2 Building a Bistrot in France: countdown to opening: 2
PART 1 (June) Three months and counting……..(we hope!)
End of September 2000 saw us, Tiffany and Dave Smith, embark on a complete change of career, lifestyle and country. Our first mètier is the casino industry and we had spent many years globetrotting in the business, and we came to France from Greece where we had spent four years helping to set up the largest casino in Europe. It was time to try something new and time to get back to France where we had already spent some considerable time living and working at the Carlton Casino on the Croisette in Cannes. We were pleasantly surprised at the affordability of properties in France, particularly hotels, and we found ourselves the rather surprised owners of a small 7-roomed, 40 seater hotel/restaurant called Le Trefle A Quatre Feuilles, which means The Four Leafed Clover – an auspicious sign, we thought, in a lovely Dordogne village . The hotel had been closed for 2 years and was in bankruptcy. We opened after renovations with a chef, and after 4 years he left and I, Tiffany, took over the helm. I had spent 4 years working with our chef and learning everything he had to teach, and I was ready to make the kitchen my own.
We sold the business as a successful going concern in January of this year. It was time to leave the hotel business behind and to concentrate on food, my real passion. Also, we needed another challenge. Our criteria were quite specific: I needed to separate my work from my living space, so a separate house/appartment was required; we wanted to buy somewhere, walls and all – most businesses are sold without walls, you have to pay a rent – and it needed to be something we could make our own. We found Le Cortal, here in Vernet-Les-Bains which fits the bill perfectly. And it has a house next door, hooray! It was known for its’ barbeque, the old owners used to cook on a big barbeque on the terrace or in the fireplace inside in the winter. The place is extremely run down and has been condemned by the Services Veterinaires – who are the guys who control hygiene regulations. Perfect! Our concept is to replace the barbeque – which got a special mention from the hygiene people – with individual pierrades (hot-stones), and a bistrot menu, by which I mean contemporary bistrot, a bit in the style of ‘gastropub’ food, fresh, modern and flavoursome. We intend to run it between the two of us most of the time, as employing staff is not only a bit of a nightmare, but prohibitively expensive here in France.
We arrived here at the end of January and were hoping to be open in 3 months, certainly in time for the season. Now we hope to open for September! The best laid plans of mice and men…………After a while we decided we needed the services of an architect, so that set us back at least 6 weeks: he had to draw up plans from scratch and submit a Permis de Construire to the Mairie, which we hadn’t counted on. In fact in the 7 years since we set up our last business, regulations have changed in all areas from ERP’s – Etablissements recevant de Public, in other words, buildings where the public go, to handicapped access regs, but mostly in the hygiene regulations which have changed out of all recognition in the wake of Mad cow disease and foot and mouth. However, we have it all sorted and the workmen lined up – a whole story in itself, as anyone who has tried to get building work done in France will attest to!
[(Follow our countdown to opening here every week)]
PART 2 (Eary July) The countdown continues……..!)
It’s a bit of a tricky property to photograph as it is built on the edge of a sort of cliff, so it is on 3 levels with the top level being at path level, you have to decend a steep path to get to the entrance and the dining room is at the bottom. Here is the view of the restaurant from the path:
So these photos are all of the entrance level. The business was built around the barbeque that you see on the terrace there. That has now gone. The house you see in the first pic we bought as well, convenient, huh! The 3rd photo is of the entrance and kitchen. As you can see it is completely open. We shall be closing it off so that the public cannot access it, but it will have a big hole to preserve a feeling of an ‘open’ kitchen. I get lonely in there! We have to be able to guarantee the security of the food ‘ securité alimentaire ‘ which obviously we can’t do if any old Tom Dick or Harry has access. The last pic is the terrace if you turn right out of the door in the 3rd pic.
This is the bottom floor which is the main dining area. It has lots of character as you can tell. The main change here is that the chimney has come out. It is a horrible old Catalan style plaster home made chimney mantle with 30 years of entrecote grease coating the walls. It no longer meets fire regs and is a bit unsanitary if truth be told. We want to keep a chimney, however, they’re great in winter, after all, and we shall be putting in a bio-ethanol fire which when we decided on it was a great eco-friendly solution, but has since become a bit controversial. Tough, we’ve got one now!
