British chef wins title for best French village cafe

PARIS (AFP) - A small cafe run almost singlehandedly by a British chef was named Monday (Nov 7) as France's best village bistrot.

Manchester-born Chris Wright only set up the Epicerie de Dienne as a shop/cafe/restaurant in a remote village in the mountainous Cantal region of central France in June.

With Dienne having less than 200 permanent residents, the entirely self-caught cook wasn't expecting crowds.

"I wanted it to be a low-key thing," said the 44-year-old, who was looking for a bit of a break after spending more than a decade cooking and serving day and night at Le Timbre (postage stamp), a tiny but much-loved Parisian eaterie.

"Looking at it from that point of view, it's been a bit of a disaster," he told AFP.

"I was hoping to wind down with a quiet little place were you could get a nice slice of ham and cheese. I failed there," he laughed.

But word spread quickly around the Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Park in which the village is set, with locals flocking to wonder at the Englishman who could cook.

"By mid-July it was mad and I had to get a bit of help," said Wright hours before he received the prize from Le Fooding, France's trendiest food and restaurant guide.

Wright's unexpected victory - to him at least - came as the British supermarket chain Marks & Spencer was listed as one of the best places for takeaway food in the French capital by the same guide.

Parisians have long had a love affair with the brand and there was an outcry when it pulled out of France in 2001. But it returned with a vengeance five years ago and now has 18 outlets mostly selling food in and around the French capital.

Le Fooding picked out its "quinoa, avocado and Brazil nut salad", "Devon scones" and vegan "Vegetable Kiev" for particular praise.

Wright was one of several foreign-born chefs honoured by the guide, with the Italian Giovanni Passerini named chef of the year for his "modern trattoria" in Paris.

Le Fooding, known for its unstuffy cosmopolitan approach, also honoured Japanese chefs Katsuaki Okiyama for his Parisian restaurants Abri and Abri Soba, and Moko Hirayama for his eaterie Mokonuts.

Wright said he was a big fan of cabbage and loved marrying it with Cantal's world famous "sausages, charcuterie and cheese".

"The locals have been great. Quite of a lot of people knew of me, because I have been coming down for the last eight years or so and I love the food from around here.

"Others probably thought that (being English) I wouldn't be capable of much more than a sandwich."

Having closed the cafe for the winter, Wright plans to open for the February holidays, then reopen properly again from May to October.

Whether he has found the peace he was looking for when he moved to the country, is another matter.

"Not really," he joked. "But I don't regret it. I love it there."