British chef, restaurateur and daytime Emmy nominee, Edward Delling Williams has been at the forefront of the Parisian Neo-bistro scene since he opened Le Grand Bain over a decade ago. But, earlier this year, Edward left Paris for the coastal Normandy village of Heugueville, where he’s opened new venture The Presbytere — a cross between a French bistro and a classic English pub — in a converted vicarage. We caught up with Edward to discuss crossing the Channel, headlining a restaurant and the revelations of sobriety.
What originally inspired you to move to France?
I moved here in my early 20s, right at the start of the “Bistronomy” movement. As a young naive chef, I had obviously dreamed of moving to Paris — the gastronomic capital of the world — and I had been hearing whispers about this exciting new movement in food. I had initially planned to work my way down through Europe, all the way to Lisbon, where I could cook on the beach at night and surf all day. Little did I know, I would end up staying in France for the next 10 years!
Was it hard to find your feet at first?
Not really. I had been working with a friend of mine, Australian chef Shaun Kelly, at St. John in London. He moved to Paris and started working at a place called Au Passage, so I followed him there. It was wild; we all slept above the restaurant.
How did you go about finding and building your community?
There was this pre-existing community in Paris, of immigrant chefs from all over the world. At Au Passage we would host this thing called “Thirsty Thursdays”, where chefs and servers from all the different restaurants would come for a drink after service. Though never a late one, as we all had to get to the markets early the next day to get the best produce!
It was really a cool time. Everyone was kind of just riding the wave — getting up early, hitting the markets, prepping all day, serving a lot of people in the evening, then drinking later. Rinse and repeat. Thanks to that rhythm, it was pretty easy (and very fun) to build a community.
What led to you opening Le Grand Bain in Paris?
After 4 years at Au Passage, with 3 of those as Head Chef, I was feeling ready to move on. But I didn’t want to work for someone else, anymore. I wanted to be my own boss. The guys at Au Passage were great and I still have a lot of love for the place, but I wanted more freedom to do what I wanted, in regards to staff and equipment. Starting my own restaurant felt like the inevitable solution.
Every young chef dreams of headlining a hit restaurant. How did reality compare to the dream?
It’s pretty good. But you’d have to be a fool to think that it’s all daisies. It’s a hard grind, day to day. I think most people do understand that, and wouldn’t get into it if they didn’t. I know I wouldn’t have!
What were your founding principles at Le Grand Bain?
The best possible produce, treated the best possible way, served at the best possible price. For the first few months, we were producing lots of meals at a pre-meditated loss, to get people through the door. Then we put our prices up, but not an insane amount. You could still get a meal for 30 euros, with a nice glass of wine.
How did your relationship with the business change when you had children?
Not a great deal. You just have to become more organised. Compartmentalisation is a must. My wife is incredible and a business owner, too. She helps me no end, particularly during those transitional periods where you have to rebalance everything. We have three kids now and every time, it’s hard at the beginning, but then you find a new centre and move forward.
Has it changed your relationship with food?
No, not really. It has, however, changed my relationship with drink. I’ve been sober for a few years now and that’s because it was just too hard for me to run multiple businesses, have quality time with my children and also have a drink. I get the worst hangovers and they would inevitably end up eating into either the restaurants, the bakery or the family.
Jackson Boxer once observed to me that he’d never met anyone who regretted giving up drinking, and it’s so true. We aren’t friends per se, but I owe a lot of my sobriety to him and Calum Franklin. Both incredible chefs who set great examples.
Le Grand Bain specialises in elevated pies, terrines and other antiquated forms of preserving food. Do you think that, as with fashion, gastronomy is cyclical?
100%. There are food trends that come and go, but underlying them all is this cyclical rhythm. That being said, what with the homogenisation of food culture due to Instagram, this is an unusual time. I think a lot about what it means when a new food trend or culture can appear and be worldwide within just a few days.
I think focusing on more traditional foods and methods may become popular once again. Especially with regard to foreign cuisines, which Paris is a little behind on, compared to London. When I first arrived in Paris, it wasn’t uncommon to see “Traiteurs Asiatique”, which were just a blend of Asian dishes from all over the continent. Now there are lots of excellent restaurants that specialise in traditional dishes from a single region, such as the Hunan district in China. It’s great.