This room continues to the right sort of under the top terrace to a covered terrace
I can’t quite believe that this was seriously used as restaurant seating, but indeed it was. It’s just a horrible space – right down to the horrid suspended fluo lighting that you can just see. It’s not even closed to the elements, as where I am standing to take the picture there is no door. So the plan here is to put in a false ceiling, re-floor (throughout) build a small wall and put in a door which will be a fire door, so it will be equipped for emergency exit. The windows are alu which is very ’70s, and will be replaced when we get earning, but for the moment will stay. But I shall make them look nice (by disguising them!).
Next to this dining room is a storage room – a very important space for food storage as the whole place is so small we have to make the most of any space we have. The kitchen will be ‘bijou’, so this area will be the major storage area.
As you can see, it is totally unsuitable as it is for storing anything, particularly food! We shall be stud-lining the walls all around which will be a challenge for the builder as the back is actual rock face! We shall also be putting in a false ceiling and a new floor. The whole lot will be painted in washable paint and will be clean and sanitary. You can’t see it in the pic, but in here was housed a grease separator which food service operations are obliged to have. It is a device to separate the grease from the water before the water joins the main drainage system. The restaurant then has to dispose of the grease periodically. In our case it was an old, old thing. A big concrete tank that had been sealed with silicon, and opened last who knows when? Yuk. These days you can get small stainless steel models that fit under the kitchen sink, and that you can clean out yourself. So we have ordered one of these and Dave was brave enough to open the old one, ugh, we called a specialist company to empty it and then Dave took the hammer to it. Gone!
That’s our man who’s doing the electrics, fitting out the kitchen and supplying some of the equipment. He has a specialist kitchen fitting company in Prades and has been a godsend.
This is the new floor half-way. He gets the slope in the kitchen area by doing it in triangles. Neat, huh?
So we watch it with excitement!
PART 3 (Mid-July) ……. and continues………!)
When we got here back at the end of January, we had thought that it would be simple case of calling in builders and plumbers etc, getting quotes for the work and then waiting for the work to be done. However, as always it turns out not to be so simple. The works needed were far more involved than we had thought. The building used to be an old stable, thus the name: Le Cortal is stable in catalan. It was originally converted into a restaurant around the late 1970’s and then sold around 5 years ago to the previous owners. I honestly don’t think that 1 single centime has since been spent in upkeep. In stripping the building, Dave has untangled a complicated network of extension cables, even to provide lighting, there were so few sockets, that each time they wanted to add something, an extension cable with about 5 sockets had to be used. Imagine. I’m surprised the place didn’t go up in smoke. So we have had the supply upgraded, and there is some dispute as to whether we can get enough, so are investigating the Tarif Jaune which is supplied by EDF Entreprises. However, this will take around 22 weeks to sort out, so will have to go with what we have at the moment. We are going all electric, and appliances now are much more powerful than they were even a few years ago. I shall have an induction hob – the way of the future, it’s fantastic – but that requires 7Kw, and a steam oven which have only just become affordable for small kitchen like us is a massive 9Kw. We had to sack the original electrician as he jeopardised the whole job by just not being able to get here – a shame as he’s a local guy with a good reputation – and the kitchen guy J-P is doing it. He has started already as the cables had to be laid before the floor was, and his quote has finally been delivered yesterday. Jolly complicated thing to do, I must say. You should see the size of our fuse box, it’s huge, but, gee, it just sounds as if I’m boasting! All sorts of wizardry will be built in: circuits will be constructed, so that in case of a power failure, one dining room lights may go out, but the other will stay on, so it won’t be complete darkness; if the appliances go out, then the fridges and freezers stay on. The external lights will be on a timer; the extractor will be linked to a fire alarm, so that if there’s fire, it will automatically go onto full power, so suck out fumes and stop the spread of fire etc. However his quote has come in at €4,000 more than the other which was a bit of a shock. However, we have learnt with him that we take him to task over the estimate, and we manage to shave it down quite considerably. We got about €3,000 off the quote in the end. Phew.
