous shops for sweets, Paris is a city of dessert–lovers.
Actually: Adoring is one thing. Indulging is another. Dessert, for Parisians (as anything pleasurable, really), is always associated with guilt. Therefore, many prefer to straight–up skip dessert. Parisians who always turn down dessert after a meal, however, will go for a “café gourmand”—an espresso conveniently served with three or four mini desserts. Because they are tiny, and served with coffee (a necessity after every meal), the guilt is averted.
4. Americans think: Hamburgers are an American food. Period. Clearly, the French would turn up their noses at something so blatantly American (not to mention messy!).
Actually: Parisians love hamburgers—they remind them of New York (which, according to most Parisians, is where they’d rather be). The hamburger craze started about five years ago, and now every trendy new place has to have le hamburger on the menu. I used to think it was just Parisian guys who ate hamburgers, but since I published the Hamburgers article on my blog, many Parisiennes emailed me stating that they, too, ate burgers. Parisian pride finds new unsuspected objects these days.…
5. Americans think: In France, the waiter’s profession is a noble one, and waiters take great pride in their work.
Actually: France is clearly not a customer–oriented country: Clients hardly tip, so waiters hardly smile…except maybe to American tourists, who they know will tip. In Paris, clients and waiters don’t think much of one another. In an admirable whirlwind of reciprocal passive aggression, tensions add up, and poor service usually ensues. It is easy to turn things around, though, by just being friendly to your Parisian waiter. They are not used to it.…
6. Americans think: Parisians are passionate, sophisticated foodies. They love eating long, three–course lunches, and rush home after work to cook elaborate dinners, all the while discussing where their baby beets were grown and how their biodynamic wine was made.
Actually: Most young Parisians are not foodies. France is the second–most profitable market for McDonald’s after the U.S. For younger Parisians, eating a burger with a Coca Light is cooler and more common than being a locavore or foodie. The French love food, but their traditions are rapidly changing: Fewer people are cooking, and in Paris, long, leisurely lunches are simply not possible when working an office job. The foodie culture is not a French culture: It’s an American one. There’s been a complete switch. San Francisco and Brooklyn, with their thirtysomething artisan butchers and tattooed cheesemongers, are the new hubs of foodie culture.
7. Americans think: Parisians love butter. They must…it’s in everything French (croissants, pastries, sauces…).
Actually: Parisians see butter as heavy and fattening. They will eat butter only as long as they don’t actually see it. Parisians, over the past decade, have discovered olive oil. They believe that olive oil is not fattening. There are, to them, no nuisances whatsoever associated with olive oil: Parisians will eat anything as long as it is prepared or served with olive oil. A side note: If a Parisian really has to buy butter, he won’t indulge in regular butter. He will tend to opt for beurre salé or demi–sel (salted butters). Why? “Parce que c’est dix fois meilleur.” (Because it’s ten times better.) Of course.
8. Americans think: Parisians much prefer their own city to New York.
Actually: Ask any Parisian where in the world he’d like to live, and you will get the same systematic answer: New York. It is every Parisian’s dream to live in New York City. They love New York’s energy, its size, the endless possibilities… Trendy restaurants in Paris now try to re–create foods from New York: burgers, BLTs, Caesar salads, even cupcakes. Personally, I really dislike this. If you’ve traveled to Paris and all you see are Pizza Huts and Starbucks, with American foods on the menus, why come to Paris? Funnily enough, though, most people actively willing to stop this trend are more likely in the U.S.—not in France.
9. Americans think: Parisians have so many gorgeous markets to choose from. They go several times a week to buy beautiful produce, bread, fresh–caught fish, meats, and spices. The grocery store is only used when absolutely necessary.
Actually: Parisians view the market as a charming way to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning…not to shop, really, just to wander and remark on how quaint it is. With its characteristic colors, smells, and sounds, le marché evokes a form of timeless simplicity. Parisians feel like they are doing themselves some good, connecting again with simple pleasures, with simple people. Le marché du weekend is about letting go—between leeks and potatoes. Then they go stock up on food at Monoprix, Picard (the frozen–food store), Franprix, G20, Leader Price, Lidl, Carrefour Market… Why go to the farmers’ market when you have such a beautiful choice of supermarkets?
10. Americans think: Parisians are passionate about cheese and pay regular visits to their favorite cheesemongers, poring over the choices to select perfectly ripe specimens.
Actually: Parisians do like cheese, but many buy it from supermarkets and don’t bother going to the cheesemonger, which they frequently deem to be too expensive. Unlike the hip, young artisanal cheese vendors in U.S. cities, most cheesemongers in Paris are fiftysomethings struggling to find someone to take over their shop when they retire. It’s difficult, though, because French young people aren’t interested; they’d rather be working in marketing or communications.
Anna Watson Carl is a cook and writer. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two kittens but tries to get to Paris as often as possible.