Recipe for success

Setting up a restaurant in a country where gastronomie is so revered might seem like a daunting prospect, but one British couple have taken on the challenge in Provence and found a recipe for success, as Deborah Curtis discovers

Apassion for skiing and a love of cooking are two of the main ingredients in one British couple’s recipe for a wonderful life. Russell Coughlan and Antonia Pyemont-Coughlan came to France in 2004 initially to ski – but eight years on they are now running their own restaurant in Provence and loving every minute of it.

“We are big fans of skiing so that was our main objective,” says Antonia. “We came originally to Alpe-d’Huez, a ski resort just south-east of Grenoble. We came to work for the summer and within six weeks we’d decided we were going to stay so we bought an apartment. We are pretty instinctive with our decisions!”

They stayed in Alpe-d’Huez for five years, with Russell working in a restaurant and Antonia as a hotel manager, and they still go back to the mountains for an extended skiing holiday every winter.

“We were both in the hospitality business and we were skiing every day and working in the evening,” says Antonia. “It was a pretty idyllic life. We loved it.”

After a few years, not only did they want to stay in France but they wanted to run their own business. However, after weighing up the options, they decided that although they loved the mountains, a restaurant there would not be the best way forward.

“We wanted to work together so we thought long and hard about whether it was worth staying in the mountains, but it’s very hard to make a living and to enjoy them at the same time,” says Antonia. “Having weighed it up for a long time we decided we would leave Alpe-d’Huez.”

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Initially, though, they had no idea where their new adventure would begin so they thought carefully about the kind of place they wanted to live.

“We wanted something that was historical and had a good cultural base,” says Antonia. “But we also wanted somewhere that was close to countryside and had nice weather. Avignon seemed to fit the bill so we came down here on holiday.”

They rented an apartment for a week but it wasn’t long before they realised they had found what they were looking for.

“Just before you reach the old walled city, you drive along the banks of the Rh�ne and the Palais des Papes looms into view; this huge, magnificent, imposing building with a great big gold statue of la vierge marie on the top of it. I remember the first time I saw it. It was just breathtaking and really from then on we just fell in love with Avignon. We knew we must come here.”

So they sold their apartment in the Alps, moved west, rented a tiny studio to keep their overheads as low as possible and began to search for a restaurant of their own. It took them a year to find what is now Fou de Fafa; a former cr�perie on the Rue des Trois Faucons.

“We wanted something small that just the two of us could run because staff costs in France are so expensive,” says Antonia. “We stumbled upon what is now Fou de Fafa at the end of 2010. It was all very well looked after and very clean, and everything was all in place. The kitchen was a really good size and so was the restaurant. All we had to do was a little decorating to put our stamp on it.”

They opened to customers in January 2011 and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far. “Weare very happy. We really love it here,” says Antonia. “We were nervous because it is quite daunting. You’re in the gastronomic capital of the world and the French are very proud of their cuisine and rightly so. We felt nervous as two Brits coming here and opening a restaurant but I cannot tell you how warmly we have been welcomed.”

They have a very loyal customer base of local Avignonnais and also tourists from around the world.

“We only open in the evening because Russell is on his own in the kitchen and everything is homemade so to do two services is just too much,” says Antonia. “We open at 6.30pm, which is far too early for most of the French but that is when we get a lot of Asian tourists, British, American and Australians who like to eat early. The French generally arrive around half past eight, nine o’clock so we have a really good balance between the two.”

Russell has worked in restaurant kitchens around Europe and has brought this diversity of experience and flavour into the food he now creates in the kitchen at Fou de Fafa.

“Our philosophy is to use local ingredients but to have a kind of international flavour because Russell has travelled quite a lot with his cooking,” says Antonia. “He initially became a chef because he saw it as a way to travel and it is a skill you can use anywhere. He has lots of different influences in his cooking including lots of Asian ones.

“We have some very classic French dishes like chicken liver p�t�, goat’s cheese croustillant which is served with red pepper and black olive jam – very Proven�ale – and then we have other slightly more Oriental things like our beef carpaccio served with honey and soy dressing and fresh coriander.

“The one thing that stays fairly traditional is the desserts. We have banoffee pie on our menu. It is the only thing that never changes because right from the off it was an absolute hit and we have people who come specifically for the banoffee pie. It’s proved a great English export!”

As well as being a ticket to travel, learning to cook at the coal face – or perhaps more prosaically at the chopping board – has given Russell a strong grounding not only in how to take delicious fresh ingredients and turn them into something wonderful to eat but also in managing a busy restaurant kitchen.

“There is so much management involved in running a kitchen,” says Antonia. “Also the pressure of service is something you can’t learn in a classroom. You have to have the experience of working in a busy restaurant.”

Russell and Antonia have thought very hard about how they want their restaurant to run with just the two of them at the helm.

“Russell runs the kitchen single-handed. We don’t have any help,” says Antonia. “And I do front of house. We do a set number of covers: 26 people every evening otherwise the next day the prep list is massive.

“We also have to be very careful about staggering when people come so we don’t have everyone all at the same time. The only way you can do it is to be quite vocal about what’s happening and about what we need but that’s fine, especially

as we really love what we do.”One of the main motivationsin running a business has been the opportunity to work together although their decision does cause surprise in some quarters.

“People say to me: ‘How can you work together?’ But my answer is: ‘How can we not?’ It seems strange to me not to want to work with your other half but I can see why it’s not for everyone. You have to be very complementary characters and luckily we are and, of course, we each have our own domain. He has his and I have mine so it just works.

And Antonia is careful not to romanticise the realities of running a busy restaurant. “It’s hard work. There’s no real secret to succeeding,” she says. “You have to be prepared to work hard and the hours are fairly antisocial but we are our own bosses. We can do what we want when we want and working until one in the morning isn’t really an issue as long as we’re together.”

Fou de Fafa is situated not far from three or four other restaurants so they feel part of a nice little gastronomic community.

“People come to this area because they know there are a few good restaurants and everyone is helped out by it,” says Antonia. “We havea good relationship with all our neighbours. Avignon is a lovely place because it’s small enough for everyone to know everyone and there is a real villagey feel. You see the same faces often and I regularly bump into our customers but you never feel you are all on top of each other. We are very happy here.” LF

Restaurant Fou de Fafa

17 Rue des Trois Faucons

84000 Avignon

Tel: 00 33 (0)4 32 76 35 13