We also sacked the builder that we had originally engaged. He quoted us €28,000 for a job we’re having done – quicker- for a third of the price. He had also quoted us for brick walls covered in crepi everywhere, when Dave has spent months plastering over the old horrid crepi. We wanted plasterboard, with a finish ready to paint, and it is ending up a whole lot cheaper than the crappi crepi. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure crepi has its’ place – outside for example – but it seems in this country they just love to finish off walls by slapping on some rough stuff.
However the main ‘down’ this week has been the discovery that the existing extractor fan, which is about the only piece of equipment we wanted to keep, is too long for the kitchen in it’s new incarnation by about 20cm. We discovered this while marking out the exact positions of the walls – done with a groovy blue chalky string, by the way, cool! Our kitchen man had already told us that our motor no longer conformed to fire regs – which I can believe, it must be about 30 years old. We have retained the services of a company called Socotec, which we are obliged to do. They advise us of all security requirements needed as we are classed an ERP – etablissement recevant de public, that is to say, a building that welcomes members of the public, and as such we have to conform to fire regs, regs concerning facilities for the handicapped ( a bit out of the question in our case, we are not ideally situated on the mountain!) etc. They will eventually issue us with a certificate to say that we are in accordance with the regs, and the Mairie will then allow us to open. Complicated, huh? Anyway, they are the people who advise on such matters as what motor we need for the extractor fan. Because the kitchen is all electric, if we go over 20Kw – and the oven takes half of that allowance! – we are classed as a ‘grande cuisine’ and have to put in this humungeously powerful hotte (extractor) with a resistance to fire for half an hour. Bizzarely it is actually cheaper to get one that is resistant to fire for 2 hours. I have no problem with getting a fire resistant motor, after all ,I dont want me or anyone else to go up in smoke, but they insist on a certain power which is so powerful it will probably take me up the chimney. I think it is a bit the case of the legislation not keeping up with modern technology. Nobody in their right mind, now building a restaurant kitchen would put in gas. Anyway, this is another €4,000 euro unexpectedly expenditure. Damn.
We shall have to give that some close scrutiny and we shall be asking Socotec to show us the appropriate text in law, so we know they’re not making it up. However, after the sale of our previous business, we know that every detail is scoured over with a fine tooth comb, so I shall not be taking any risks with this one. If we need one, we need one and that is the end of it. Until next week.
PART 4 (Late July) )
Anticipating a fairly highly charged week, we took off to the beach at the weekend, going to Le Bacarès Port to try and catch a glimpse of the tour de France for sailing boats. We did see several yachts zooming up and down off-shore, but I’m sure all the gripping stuff was happening on-board! However, it was an absolutely wonderful day and we flumped on the beach after lunch. I’m revelling in the proximity of these wonderful beaches – we are real sun lovers.
In the years since 2000 when we built our first kitchen, the laws relating to food hygiene have changed out of all recognition largely due to the mad cow crisis, and then foot and mouth that came out of the UK. The consumer demanded full transparency from field to table and the new ‘paquet hygiene’ laws that have been coming into force have completely changed the way food is handled – or should be! – right from the farmer to the final transformation, me in our case, supermarkets in the home. I took the opportunity while the plans were being drawn up by the architect to do a 3 day course at the Chambre de Commerce in Perpignan in the new HACCP regs. I found it really fascinating, and a real help in planning the new kitchen. When you are planning a kitchen you have all sorts of people from architects to the kitchen supplier trying to tell you what is ‘au norm’ – to specification, and they can come up with some real rubbish. Like – for example – that wood is not allowed in the kitchen. Materials are not actually specified in the legislation as being legal or not: the properties of the materials are, they have to be smooth surfaces, waterproof, cleanable and non-degradable, so wood is allowed as long as it is kept in good nick, and not allowed to wear to the point where it has lots of grooves where bacteria can lurk. I now have a file of paperwork of various inspections I have to do daily and weekly when we are open to ensure that the food chain remains secure right to the consumer.
So while the builders get on with it, I have been sign-making- here is the sign to go over our front door. Jolly smart, I reckon, I’m dead pleased with it. I ordered the letters from the UK. Dave just has to mount it now. We shall be getting it up asap so that we can sort out the best lighting for it.
PART 5 (Early August) ……. and continues………!)