How do you carve out time and space for creativity whilst running a business?
I do many things to maximise my organisation but meditation is top of the list. After many years of reading about it, I finally went and learned transcendental meditation. I highly recommend it to everyone. Sometimes when I’m sitting in my office on a Sunday, I’ll pull out all my cookbooks and try to tap into that flow-state. I also get very inspired when I go to local markets at the start of a new season. Parsnips have just come into season here and now I’m theorising a peanut and parsnip dish I want to try out, after eating an apple with peanut butter. Weird but compelling image, right?
How do you want your restaurants to feel?
I’ve always preferred a light, casual and warm restaurant. I want everyone to be comfortable there and to have the opportunity to eat good food. I always think of my mother, who is super down to earth and doesn’t like any fuss. She just wants somewhere to sit and be happy, so I always aim make a place where she would be content.
When and why did you decide to leave Paris and move to the French countryside?
I think it was the same for a lot of people: Covid. We had already been looking for a farm as I felt producing our own vegetables was the next logical step. Covid was the straw that broke that particular camel’s back. It was a horrible time but the only real good that we got from it was that it put things into perspective and pushed us to move out of Paris. I am thankful for that. I wish it hadn’t taken Covid to do it, but I am much happier here in Normandy.
You describe your new restaurant The Presbytère as a marriage of an English pub and Normandy bistro. Is that your sweet spot?
I grew up in a pub near Bristol and now live in Normandy, just the other side of the channel. There are a lot of similarities between the two places — the people, the produce, the climate. I kept wishing there was a place where I could eat a classic English Sunday roast then go for a walk on a wild Normandy beach. That’s when I found the Presbytère.
I initially planned on keeping everything really traditional but restaurants never pan out exactly as you envision them. In order to be successful, a place needs to be a conversation between the owner, the chef, the team, the produce and, crucially, the clients. People down here were hungry for modern food trends, using local ingredients, so we landed on a blend of English and Normande cuisine, modern and traditional.
There’s a dish on the menu at the moment that, for me, encapsulates this: a black garlic and Camembert pâté en croûte with pickled walnut ketchup. The black garlic is a modern trend but an old idea. Camembert comes from Normandy. Pâté en croûte is traditional French and traditional and the pickled walnut ketchup is quintessentially English.
Has being based in the countryside made fresh produce more readily available?
Yes. The markets in Paris are second to none but here in Normandy, I can simply cross the road and find a plethora of sea herbs growing on the estuary that would cost a fortune in Paris. When the tide is out, I can harvest razor clams and Palourdes straight from the beach. Not to mention the fantastic local oyster and mussel suppliers.
We source the bulk of our vegetables from a couple of nearby farms, one of which use donkeys instead of commercial machinery — a real treat to behold. At different times of year we have mushrooms, cherries, wild garlic, apples and much more growing on our farm and next year we will be shutting our vegetable gardens in order to create an agro-forest-jardin. In there, we hope to grow herbs and crops that aren’t indigenous to Normandy but are perfectly suited to the climate here.
What’s your favourite way to spend a day off?
First, get up and eat some of my wife’s Canadian pancakes, with thick cut bacon and maple syrup. They (and she) are the best. Then, go for a walk with the dog and kids, looking for mushrooms in the farm’s woodlands. Come back home and play a board game, like Root or Dune, with a friend over Skype. Cook a really simple roast chicken, roast potatoes, bread sauce and sautéed foraged mushroom dinner with the family. Play some drums and guitar with the boys or go to the beach for some cold sea swimming. Finally I’d round it off with Jiu Jitsu. I’m like a kid at Christmas on the days I get to do Jiu jitsu. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.
What makes you excited about the future?
I have a list of about 5 projects I’m hoping to develop here in Normandy, including another bakery and brewery. Talking about these ideas with local councils and community leaders, it’s great to see how keen and happy to help people are. They really want to see the plans become reality and that’s what excites me. Working with local people who want to enrich the community and create great places for everyone to live and eat!
Finally, we ask all of our Journal interviewees to complete the following phrase:
You Must Create… choices for everyone. To have choices is to have freedom and when people are free, creativity, happiness and love increase exponentially.