Shannon Bennett's Paris – A Personal Guide to the City's Best

Chef Shannon Bennett and film maker Scott Murray share their foodie secrets

By Robyn Lewis
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Shannon Bennett's Paris

Shannon Bennett's Paris [©The Miegunyah Press]

 

Paris, city of romance. It’s been a tourist drawcard for over a thousand years, long before the word was invented, back when our travelling forebears – the religious pilgrims, seekers of civilisation, culture, art and fortune – arrived on foot and horseback.

Then, as now, they came for the culture, to develop themselves, sometimes the safety of refuge from whatever they were fleeing. In a different way, we do the same – to escape our normal lives at home, wherever that may be, and to absorb the sights, smells and atmosphere of the world’s greatest city. Paris lifts us to new heights as perhaps no other city can.

Once you have been to Paris, you are never the same. It infects you, and far more than Rome's Treviso fountain, compels you to return. It might be a year, a decade, or more, although with Australia’s current high exchange rate, for some it’s often, even to the extent of buying an apartment in your favourite arondissement, as some I know have done.

As travel writer AA Gill has noted, we have Buenos Aires ‘the Paris of the South’, the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street in Melbourne, and several towns named Paris in the USA. Paris engenders copycats. But it stands alone. ‘No-one calls Hong Kong the London of the east’, he says. You may briefly feel Parisian as you stroll under the plane trees past Collins Street’s boutiques, but where are the poodles, the smell of Gauloises, the language (of course!), and the sexy, impeccably dressed Parisians? For those you need to escape the screech of the passing trams and hop on a plane.

But before you do, some homework. There must be a thousand guidebooks, apps and websites detailing where to go, stay and what to do in Paris, with maps and directions. When I travel, I like to have a purpose – discovering art, or theatre, an event, some historical exploring, whatever. That narrows the field a little; you can find specific guides for your own tastes.

We all have to eat when we travel, and of course, Paris is the home of European gastronomy. So, if you’re a foodie, where do you turn? The answer lies in Shannon Bennett’s Paris a Personal Guide to the City’s Best.

I first discovered this book when it was published in hardcover back in 2009. A classy, elegant, handbag-sized number; the little black dress for my Paris tour. Not that I was planning a trip at the time, this was food for dreams. With Shannon Bennett’s Paris in hand, I could almost be there, tasting the meals, sipping wine by the Seine, looking over rooftops from the Nôtre Dame and climbing staircases to whatever adventure lay ahead. Not to mention entering restaurants I can only aspire to from faraway.

The book has recently been updated and re-released in softcover, shedding more than a few grams and $10 in the process. Tick number 1 for travellers. The media release says ‘As gastronomic tour guides go, Shannon Bennett is one of the best. The cook (their word) behind Melbourne’s esteemed Vue de Monde and Bistro Vue restaurants knows Paris like the back of his hand…. How could any book that involves both Shannon Bennett and Paris not rate at least four stars?’

For those who don’t know of him, Shannon Bennett is a Melbourne boy made good, chef and founder of Vue de Monde, his ground-breaking home town restaurant, which relocated in 2011 to the top of Melbourne’s Rialto building, from where you can indeed survey the world. Famously beating some of Australia’s top chefs in an open competition whilst still in his teens, he went on to secure several top positions in some of Europe’s toughest kitchens, before returning home to establish Vue de Monde.

Bennett was once described as the ‘enfant terrible’ of Australian haute cuisine, in part due to his drive and ambition, his self-proclaimed ‘sixth sense for cooking’ and his standards of perfection. And then there’s his Attitude – something he first experienced in the London restaurant of Marco Pierre White, distilled into the food. He became a culinary convert.

His trips to Paris started early. A fortunately young man, he ate at his first Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris – the legendary Joël Robuchon’s Jamin – when he was twenty, and was enthralled by the experience.

He confesses to ‘always feeling intimidated by Paris and its chefs’; like some of us I imagine, even (or especially) if we’re not attempting to out-cook Alain Ducasse. Bennett returns to Paris every year ‘mainly to check or benchmark where … Vue de Monde sits … I come back with more belief each year that Australia still has a lot to learn, but also has much to offer.’

As Bennett points out, inner Paris has the highest rents in the world, and ‘everything about running a restaurant there reeks of money’. It costs millions of euros to set a restaurant up; add the consistent marketing and work to achieve great reviews, years of experience in service (and how to handle the Michelin inspectors), and an absolute dedication to training and inspiring staff (around 70 staff to 50 seats), it’s no wonder the prices are high. Rarified stuff indeed.