I have been very excited this week to learn that there is a grower in Pezilla-Sur-Riviere who grows heirloom organic tomatoes. If there’s one fruit I get really excited about it is tomatoes, particularly organic ones, as I think the flavour really is much better than hothouse ones. Also it would be interesting to showcase rare varieties. So I shall be calling in on my way to Perpignan, next time I go. I am excited by the differences between here and the Dordogne in the fresh produce. Of-course, the Perigord has a rich and historical cuisine, divine in its’ own right. Fave dinner? Confit, chips and walnut salad. Yum! But here is like the garden of France with orchards and fruit stands every few meters. I’m like a piggie in clover. The growing season kicks off in the Dordogne with tobacco, then sunflowers and then corn. And then they leave the corn in the fields until it’s all brown and ugly, but it’s for the cattle.
Another good thing happened: at the beginning of June we ordered an inox grease separator from a French company based in the Alsace region. We paid a €500 deposit and he said it would be 3 weeks. Well, up until last Monday we had spoken to him a few times and he kept saying that he had sent it, and then we couldn’t get him on the phone or to answer his emails. I was beginning to get that knot of dread where you think that something might imminently go wrong….but, oh yee of little faith, the guy delivered it himself Monday evening. He said it had accidentally gone to Nice (!) so he had gone to retrieve it and bring it here himself. We were putting the pressure on, because we want the plumber to install it. All the water from the kitchen needs to go through it and it needs a tap for cleaning. Phew! I didn’t want to see €500 disappearing down the swanee.
Next week should see some big changes – new customer toilets and storage area, and finishing off the second part of the dining room. So cross fingers for some more interesting pics!
PART 6 (Late August) ……. and continues………!)
Well since I last wrote, quite a lot has been done. Hooray! The kitchen people dedicated a couple of weeks to us and fitted the expensive shiny new extractor and motor. We had thought that the one piece of old equipment we could use was the old extractor, but no. It was 20cms too long in the new configuration of the kitchen, but also we needed a motor that is made to be resistant to fire for at least half an hour. Even though I have the smallest kitchen in the history of restaurants, because it is all electric and a large part will be visible to the public, we are classed as a ‘grande cuisine ouverte’ for fire purposes and need this particular type of motor. They have also fitted the old one in the washing-up section – so at least we could recycle the old one. The electrics have been sorted on the mezzanine, and the builder has finished the plaster boarding up there, so we have a new toilet and storage area with a trap allowing access to above the kitchen ceiling where the motors for the extractors are. Once he has done the joints, we can actually start fitting the toilet and hand basin and start decorating up there! The kitchen panels are up; all that is missing is the swing door that will lead in and out of the kitchen. This little baby comes built in to its side panels and was damaged the first time it was delivered, so it was sent back. They came with the second door, and it’s too wide – the kitchen guy has ordered the wrong width! It makes you want to go Grrr. The width is important as if it’s too wide, it will hit the stairs each time it opens and closes. So that has gone back. It has to be perfect as it costs €800!
I have to say that I never want to do a rewiring job again, as the mess that results is just awful. It’s a bit like surgery that has gone wrong – these horrible gashes in the walls are like ugly scars. They will be made good, of-course, but at the time the mess is a bit overwhelming.
The kitchen fitters are now on hols and coming back the beginning of September, but the builder is not dependent on them to move on to move on himself.
Our builder seems to have lost a bunch of weight since we last saw him – and he didn’t have much padding then! When I commented on it, he said that he had had a liver problem and was having tests, but that he felt much better but that he had lost 5 kg. Being French, of-course, he is taking artichoke extract for it. He doesn’t eat lunch, but works right through, and says he is only eating vegetables right now, trying to get better. Of-course he is a single bloke and eats mainly pizza – and I’m not making it up, I asked him! I have tried to offer some nutritional advice – a guy working in heavy labour needs more than veg, after all. I even offered to cook him lunch. Free!!! But he won’t have it. I feel that he’s going to make himself really ill if he isn’t careful. He even has that grey pallor – and he is a relatively young guy, he should look pink and healthy. But what can you do? Oh yes, and he seems to have lost his helper, as well. He just hasn’t turned up, so Dave is helping where he can.
