The French Connection

By Jardine Libaire
Photography by Andy Sams

Some say that Austin’s smoky blue sunlight, red rocks and wild rosemary make it a dead ringer for the South of France. To our robust, local Gallic community, it certainly feels like home—only with more cowboy boots. Most of these expats came to Texas in the late ’70s and early ’80s, having heard about a laid-back utopia of rock and roll, good people and turquoise swimming holes. Showing up as the boom was just getting underway—a pivotal moment in Austin’s history—the tribe has helped shape the town we know today, especially in the areas of food and drink.


It’s more than landscape that links France to Austin, though. This year’s president of the Austin chapter of the international Alliance Francaise, Lavon Guerrero, says the two locales share a common mindset. “It’s about intellectual discourse and politics,” says Guerrero.

Alliance members enjoy a hearty calendar of events, including the monthly Apéritif Night hosted at various restaurants that features decadent bites, wine and lively French conversation. Guerrero says club members “sink” into these evenings—a luxury that Americans don’t often allow themselves. “We overvalue multitasking,” she says.

The Alliance Francaise is part of the French nexus in Austin, and so is George Dreyfus, owner of Dreyfus Antiques on North Lamar. His shop—a warren of gilded chairs, magenta velvet and oak armoires just behind the gleaming Eiffel Tower replica out front—is the informal “Centre d’Information Francais.” French friends come and go, exchanging gossip and goods, as at any frontier trading post. Dreyfus’s tale of arrival in Austin, circa 1980, is like so many of the French who’ve come here: circuitous, accidental, beautiful. “This is the true story, young lady,” he says, hands folded as in prayer. When visiting Dallas, he picked up a pretty hitchhiker who needed to go to Austin, dropped her off and never left.

This year, Dreyfus and his Chilean friend Guillermo Quiroga opened Le Café Crêpe on East 2nd and San Jacinto. The point is simplicity, he says, noting best sellers like the Classic (ham, Swiss and Mornay sauce) and the Norwegian (smoked salmon, Boursin, herbs, basil and tomatoes).

Often Dreyfus can be found at the French Legation’s gravel pétanque courts. The game, similar to bocce, is played, ideally, with a cold pastis (anise-based liqueur) in one hand. Alliance members and the Heart of Texas Pétanque Club meet on Wednesdays and Sundays at the Legation or Pease Park.   

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At a recent club meeting, pétanque player Dave Edwards offered a round of sauvignon blanc and throwing advice on the shaded court, as cicadas chattered and droned. Scattered about were pétanque balls—some worn as river stones, some new and bright as Christmas ornaments. The crew included Parisians, Algerians, Tunisians, Texans, Chileans and New Yorkers, as well as magicians, chefs, professors and artists arguing genially, in many accents. “Look at their faces when they throw,” whispered Sasha Evans, the club’s vice president. “They get an expression like a child.”

Pétanque is also played at Justine’s, a brand-new, old-school bistro on the industrial edge of the East side. Owner Justine Gilcrease, a California native with raven-black hair and scarlet lipstick, attended French schools in Berkeley and San Francisco, eating Alice Waters-style: fresh produce with simple French preparation. Her husband, Pierre Pelegrin, came to Austin in 1984 from Toulon, France, after hometown friends visiting Texas described the blues scene. “I sold everything I owned and bought a ticket,” he says.

Pierre is handsome like a vampire and plays bass guitar. He worked at Chez Nous for 20 years before laying plans for the new venture. He and Justine bought the ’30s-era house on East 5th a couple years ago, planted roses, herbs and grapevines and installed pétanque courts on the large property.

“A bistro is a social club,” Pierre says. “It’s a headquarters where people sit for hours, have drinks, a conversation and a bite to eat.” Justine’s menu reflects this dedication to the unhurried—steak tartare and steamed artichokes designed for sharing, and the house-made charcuterie plate that uses meats from local Countryside Farms. Diners eat at bistro chairs and century-old marble tables from France as Lola, the resident black cat, peeks from behind tomato plants in the yard; evening light reflects off fire-red walls the couple painted themselves. The entire menu is served until 2 a.m.

Much of the inspiration for Justine’s came from Austin’s venerable and undisputed mothership bistro, Chez Nous. Coming from France, Pierre encountered a learning curve in Texas. “When people asked for a martini, I gave them sweet vermouth with an orange slice,” he says. But he quickly learned the essentials at Chez Nous—like running a restaurant as a family. “When you go to Chez Nous,” Pierre says, “you step into someone’s home.”

