Food & Drinks

French Cuisine at Its Finest

Culinary Christian in his kitchen at La Belle
Culinary Christian in his kitchen at La Belle Epoch in Nairobi. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

La Belle Epoch’ isn’t just the pre-World War I period in French and European history when the future looked bright and the arts flourished, particularly in Paris.

‘La Belle Epoch’ is also the French restaurant resurrected after almost 30 years by chef Christian Caldaral at the Alliance Francaise, Nairobi.

“When I opened the ‘Jardin de Paris’ in 1977, I was the youngest restaurateur in Nairobi,” says Christian who renamed his restaurant because the new name reflects how he feels about those early years which he says were a ‘belle epoch’ or the most beautiful era of his life.

“Now I’m the oldest one,” he adds, noting he’s never stopped preparing gourmet French cuisine, even after he left the French Centre in 1991.

Instead, he joined the late Alan Bobbe whose French bistro on Koinange Street had for years been a cozy corner in Nairobi where notable people frequently came to eat Bobbe’s delicacies and confer in the quiet convivial atmosphere that Bobbe retained until he passed on in 2005.

Bobbe left the restaurant and his Riverside Drive home to Christian who moved Mr Bobbe’s bistro into Alan’s house which he reopened soon after that. “That’s when we had visitors like Barack Obama and Professor Wangari Maathai. Raila Odinga also came often while he was Prime Minister,” says Christian who recalls that his speciality back then was the lobster he was able to get fresh from Kismayu in Somalia.

Times have changed since then and he closed the bistro in 2011. But from the time Christian first came to Kenya in early 1974, he’s been cooking, drawing inspiration from the encyclopedic 696 page cookbook, ‘L’art de la Cuisine Moderne’ that his mother gave him on the day he left France.

“I was only 18 when I left with the cookbook, the Bible and a few clothes in a small suitcase,” recalls Christian who came to Kenya via Paris, London and Edinburgh. “I had met an American who sold curios from Kenya and he gave me contacts in Nairobi which I pursued,” says Christian who admits he had never studied at a proper culinary school before he was asked to prepare French cuisine for private clients in Nairobi.

But what he had was a lifelong experience, growing up among chefs, bakers, culinary wizards and foodies.

“My father was a retired chef who never allowed my mother to cook,” he recalls, adding he had gained the technical skills of cooking from him. Meanwhile, his mother’s cookbook (given to her by her great grandmother) became a second bible for him.

“Plus I spent all my school holidays with my grandparents. She was a baker and he made the best [homemade] ice cream you can imagine,” says Christian who nostalgically describes how they sold their pastries and ice creams at local fairs and rural markets. “I started coming with them from the time I was around 10,” he adds.

I couldn’t resist trying out the Chocolate Mousse which Christian had introduced to me years ago when he was still running Le Jardin de Paris. Made with the finest dark chocolate, plenty of eggs and a touch of rum, his mousse is ‘to die for’ as they say.

His starters are also delicious, from his ‘soupe a l’oignon’ to the ‘salade nicoise’. And for light eaters, his baguettes (sandwiches on French bread) are also amazing.

But there’s little doubt that Christian learnt a lot from his grandparents who specialised in sweets. And thus, one can’t leave La Belle Epoch without tasting either his Clafouti (a traditional fruit flan), his tarte du jour (which currently features fresh raspberries brought in fresh from the slopes of Kinangop) or the ‘Mousse au chocolat’ which will forever remain my all-time favourite, thanks to that classic recipe that Christian obtained from his great great-grandmother’s classic cookbook.

Those early years showed him the joy of moving from place to place, which is one reason why he adapted so well to living in Africa. But now that he’s reestablished the French restaurant at Alliance Francaise, he’s happy to stick to one spot and impart his culinary skills to a team of young Kenyan chefs who help him prepare three meals a day, including everything from ‘Fillet de Poisson Florantine’ and ‘Tournedos Marchand Devin’ to Quiche Lauraine and Coq au Vin. Those are from Christian’s luncheon menu.