He has moved on to the downstairs now and has fitted the false ceiling in the external dining room and is in the process of building the wall to which the new door closing the room off to the outside will be fitted. It is very tricky as it is at a difficult angle and needs to be very secure. He is taking his time over it, but seems to be doing a good job. It looks (and feels) really solid. We went to buy the door the other week, and I was really surprised at the weight and solidity of them – I have a new respect for them!
Pic 1: Jean-Pierre fiting our shiny new motor
Pic 2: New panels from outside the kitchen
Pic 3: Panels going up in kitchen
Pic 4: small extractor fitted
Pic 5: Shiny new extractor – well it would be if it wasn’t covered in plastic
Pic 6: mezzanine – start of works
Pic 7: mezzanine, plasterboarding done
Pic 8: Plasterboarding the ceiling downstairs
Pic 9: the new wall going up
Pic 10: New paint job and sign at the front.
2 Part 7 : progress check – mid September. 2
Well, we knew aiming to open for the end of September was optimistic, but now it’s official! Still, we are still hoping for early October and I have menu ideas racing around in my head, dying to get out!!
Progress is good – The Anaemic One, our builder looks much better and is plodding on slowly but surely. We are really pleased with his work and we have quite a bond with him now – we’ll miss him when he’s gone! He has completed the downstairs door, and it was only after he finished that he commented that he doesn’t really do masonry, but is a plasterer….oops, but now we are REALLY impressed, as it’s really solid, and butts up against a wobbly stone wall – not an easy task, at all. He is now working on the reserve – stock age area for the food. The new floor has been laid and he is putting up the rails for the walls and ceiling. He is being driven mad by the electricians as this will also eventually house the gubbins for the ‘tarif jaune’ electricity installation, the extra powerful electricity supply that we will probably need. This is shrouded in a mist of unfathomable fire regulations and requirements, from the housing of the main cable in fire proof materials to the size of the ‘cupboard’ that will house the new fuse box. Even EDF Enterprises can’t tell us the size of the fusebox that we need to leave room for. It’s very frustrating.
The kitchen will probably be ready this evening to receive its’ equipment. The new door has arrived and been fitted, Dave has fitted and finished off the serving pass with a removable section, so that we have the option in the future of getting big stuff in and out of the kitchen and we don’t have to try and squeeze everything in and out of an 80cm door. The floor has been laid, by our own fair hands. We bought the industrial quality flexible flooring from Maclou in Perpignan, but they wanted €1000 to fit it. If it had been a great big area, then it would have been worth it – but it’s not, so we thought we’d have a go at doing it ourselves, and it seems fine. Today, the guys are fitting the ‘skirting’ which is going to waterproof and finish the edges and it will then be ready to fit out. Wow!
We have been decorating the upstairs and working on the waterproofing still- we have been having ongoing problems of leaks whenever it rains. I think we have it just about cracked now. There was a problem with a wall on the terrace that was responsible for damp leaking into the downstairs dining room, but Dave has fixed that, thank heavens – our builder was stressing about his new plaster boarding and we were stressing as well –I mean, it’s not nice to have water coming down the wall whilst eating! Again, feeble attempts had been made by the previous owners to fix the problem, but it was another bodge job. We also had our builder on the roof, to see if he could see where and why it was coming in. It’s not the roof is very old, either, but it seems to be a problem with the mortar they have used to stick the tiles on with. It is crumbling and the tiles are getting loose and move. So Dave spent a couple of days up there with tubes of tile glue, sticking the tiles back on in the problem area. It rained quite heavily last night, and not one drop came in!!!! Hooray!!!
The thing holding us up now are the electricians. The two lads doing it are now wiring up the fuse box, which is complicated, it’s a whole web of cables. And the fuse box itself is an impressive thing. The two of them have absolutely no finesse, and after some stress from me have been banned from finishing off – Dave will now make any holes and finish off, and in fact have been banned from mixing up any plaster at all, after they did it on our new terrace tiling and left it all over the place – even after I cleaned it all off the first time. Please, God, let them finish!
Late October – preparing for opening
Goodness, life has got hectic all of a sudden! I have rarely been without a paintbrush in my hand and now we have set an opening date for Friday 24th Oct. There is still a lot to do – but without a date to work to, there is no momentum.
