Our man in Paris

Author: Toni Mason
Photography: Carla Coulson

The idea of opening and running a restaurant in Paris wasn't something I'd planned. But after a year as head chef at Au Passage, I started getting offers from local restaurateurs. I wanted to focus on the sort of minimalist, produce-driven small plates I'd become known for, so I spoke with a couple of the owners of Au Passage, and we decided to do something together.

This is my first time opening a restaurant. It's my baby. I didn't want to do anything too pretentious or chichi. I wanted a casual, accessible place to showcase the sort of food we wanted to do, in an environment I'd like to spend time in - no artifice, no distraction. We found a place in the 11th arrondissement. It isn't a traditionally chic area, but it's gentrifying. I'd say it's one of the richest areas for food in Paris, but this has only happened in the last six or seven years since Le Chateaubriand moved to Avenue Parmentier, and there's also Septime, Au Passage, Aux Deux Amis, among others.

The potential of the space took us from the start. There was a lot to do, which was scary, but it's got good bones and that's where the name, Bones, came from. The space is split-level, which was perfect because I wanted to create two environments in one, and having two levels enabled that: there's the bar, which is very much about a raw bar feel, with freshly shucked oysters, sea urchin, and house-cured charcuterie, and the restaurant where we do a set menu for 25 people a night. Hopefully their energy will affect each other - be able to bounce off each other. I wanted a space where I could push myself creatively in terms of food. And Paris gives you that opportunity. People are willing to try new things.

There's been a restaurant here since the early 1900s, and for the last 25 years it was an Irish restaurant-slash-bar. It was pretty horrible, with a bar with Astroturf across the front. It has stone walls with antique butcher's tiles coming up halfway and beautiful old street lights mounted on the wall. It's unassuming but it has a bit of charm. We tried to highlight the natural aspects of the building itself, so a lot has been done, but little to change the general feel.

We've done most of the work ourselves because we didn't have a huge budget. Being so hands-on has been rewarding and it reflects the way we work in the kitchen, churning our own butter and making our own sourdough, which is unusual in Paris. The hardest bit has been people's expectations. There's been a lot of focus on what Bones will be like. When Le Figaro announced its food predictions for 2013, it ran a half-page on me and the restaurant before we'd even opened.

My focus is always the best produce in simple dishes: barbecued eel with beetroot, egg and leeks, red mullet served with a sauce of its own liver and fennel, poached veal rump with dandelion, anchovies and onions. I've found the sort of suppliers I want to work with who deliver the best.

There's an exciting change in the way restaurants are run in Paris. There's a move away from the fine-dining mentality. People aren't really chasing Michelin stars or big bourgeois dining rooms. It's becoming much more about eating in comfortable spaces.

You can go to a great restaurant a few times a month and it won't hurt your wallet. A three- or four-course lunch at an incredible restaurant like Septime costs 30 euros.

It's much more affordable to run a restaurant in Paris, so that's passed on to the diner. It comes down to things like staff costs and definitely rental costs. The rent is incredibly cheap for my new place. And the biggest desire for me is to make my restaurant accessible. You want to be able to offer the best food you can, but you want people to be able to come a couple of times a month, if they'd like to.

It's much more common for people to go out during the week here. I like the social dynamic of the city. And because it's such a cultural hub in terms of fashion and art and food, it attracts interesting people. There's always something happening - gallery openings, restaurant launches.

The lead-up to opening Bones went pretty smoothly and I've been really happy with the whole experience. The most daunting part has been the weight of expectation. It would've been nice to feel more anonymous, but it's not a bad problem to have either. It means people are coming through the door.

It all seemed to happen so quickly. I moved to Paris two years ago, just for an experience. Now my life has completely changed. And this is only the beginning, I suppose.

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