Josh Fontaine & Alison Reid

23rd February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

23rd February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Josh and Alison live in Belleville, a diverse neighbourhood in the east of Paris. To get to their flat, you walk up a busy road lined with phone shops, noodle houses and Asian supermarkets. Push open a heavy wooden door, step inside, and you’re in a long courtyard flanked by imposing buildings – the sounds of the street gradually fade out. They live in a bright first-floor apartment with a spacious living room and a tiny kitchen, barely big enough for two. It’s been decorated on the cheap – most of their stuff comes from local flea markets – but they’ve done it up really nicely. It’s quiet here: the bustle of Belleville feels far away.

Josh co-owns three great Paris bars: Candelaria and Mary Celeste in the upper Marais and Glass in Pigalle[footnote]Candelaria is a taco joint with a secret cocktail bar at the back; Glass is a dark, late-night dive prioritising loud music and American booze; at Mary Celeste the emphasis is on its excellent small-plates menu [/footnote]. Alison is an art director and stylist who has worked with clients including Stella McCartney and Colette. He’s American from Connecticut; she’s from Morpeth in the northeast of England. They’re both pretty low-key: Josh speaks unassumingly about his job, as if owning extremely cool bars in Paris is no big deal, and Alison is equally understated, laughing shyly when asked to talk about her work.

They become more animated as we move on to dinner. We’ve heard they make a mean pizza and they oblige us by baking two thin, crispy margheritas in their ultra-basic gas oven, with tinfoil on the roof and a pizza stone to heat the base. Josh carves them up on the table and we munch appreciatively as a succession of 60s and 70s records – Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Patti Smith play on the turntable.

Afterwards, Josh kindly draws us up a list of songs to play while making pizza at home…

Continued below...

How did a guy from Connecticut end up owning three bars in Paris?

Josh: I worked in a few bars in New York, and also at a live music venue, so I have some background in it, but the reason I came to Paris was to go back to school and get my Masters[footnote]Josh studied international affairs and conflict resolution [/footnote]. I worked at a bar on the weekends while I was studying and that’s where I met my business partner, Karina. She ended up getting married to an American guy – also from Connecticut – and the three of us decided to open our own place. It wasn’t like some big plan: move to Paris, open a bar…

Which bar came first?

Josh: We opened Candelaria in March 2011. Glass was September 2012, Mary Celeste was February 2013.

Great names.

Josh: Thanks. Alison chose Glass.

_MG_7487

_MG_7572

When you go to other bars, do you look around with a critical eye? Are you always searching for inspiration?

Josh: Oh yeah definitely.

Where has impressed you recently?

Josh: Duck and Cover in Copenhagen was very nice. Imagine your perfect Danish cocktail bar – it’s dark but really pretty with mid-century modern furniture, great service, great drinks. Stockholm has some great places too.

I don’t like too much cocktail geekery, places where the bartenders are up on a pedestal… I go for bars that are more convivial and friendly

What are you looking for in a bar?

Josh: I don’t like too much of the serious cocktail geekery, places where the bartenders are up on a pedestal – I’m pretty bored with that. I go for bars that are more convivial and friendly. I’ll always look at the menu to see where the drinks come from, if they’re all from the some large company. I always look at the bathrooms – you can tell a lot about a place by the quality of its bathrooms. And the guest experience: how the staff has been instructed, how they interact with the customers.

_MG_7557

What do you do Alison?

Alison: I do art direction and styling for fashion shoots – and also set design and parties and events. It’s quite varied.

Have you had any creative input into Josh’s bars?

Alison: Not really.
Josh: But you’ve done some events with us – for Dia de los Muertos, for Christmas. You did a Japanese-themed party…

At home, who cooks most?

Alison: Me.
Josh: It’s partly a function of who’s home more. I tend to be out a lot – I’ll eat at home two or three nights a week.

Do you have different approaches to cooking?

Josh: We always cook vegetarian at home – Alison’s vegetarian. I was too a long time ago but I’m not now.

So you only eat meat or fish when you go out?

Josh: Yeah. It’s a good way to limit your meat intake. We cook from cookbooks sometimes – Ottolenghi is a favourite – but mostly it’s just a matter of seeing what’s in the house and putting something together.

Did you grow up in a household where food was important?

Alison: Yeah, my parents are very healthy eaters. My mum made a deal with me when I was 12: if I was going to be vegetarian, I’d cook my own meals at the weekend.

That’s how you got started?

Alison: Yes, but I’ve always liked cooking.

What about you Josh?

Josh: No, my parents aren’t particularly healthy or adventurous eaters, which I guess is pretty typical of their generation in the US, growing up post-WW2 when everything’s easy and fast. No farmers’ markets – we’d do a big shop at the grocery store and get everything you need for a week or two.

_MG_7595

Did you become a more adventurous eater after leaving home?