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Sybil Reinhart-Regimbeau and Pascal Regimbeau, with their best friend Robert Paprota, opened Chez Nous in 1982 with just three appetizers scrawled on one side of a blackboard and three entrées on the other. “Humility,” says Pascal, “is where a good endeavor begins.”

With the help of French artist Mirco, Pascal, Sybil and Robert remodeled the building’s interior by hand. Pascal says the relationship, from the very beginning, between the restaurant and the community “was very emotional, the rapport; it was a heartfelt relationship.” The art of the restaurant, Sybil says, is maintaining a “chain of reliability”—from farm to kitchen to table to customer, it must be consistently strong. “This is a business of perishables,” she notes, and credits the local delivery service Farm to Table’s field-fresh produce as a notable link in their chain.

The Regimbeaus’ style of eating and cooking shows where French ideology intersects with Austin’s place as a center for local, organic and slow food. “In France,” says Pascal, “good food is a natural thing. Good food appears on a mother’s table, a friend’s table, at a neighborhood restaurant.”

This connection between French cooking and healthy, ethical eating is also apparent in the work of Austinite Alain Braux—author of the recently released, How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Cooking. Alain is a nutritherapist and the chef at People’s RX, and he sees progress in our town. When he moved from France in 1982, “there was no farmers market—just iceberg lettuce and tomatoes you could play baseball with,” he says. In creating healthy food, Alain reaches back to childhood and remembers picking carrots and peas, and raising rabbits and chickens on his grandmother’s Normandy farm. “We were poor,” he says. But he learned that,  “you can stay strong and healthy by eating food you grow in your own garden.” The silver lining to the current economic crisis, he says, is that we are being “forced to rediscover” this.

Pascal Jeannin is another enlightened French chef in Austin. A broad, tough guy with light eyes, Jeannin trained in charcuterie and cooked his way from Burgundy, to Paris, to Mexico and eventually here. The Pascal’s Catering facility on East 38th housed Sky Chef before the airport moved, though the ghosts of airplane-food-past have long since been exorcised by the Gauloises-blue floors and heady aroma of butternut squash ravioli with chipotle Alfredo sauce and country-style venison paté with green peppercorns.

Because of Jeannin’s background of living and working in environments where animals were raised ethically and healthfully, he feels he’s in touch with the right way of doing things. His handmade patés have been sold at Whole Foods Market and Central Market for years, and he has provided eco-conscious brides and grooms with fully local menus. He’s also famous for providing hard-to-find Merguez sausages for the annual Bastille Day celebration at the French Legation; the spicy delights originated in North Africa and are beloved by the French.

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A roundup of Austin’s French influences wouldn’t be complete without the inviting and cozy Aquarelle. Co-owner and Chef Terry Wilson shares her thoughts about the stigma of French cuisine. Many believe it’s “expensive and stuffy,” she says, and “rich and heavy.” Aquarelle has turned to lighter, local, seasonal fare—one recent entrée featured Countryside Farms duck prepared with cherries, pearl onions, baby carrots and a brandy reduction, and Tecolote Farm baby arugula paired with Parmesan is often the crown on the salmon tartare. Terry says she makes it to the farmers market as soon as she can get her kids up. “They’re restaurant babies,” she says. “They’re used to the hours.”

The misconception of eating French food—too much cream and butter, white-glove service, a cranky maître d’—appears to be diminishing. French gastronomy is based on an abundance of foods. As Justine’s Pelegrin says, “France is a garden. Things grow; it’s rich.” And the French ethos relies on a daily engagement with food; the archetypal market-goer—a baguette under one arm, selecting the night’s dinner—has been a reality for generations. “We live to eat,” Pierre says, not the other way around.

Aquarelle is celebrating its 10th successful year with a few modifications: the wine bar—casual and light—is gaining in popularity, and the dining rooms have been renovated to offer more open space. Terry points to a restored fireplace discovered buried in a wall and a chandelier her mother bought in Italy that had been languishing in the attic for many years—treasures that simply needed a little focus in order to be seen and appreciated, much like Austin’s French connection.


Click on the recipes below from Austin’s French chefs.
Soupe des Ardennes (with thyme and homemade croutons)/Justine's
Poisson Rôti à l’Anis/Chez Nous
Beet Soup/Aquarelle
Ratatouille/Chef Alain Braux