So I have a secret. I have been following a man. Well, I only follow him once or twice a year, so I’m not “really” following him… ok, yes I am following him actually but I am not a stalker! I think I am following famous French director Claude Berri. Before you judge me as being one of those insane crazed fan waiting outside of celebrities’ houses, let me explain.
It is always very hard to go out and have breakfast at a restaurant in France. It’s not in our culture to brunch with friends or go have breakfast outside of the home – and by breakfast I mean something more substantial than a small cup of coffee at the local café with a croissant while sitting at the bar. If I ask my family, they probably would confirm that they’ve never had breakfast outside somewhere. In recent years though, the idea of brunch has started to emerge in Paris. It’s not uncommon to see brunch menus now being advertised in restaurants and hear people talk about getting together for a Sunday brunch. However back in 1999, when I started to become a visitor of France once or twice a year, finding a place open at 8am serving a real breakfast was like searching for a good decent and tasty pain au chocolat in the U.S.
My favorite place of all time to have breakfast in Paris is La Coupole. I am biased though because I used to go to high school 2 minutes away from there and it was my hang out place between classes when I needed a warm creamy dense dark and real hot chocolate to energize me from the damp and chilly Paris winters. So La Coupole has been in my life all this time and I have been very faithful to it all these years. To me, it is the quintessential grand Paris brasserie where you can still feel the presence of old and notable patrons such as Josephine Baker, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dalí and even Picasso sitting at one of the table or booth, watching passers-by on the boulevard de Montparnasse while sipping a coffee or a cognac VSOP. La Coupole opened in 1927 and is still a hot spot for traditional French food. Whether you want shellfish, lobster, oysters, curried lamb, the traditional sole meunière or just a regular good ol’ steak, they can make it. In the late 1980s, the main dinning room was registered as a historical site but you can still eat in it – strangely enough it looks like a big open train station waiting room. Just like any traditional brasserie, the waiters are mostly men, dressed in black with a long white apron and a black bow tie and just like any traditional brasserie, they are completely inattentive and you are probably miles away from being one of their main concerns.
I cannot go to Paris without at least eating one breakfast at La Coupole. Their traditional French breakfast presented on a gigantic silver tray offers everything I am craving and what I’ve been dreaming of at home in the U.S. while eating a dry boring bagel for breakfast. They’re not stingy on the fresh crispy bakeries. You’ll get a choice of croissant, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins – sometimes they will even have fresh chausson aux pommes! Oh and sometimes they have other French regional specialties like kouglof, the brioche from Alsace! And if you haven’t had enough carbs, don’t worry because you also get a side of fresh baked bread. Around this wonderful display of bakeries, which aroma transports you straight inside the baker’s oven, you also get wonderful tasty jellies and real salted butter to spread joyfully on your bread. The juices are freshly squeezed, the coffee is hot and strong, the tea comes in those fancy little nets and the hot chocolate is thick and… well, you will want to get every last drop from the chocolate pourer with your finger!
So since I started to go to La Coupole for breakfast, I am always – and I mean it here… always – sitting at one of their long central seats in the main room next to none other than Claude Berri. Yes, Claude Berri! Well, before you ask any further, I think it’s a Claude Berry look-alike, but this is rather peculiar. For the past 11 years, every breakfast I am enjoying at La Coupole – twice a year mind you – it is in the presence of my faux Claude Berri. So I came to expect him when I go there and as a true La Coupole regular, he never fails me. I don’t want to tell him I am following him because it’s not really true and I don’t want to scare him. I never said hi and while I can be memorable, he probably does not remember someone he only sees twice a year! He is always sitting at the same spot, only has small cups of coffee, a book open next to him, some documents and files flying around, dressed in black, small glasses on the tip of his nose, a scruffy beard, a balding head and a black scarf tied around his neck. Who is this man who must have breakfast there every day of the year? What is he doing? What is he reading? What’s his job? Sometimes, people come to his table to talk – I say they talk “business” and about future scripts. They stay one hour and then they go. But he stays. Is La Coupole Claude Berri’s office? I amuse myself every time I go because it has become my tradition – my own French breakfast with flavors of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, both directed by Claude Berri.
Claude – I think I can call him Claude now after all these years – died in January of 2009. That year, I went back to France twice in April and September. I had breakfasts twice at La Coupole, as usual. Was Claude there waiting for me at his own favorite seat? All I can say is that as usual I had a big smile on my face walking in my favorite Parisian brasserie.