Josh: I wouldn’t say I’m particularly adventurous but I definitely developed after moving to New York. That was a whole other world… I don’t know why me and my sister ended up on the opposite side of the spectrum, maybe it’s a reactionary thing, but it’s still hard to get my parents to eat anything that’s not chicken or pasta.

Do you eat better in Paris than other places you’ve lived?

Josh: Not necessarily. When I was in New York, a lot of the farmers’ markets started coming up – the Union Square green market is probably better than any market you can get in Paris, unfortunately. It’s mainly people buying at Rungis[footnote]The main market of Paris, located in the southern suburbs, Rungis is said to be the largest wholesale food market in the world [/footnote] and reselling. But things are changing. In the past couple of years people have been shocked to see how poor-quality a lot of the French food that they’ve been eating is – frozen and reheated in the restaurant – so they’re trying to pass laws to improve things.

_MG_7617

Have you seen things improving since you came here?

Josh: Oh yeah, definitely. Better suppliers have been popping up and also better stores – like Terroirs d’Avenir in the 2nd arrondissement, who have their own butcher shop, fishmonger and fruit shop.
Alison: And it’s getting better for vegetarians. There are still places where I know I definitely won’t be able to eat anything. It’s not like England where you can go anywhere.
Josh: There’s not always a vegetarian main course.
Alison: Sometimes they make something and it’s just all the sides merged together – potatoes and loads of carbs.

Which Paris restaurants are good for vegetarians?

Alison: Well Mary Celeste is actually very good.
Josh: The chef, Haan, used to work at a vegan restaurant. It’s important that our places have something that’s not just a side dish that’s vegetarian. At least half the menu at Mary Celeste is vegetarian and nobody’s ever been shocked by that.

Do you have a comfort food?

Alison: You do. Pasta.

A lot of mezcal is still family-made. Rustic does not begin to describe the production levels

Any particular type?

Josh: No. I just like a large plate of carbohydrates, often. It’ll be a tomato-based sauce if we have tomatoes, otherwise some olive oil with black pepper and some vegetables with grated cheese or feta.

What about you Alison?

Alison: In winter I make a lot of soup.

What ingredients do you always have in the kitchen?

Josh: Olive oil, chilli peppers. Pasta. Baking things – Alison likes to bake a lot.

What do you bake?

Alison: Cakes. I got this book a while ago from Four and Twenty Blackbirds in New York and made a salty honey pie that was so good.
Josh: I highly recommend it.

_MG_7642

Do you make cocktails at home?

Josh: If we’re entertaining. It’s not like on a Tuesday night I’m making up a cocktail.

What’s your favourite spirit?

Josh: Tequila and mezcal are the only things I drink[footnote]Josh’s favourite mezcal brands include Del Maguey, Siete Misterios, Alipus, Pierde Almas and El Jolgorio [/footnote]. Mezcal is interesting, especially if you’re into natural wine and things like that. Most mezcals are organic or made with wild plants using native yeasts. Nothing is added or taken away, it’s distilled to proof with no water added.

Would you say it’s an acquired taste?

Josh: Yeah, the first time everyone drinks mezcal, it’s a love-or-hate thing. We went on a trip to Mexico two years ago, and Alison, who’s not the biggest drinker in the world…

On The Menu

Dinner with Josh Fontaine and Alison Reid
Paris, October 2014

To eat:

Pizza margherita »

To drink:

Water
Sloe gin

Grew to like it?

Alison: Erm… I was interested in learning the process and meeting the people who make it.
Josh: Yeah a lot of it is still family-made. Rustic does not begin to describe the production levels. It was a very interesting trip.

Finally, given what we’re having for dinner, what’s the best pizza you’ve ever had?

Josh: The best pizza I’ve had is at Di Fara’s in Brooklyn. People think New York pizza has to be made with a coal-fired oven like at Grimaldi’s[footnote]Another long-serving New York pizza parlour, with premises in Little Italy [/footnote] but Di Fara’s makes it gas-fired – so it gives me confidence with my oven! I also love the white clam pizza at Pepe’s in New Haven: it’s one of my favourite things in the whole world.

Check out Alison’s Instagram account.  Josh’s bars are Le Mary Celeste, Candelaria and Glass

_MG_7568

Posted 23rd February 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

More Interviews

Jess Murphy – The chef-owner at Kai cooks an extravagant dinner of mussels, dauphinoise and a rib of beef, extols the virtues of Irish produce and explains her problems with peach skin

Mitch Tonks – Over lunch at his Dartmouth restaurant, the seafood maestro talks about jellied eels with his granny, his morning grappa routine and why the British are scared of cooking fish

Louise McGuane – The owner of Chapel Gate whiskey makes bacon and cabbage with a twist, illuminates the lost art of whiskey bonding and outlines the perils of having 24,000 litres of alcohol in her shed

Gill Meller – The chef and author roasts chicken with wild garlic and beetroot in his outdoor oven while discussing his fascination with home kitchens, daily eating habits and the rise of veganism