L’Epicerie on Chatsworth Road is, in broad terms, a French deli/café. The delicious Vienoisserie certainly provide a major reason to visit: quiches, croissants, bread and cakes are baked overnight by Christophe at Boulangerie Jade. But there’s more to L’Epicerie than French pastries, cheeses, charcuterie and wine. A wealth of influences and experiences have gone into creating this hub of sociability and foodie passion, as owner Rémy Zentar explains.
Interview with Rémy Zentar
Rémy grew up in a village in the Auvergne close to Lyon (famous for its charcuterie), as well as Burgundy (home of Beaujolais wine) and Charolles (source of Charolais beef). So food was on his radar from an early age: he recalls enjoying quenelles, a sausage-shaped mixture, made in his region with pike. But Rémy always had other food influences in his life – his father was from Algeria, and Rémy remembers his aunt’s fantastic couscous, served in summer with méchoui, lamb cooked on a spit. His father was a psychologist, and with a big family plus various kids in his father’s care, the social side of sharing food was hugely important.
So Rémy was drawn to food as a career, but also to travel – he drove across Africa, sampling French baguettes and mafé (meat cooked in peanut sauce) in Senegal, highly spiced food in Ghana, fresh fish dishes in Ivory Coast and Lebanese cuisine throughout West Africa, where there is a huge Lebanese community – Rémy is also a fan of the country’s wine. He was employed in a French restaurant in Dakar before heading south, eventually to South Africa. This was a formative cross-cultural food experience: he worked in German/French and Greek restaurants in Cape Town, as well as a seafood place run by a Portuguese family, and also began an education in wine and wine making in the Stellenbosch region.
After Africa Rémy lived in Brazil for three years. A country with so many immigrants provided excellent eating, and Rémy developed a passion for Brazilian/Italian pizza, made with their own mozzarella, as well as Japanese food (Brazil has 1.5 million people of Japanese descent, more than any other country outside Japan itself). When he finally visited Japan, Rémy realised he preferred the Brazilian version of the cuisine to the indigenous one. He ate great feijoada, a meat and bean stew, still served on a Saturday as this was when slaves were given their weekly ration of meat.
After all this, life in Hackney might seem a bit of a comedown. But Rémy embraced the idea of opening his own shop with energy, educating himself in the practicalities of serving customers and running his own business. His greatest influence here has been his friend Stephane who runs La Bouche on Broadway Market; they met doing National Service in France. Rémy worked at La Bouche, and he also did a course in cheese making and cutting, as well as a wine course at Walthamstow College.
And he set about establishing relationships with small suppliers who he could rely on and respect. The coffee at L’Epicerie comes from Ethical Addictions, who help subsidize a school in Kenya, tinned goods are from Suma, a quirky cooperative where the staff rotate tasks to avoid being stultified in one particular role, and Scotland’s best shortbread is provided by Shortbread House in Edinburgh.
Rémy has travelled the world, but now being local is where it’s at for him. He has young children and lives just two streets from the shop, and likes his staff to be local too. He relates well to the family atmosphere in Clapton, and loves talking to the customers who he says are open and curious about food. So next time you have a question about how to match wines, cut Roquefort or cook a tagine, you know where to go.
Rémy asked two of his favourite suppliers to provide recipes for Eat Hackney. When Rémy was looking for a reliable baker to supply the shop, he chose Christophe because of the consistent high quality of the baking – and the taste of his clafoutis, a classic French dessert. Pastilla is a Moroccan dish, reflecting Rémy’s own North African heritage. The recipe comes courtesy of Khalil at Nomades, who also supply L’Epicerie with fiery harissa, Moroccan chili paste. Traditionally pastilla was made with pigeon, but in this version chicken is used.