So: Olivier, the builder has been gone a few weeks now, the electricians have nearly finished – they just need to come back and finish off a few things after the plumber has been. The plumber is here as I write connecting all the taps, putting in a new water heater, and connecting the grease separator etc. Hopefully we shall have water by the end of the day.The tables and chairs should have arrived this week, but they haven’t….let’s hope they arrive on Tuesday… all the crockery and cutlery and glasses etc have been ordered and may arrive today. Yesterday I finalised the menu and will place a food order today to arrive next wednesday and have made a – huge – list of shopping.
3 Wish us luck! 3
3 Well, merde alors (as they say here). 3
My goodness, the pace has picked up a bit around here! Whoever thought plumbing could be so complicated – it took 2 1/2 days and Dave whizzing round specialist plumbing suppliers, and he is STILL coming back tomorrow to fix a leak! The specialist thing is the steam oven that needs piping that can withstand boiling temps. And the leak is coming out of the grease separator and into the mains supply.
The electricians/kitchen fitters finally finished plumbing in the oven, and various assorted jobs this am. We went shopping yesterday and I got all the pots, pans, whisks etc that we need, and also the ‘epicerie’ -flour, butter etc. I spent 5 hours in the cash n carry!!! And I won’t tell you the bill! And although I got all I thought we shall need, invariably I’ll find out right at the wrong time, that I forgot a crucial thing….
We’ve had crockery and cutlery, glasses etc arriving from various different companies that we’ve ordered from – most of it I’m really happy with, but a few things I’m changing. The freezer has been a headache – our kitchen fitter seems to be consumed with the problem of our freezer – which has been returned twice, now. We have even lost the thread of what has happened with it! Suffice to say, that not only does it not work, it isn’t automatic defrost like it says it is in the documentation. We are very constrained by the size of the freezer that will fit into the space that we have, so J-P has admitted defeat and we have ordered the one we were originally going to order in September! Grrrr! Fortunately, this is not going to hold up our opening – I will just have to run down to the freezer in the reserve if I need anything. The Mairie even accepted a delivery for us yesterday, while we were out doing the marathon shop!
So I have now laid claim to my kitchen – I’ve scrubbed and cleaned it this afternoon and moved all my lovely new shiny things in. Tomorrow I cook!!!
A great experience was meeting the wine guy today. We have contacted the company who supplied the previous owners, but with the proviso that they also supply us with the wine from Domaine Treloar, whom we met and whose wines we tried back in the Spring. English/kiwi vineyard owners, and I really like their wines – they really are good. However, we like to not only work with local French producers, but we have very positive experiences with working with local expat producers most of the time they have a very interesting story. The suppliers agreed, but not only that, they also are agreeably impressed with the wines, so will try to sell to others also. so it is a positive experience for everyone! This guy is going to print up the wine list for us (me – I’m running outta time!), supply us with the right size wine glasses for lunch (ours are too big) and give us all sorts of freebees – not to mention the 14, yes 14!!!! bottles of wine that he left me with to try.
Well Bum. Not only are the tables and chairs not going to arrive, but the chairs will not be here for 3 weeks and the remaining tables until the 4th November. This is really bad news, as you can understand. Not only that, the credit card machine that was supposed to arrive today, mysteriously didn’t. Needless to say I am absolutely furious.If this was the US I would probably be suing their sorry a***es. I was happily dickering about in the kitchen playing with my new equipment and starting the preps when Dave called me to STOP preparing any food!
So what we have done is this. We have changed the order to a different chair in the same range, so it is the same colour, fabric etc, just a slightly different style. It is also 22 euros a chair more expensive than the one we ordered, but they are doing it for the same price and it is in stock in Paris and will be here next Tuesday. Dave picked up our 3 tables for 4 that had arrived and the shop have lent us two display tables that they had in store. This will give us 5 tables – better than nothing – and seating for a possible 18 people. We shall have to just get on with it. Bloody Grr.
So we have adjusted our date of opening to next Weds 29th from lunchtime. Suddenly life has slowed down a bit. So I packed up in the kitchen and went for a long siesta. I was absolutely cream crackered – we were still organising menus at midnight last night. Dave got home to find me and Mittens fast asleep.