“If someone comes into Holybelly and says that they’d like to open up their own place, I always tell them to do it. Travel, see something different and don’t worry about it. Just do it and it will be fine.”
I walk into Holybelly on a Friday afternoon, stepping in a few minutes after four. I select a table next to the bar and watch people come in. They strike a balance between French and Anglophone customs, some shaking hands, others offering a kiss on each cheek. There’s people locked into their computer screens, benefiting from the café atmosphere to finish work, but there’s also small groups lingering with their coffee, fingers laced around mugs expressing the Holybelly ideal : It’s good because we care.
I’m speaking with Nico Alary, who’s partnered with Sarah Mouchot in owning and running Holybelly. The afternoon is relatively quiet compared to the rush of both breakfast and lunch, and Nico takes this interlude to talk to me about Holybelly’s conception and development, the interaction between food and travel, and understanding Paris in its reality, apart from a façade we've all become too comfortable in accepting.
“Sarah and I were in France, studying something completely different from what we do now. We decided we needed to travel before we started working, so we went to Vancouver for three years on an exchange visa. We were young, only about 21, and that’s when we started seeing things that were different from home. Vancouver is much more flexible than France, it’s a different culture, it’s a different philosophy.”
“People our age were thinking and doing things very differently from how they’re done in France. We were seeing a lot more risk-taking in Vancouver. There’s that entrepreneur spirit where everyone is working on a couple of projects and no one is thinking about retirement. In France, we play it safe. You’re raised in a format where it’s go to school, get a job, stick to that job, finish that job, retire, end of story. In Vancouver, you can be a teacher for a few years, you can be a florist, you can work in a coffee shop. People build their lives differently there. They’re passionate and it’s a culture which supports that passion.”
After Vancouver, Sarah and Nico went to Australia, being told that they would find a similar mindset there. They went straight to Melbourne, staying for another three years. Nico was working as a photographer, but was unhappy with the time he had to dedicate to being in front of the computer, craving interaction instead. “I did a piece about coffee shops for Kinfolk magazine which allowed me to spend time with baristas in cafés. I wanted to talk to people, to have an exchange with others, and I could see that this was a big part of their job.”
So Nico found his way into a barista job as Sarah began exploring her attraction to the kitchen, gaining experience at Duchess of Spotswood, working with the chef and owner Andy Gale. “It worked out perfectly because I was learning the front of house while she was learning the back. We were gathering knowledge that we took back with us to Paris. Even if our paths weren’t clear at the time, it’s all connected. We reuse this experience from our travels and bring it to Holybelly.”
I ask then about Nico’s own understanding of Holybelly, searching for a word which encapsulates the atmosphere and the vision he and Sarah have for it. Holybelly is multifunctional, offering breakfast and lunch but serving as a coffee shop in the late afternoon, an explanation for the current mood settling into the space. Nico gives a clearer outline to my observation,“Café means different things in different countries,” he says. “By the Australian standard, Holybelly is a café. We do food and coffee, breakfast from 9-12 in the morning and tea time after 3.”
“Sarah and I loved the breakfast culture back in Melbourne, the idea of going out to breakfast before work in the morning. But when we came back to Paris four years ago, we couldn’t find any places that were doing it. There were cafés doing good coffee, restaurants doing good food, but no one was doing both. We saw the opportunity and took it, going with a simple menu, good coffee with a local roaster, and good food with local ingredients.”
“And in regards to the menu, it isn’t exactly Australian and it’s not American either. We can’t tie what’s on our menu to any type of cuisine, we just feature plates we like. Right now we have something on the menu that’s Cantonese and we have a spring salad that’s very French. We got back from Lisbon last week and put arroz de tomate on the menu. It’s a rice that’s cooked for a long time in a tomato broth, with saffron and chorizo, served alongside fried or fresh fish. We had it in a cantina over there and it was incredible. That’s what we do, we just pick from our travels and gain inspiration from different places. It can be French, Japanese, English, anything. Anyone can come to Holybelly and find something they like. No one feels left out.”
We carry this discussion of food and culture further, thinking about how they each reinforce and drive the other. Nico mediates for a second upon how this phenomenon has developed into something that’s no longer absolute, no longer as clear as it’s been in the past. “You used to go to France and eat a certain type of food, the same in Spain, in Australia, in any country you visited. But now the lines have blurred. It’s so easy for people to go experience something different. We’ve seen so many chefs going abroad for a while and getting influenced by the type of cuisine and cooking techniques found there, then they go home and bring that style of cooking with them. So it’s hard to say what’s French cuisine now, what’s Australian, what’s British.”
I then bring up social media, asking Nico whether he sees it more as a resource and advantage or something that competes with our ability to experience a place, a moment, a meal. “There’s certainly a stigma attached to it, people saying social media is bad and that taking photos of your food is bad, and I suppose in a certain way it is. It can go to the extreme, like when I see people taking 20 minutes to photograph their food. But the power of social media is huge, especially for people who enjoy food, because if you travel somewhere for a week or two it’s a great way to find restaurants and save time. Before, there was that period where you were unsure about what you wanted to eat, and then you’d be hungry and have to go to the first restaurant you found.”
“We’re lucky, because there’s so many people coming through Holybelly and so if I know that I’m going somewhere I start asking people and customers about these places and what they recommend. I did that when we were planning our trip to Lisbon, I asked around, compiled a list, and combined that with research done through Instagram. I encourage everyone to ask the barista as well. The baristas are the new concierge, they’re always going to know where the good places are.”
We turn specifically to coffee for a few minutes, and Nico makes the comparison between what’s happening in Paris to a sample of Melbourne, New York, and London. “In those cities, there’s a lot more focus on the coffee itself. They get really technical about the coffee making, whereas in France, we’re a lot more people-oriented. There’s service tied to the coffee. It’s as good here as it is anywhere else, but we’re a lot more relaxed about it. We don’t wear aprons, we don’t make it scientific and obscure. We make it accessible to people, we make it easy.”
“A lot of Parisians have caught onto this shift in the coffee culture. Yes, there are those that are not of the same generation that are used to the burnt espresso, to that profile of taste. But that’s tradition, and there are those that aren’t going to let go of that. We’re targeting people that already have an interest for things being made differently. I suppose you can’t come to Paris and expect to change everything.”
Nico and I then talk about Paris in its entirety, about the image it gives off and the global understanding of the city. “The stereotypes of Paris are something from another time. What people are fantasizing about is long gone, but it’s stuck in Americans’ minds. The only way to experience the real Paris is to stay here for more than a week or two. Really stay in a place, that’s what I look for when I travel. Live there for a year or two or three, that’s the only way you’ll get past that first layer of a place and really experience the culture.”
“For every city, there’s the functional part, the part where people eat, drink, and live, and then there’s the pretty part. But nothing is happening on the Champs-Elysées, nothing is happening over at the Place Vendôme. You’ll get to see the architecture, the French flair, but if you want to understand the French, if you want to do what French people do, you come over here, the 10th, the 11th, the 20th. These are two cities living side by side within a single Paris.”
Nico then gets up to greet someone at the front and I’m left to reflect upon what he’s told me and upon the clear narrative of the space. Holybelly acts as a documentation of Parisian life, but serves too as the intersection of the other cultures it attracts. Holybelly is a result of the places Nico and Sarah have explored, lived, and known; it offers the same to those coming to Paris in search of inspiration and insight as well. For them, for me, Holybelly is a place of comfort and revelation: this is how food and coffee and the experience of the two should be.