But as Paris nonchalantly goes on, so does its fine dining, high costs or not. So, where to begin?

The Michelin guide you may think – it has reigned supreme for over a hundred years – or if your French is good enough, GaultMillau, which Bennett notes ‘is a long way ahead in discovering and promoting new talent.’ He advises using both for fine dining exploration, a new app called Le Fooding (which only lists restaurants it likes, and has a usage fee), plus various websites including gastroville.com and gastromondiale.com.

But will you find tips on how to book, on dealing with difficult waiters, or with huge wine lists? Mais non. For these, and a lot more, Shannon Bennett’s Paris a Personal Guide to the City’s Best has answers. As he says, this book is not so much a guide ‘but a collection of stories and opinions about why Paris means so much to me’.

It covers casual dining: brasseries, bistros and ‘neighbourhood restaurants’, and a range of accommodations, apartments being a favourite (with tips on how to research them thoroughly using Google Earth before you commit). As with his New York guide, he asked ‘his mate, Scott Murray to help out, along with other friends who have added their personal comments’, including Stephanie Alexander, fellow chef Matt Moran and many more, including sommeliers.

Like Paris, the book is divided into the arondissements (districts) of the Rive Droite (Right Bank), Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and the Île Saint-Louis. Within each, it works its way from les Tuileries, les Halles, Le Marais, St Paul, the Champs Élysées, Monmartre, Belleville to Saint-Germain-des-Près and Montparnasse.

There’s even a section Outside Paris, subtitled ‘the finest culinary journeys in France’, which takes you from the three Michelin star (and in Bennett’s opinion, the best) restaurant named Bras near the village of Laguiole (pronounced ‘lay-ole’) in the Midi-Pyrénées in the south, through Aquitaine and Bordeaux, Alsace, Auvergne, Bourgogne, right through to Brittany in the north. (These are covered in more depth in his companion volume Shannon Bennett’s France.)

The amount of information packed into its 292 pages is staggering. As well as introductions to the fine dining establishments of each, there are discussions of how and when they received (or lost) their stars, extraordinary food details that make you feel like you are enjoying a meal with him in person, hearing stories about running into hotel butlers from ‘just down the road in Melbourne’, and a lot more.

These are interspersed with recipes, which – unlike the feeling I had with his New York book – add rather than detract from Shannon Bennett’s Paris. There’s Croque Monsieur, Crème Caramel, Scallops Baked in Bread (the French always have great recipes for introducing children to finer dining), Garlic Snails, Duck Leg Confit with Pommes, Fois Gras, Crêpes Suzette … if you are staying in an apartment and don’t feel like eating out every night, then you can head to the local market (locations of many supplied) and cook your own Parisian dishes. They are relatively simple, but authentic to the core.

Then there are his lists: ‘Shannon’s favourite Parisian treats’ (where to buy macaroons, snails, truffles, caviar, chocolates), his favourite boutique hotels, wines to drink in Paris, Marco-Pierre White’s Top 10 French Dishes of All Time, even places to hire DVDs. It seems nothing has been forgotten. For your holiday preparation, or reading on the plane, there are lists of novels, of non-fiction books set in Paris, books on Parisian food and restaurants, and bookshops for when you arrive. The man is clearly in love with Paris, and it shows on every page.

You can get lost in Shannon Bennett’s Paris, but as in the city itself – where people will help you, even in the rain at 2 am – in a nice way. For the book, allow quite some time to read and wander, perhaps one arondissement at a time, and to absorb the flavours of each, at whatever dining level you choose or your budget permits.

As AA Gill wrote last year, Paris now has its edge back, and has once again become accepting of visitors with fantasies, of escapees from the mundane, not just welcoming those with platinum-plus credit cards or seeking high-priced fashion experiences (the newly wealthy Chinese amongst them).

With Shannon Bennett’s Paris in hand (or handbag) your foodie pilgrimage will be much richer, and you can enjoy your culinary journey with great confidence, freeing you to seek your personal holy grail and lifting you to the heights that perhaps no other city can.

 

Shannon Bennett’s Paris a Personal Guide to the City’s Best by Shannon Bennett and Scott Murray is published by The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne, Victoria; sc, 292 pp) and retails in Australia for A$34.99 (the former hardcover edition was A$44.99).

 

Shannon Bennett's Paris – a Personal Guide to the City's Best can be purchased online via Booko.com.au here »

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April 22nd, 2012
 
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