In this column, photographer Eileen Cho (an expat from Seattle living in France) shares the experience of inviting herself to the homes of Parisians, asking them to cook her dinner in exchange for her photography. In the third installment, she shares a story of gathering up courage to pursue friendship with the owners of her favorite cafe.
Back home in Seattle, befriending people was second nature. I knew most of the people behind my favorite restaurants. I had lots of friends, including friends in food places.
In Paris, because of the language barrier, I always get a little nervous with human interactions, especially at restaurants. What if the waiter asks me questions beyond, “How do you want your meat cooked?” I can barely even ask for tap water. “Carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait” comes out as “scarf dough, s’il vous play,” and the waiters walk away shaking their heads, often in bewilderment.
I first walked into Amami, a pastry and bento cafe in the vibrant and bustling 11th arrondissement fairly early into my Parisian adventure. Would “vous parlez Anglais” (do you speak English?) save me today? As I was about to order in my heavily accented yet practiced French, the girl behind the counter shot me a huge smile and greeted me in perfect English. She was soon joined by another girl in a woolen cap who also spoke English. I had found my haven in Paris.
I made frequent visits to Amami when I attended photography school nearby, and over time I learned that the two ladies who ran the place were named Antoaneta and Sayako. They were a Romanian Canadian and Japanese American duo who had attended Le Cordon Bleu together, where they became friends. Antoaneta was in charge of their famous, healthy bentos and Sayako, the pastries, which range from scones to matcha or black sesame pies. While waiting for my food, I often asked them questions regarding their experiences in Paris, but it was small talk at most. I followed their business on Facebook, and wrote them a few times inquiring about cooking classes or their bento of the week, but but our online exchanges never extended beyond that.
Paris had made me somewhat timid. But with this series taking shape, I have become more courageous about befriending people. In March, I confidently wrote Amami via Facebook Messenger and asked them to cook for me inside their homes. They loved my pictures and wanted to participate in my social project. I was stoked – I finally had the opportunity to befriend Paris restaurant people.
Antoaneta warned me in advance that she had a cat so I swallowed an allergy pill and made my way down to the 14th arrondissement. Before these cooking and photography sessions, I am seldom nervous because my camera acts as my shield. But for this rendezvous, because I had already interacted with them multiple times, I was a bit confused. I knew these people…but I didn’t really know them. Would being inside their home and sharing a meal actually help forge a connection? This dinner experiment proved yet again that anything was possible during a preparation of a meal.
Antoaneta and Sayako invited me inside Antoaneta’s gorgeous Parisian home, decorated with a myriad of books, including Haruki Murakami novels and the impressive tome, Modernist Cuisine at Home, and the sleekest modern furniture I have seen inside a Parisian apartment. Antoaneta, like most of my hosts in this series, has a huge kitchen (to give you a sense of how small Parisian kitchens can be, I can barely turn around in mine). She told me she chose her apartment for the kitchen. I found myself envious yet again.
Antoaneta and Sayako prepared a shiso risotto with shrimp and homemade vanilla ice cream for our meal. The last time I had homemade ice cream was in first grade when my school class learned how to churn butter during a unit about the Pilgrims. I was very excited. Antoaneta cooked, Sayako took charge of washing the dishes, and I photographed.
The way Antoaneta and Sayako harmoniously move in a kitchen seemed like magic; they were so calm and elegant in their movements, whereas I can barely cut vegetables evenly. First, Antoaneta prepared the ice cream to ensure that the ingredients were chilled enough to churn in her ice cream maker. Afterwards, she cooked the shrimp, cut herbs and strawberries, and prepared the rice for the risotto.
While we waited for the risotto to cook, Antoaneta told me about her peripatetic life, having lived in Romania, Toronto, New York, and Paris, and about her life before food as a Senior Strategist at Google. Sayako told me stories about traveling in Japan, her love for traditional Japanese desserts, and her life before Paris in Los Angeles. They put the chilled cream in the ice cream maker and we then sat in the living room to enjoy our meal.
During dinner, Antoaneta and Sayako shared the story of starting their caramel business on Etsy, which is what first brought them to work together in Paris. After a plethora of orders and a few troubles with their caramels passing through French customs, they decided to open up Amami. They tipped me off on how to secure a highly coveted Amami bento (call in advance to make sure they haven’t sold out!), and how they get the best quality matcha in Paris. They were even kind enough to share their local food secrets, including a cheap Chinese take out place and a small Japanese epicerie where you can purchase authentic Japanese soy sauce.
The risotto was incredibly fresh, utilizing seasonal ingredients, including squash and succulent shrimp. The ice cream was sweet and creamy, and had me craving for more even after a generous portion.
At the end of the meal, Antoaneta ensured me that she very rarely hosts guests, yet alone strangers, in her home and I felt very lucky to have had experienced this rare treat. We agreed to all grab drinks one day soon. I left with two new friends in Paris that day.
Photos by Eileen W. Cho