Halloween, 2007. So the rumours were true. Some crazy fools had taken over the restaurant site on the corner of Chalcot and Fitzroy Roads. Hadn’t they heard no restaurant could ever thrive there? After all, enough people had tried. Several attempts to make a go of it had bitten the dust, as far back as anyone could remember.
But this lot were different. They were friendly! The restaurant wasn’t open yet, but there they were, with a table out on the pavement, dishing out sweets to the trick-or-treating youngsters. You couldn’t help but warm to them. And so the Primrose Hill institution that is L’Absinthe was born.
It’s hard now to imagine that particular corner of our neighbourhood without its warm and welcoming bastion of Frenchness. L’Absinthe continues, as we hope it will for a long, long time to come, but in some ways the end of an era has arrived. Laurent Valentino, one of L’Absinthe’s founders, is leaving, along with wife Monica and baby Gaspar, for pastures new in the small Kentish city of Canterbury.
Laurent is taking over a coffee shop and sandwich bar in the centre of the city, and he his very excited bout his new venture. Chief amongst his reasons for striking out on a new path is his desire to be at home in the evenings; being a new father, he is keen to find a balance that allows him to spend time with his family, whilst drawing on his talents and experience in catering.
Born and bred a Parisian, Laurent met business partner Jean-Christophe Slowik (universally known as JC) back in 2000 while both were working at Marco Pierre White’s Belvedere in Holland Park. The two then worked at another Marco Pierre White establishment, the Parisian Chop House in Knightsbridge, before Laurent set off for Columbia for a year to travel with Monica. Laurent and Monica had met in 2001; from Columbia herself, she too was working for White whilst studying in London.
So did Laurent know what they were taking on, back in the Autumn of 2007?
“We had read the book ‘Windows on the Past’ so we know the history of the building. We have known our customers for a long time now, and they have told us that some people were even betting in the pub on how long we would survive on this corner,” laughed Laurent.
But L’Absinthe did more than survive; it thrived, and quickly earned a reputation for excellent and hearty French cooking and a warm welcome from the hosts and staff. What does Laurent think is the secret of their success?
“For me, it is a package. The first thing is the personality of JC, which is quite strong, and his knowledge of the English culture: he has been in England for twenty-five, thirty years, and was working with Marco for years and years. So the main thing is JC.
“After that, to is the food. We try not to be too expensive, like a neighbourhood restaurant in France, and our chef Christophe is a very good chef. He was trained by Pierre Koffmann, a famous, traditional French chef.
“And when we arrived, we put the floor back, which creates some atmosphere from the outside as well.” (A previous attempt at opening a restaurant on the site had involved cutting away the ground floor to create a void at that level, with diners downstairs, out of sight from outside). “It’s like a chain reaction. When you see people in a restaurant, you feel like you want to go inside.
“So the package works, JC creates this atmosphere and the food tastes good.”
But isn’t it the combination of the both hosts’ complimentary personalities that creates the special atmosphere?
“I’m quite shy, JC’s more eccentric than me. For me, L’Absinthe is really a package. We have very nice staff, friendly and warm people, and here, you can be what you are. If you are shy, you can be a little bit shy, if you want to joke, you can joke. It’s like a reward for us when we see people relax and enjoy themselves and feel completely at home. It’s comfortable for us to work and I think it’s comfortable for our customers.”
Being a proper neighbourhood restaurant, or ‘restaurant de quartier’, has been central to Laurent’s philosophy.
“A neighbourhood restaurant is for everyone, from the builder who comes for a sandwich or a croque-monsieur, to the couple who want to come for a nice romantic dinner with a French atmosphere, without the pressure that you have in a ‘restaurant gastronomique’, with the waiter on your back all the time, but that you can feel at home with proper food and nice wine. All our customers are very welcome. I want them to be happy, because we take a positive energy from their good energy as well. I really see that as an exchange.”
Has Laurent enjoyed his time in Primrose Hill?
“When I came here I heard that Primrose Hill is like a village, and after six years I can tell you, it really is a little village. The community is very important, people support each other. I really love Primrose Hill. This area is very special. People told us at the beginning, and when we were preparing the restaurant we could see it. Everyone was very friendly from the first day. We saw a lot of positive energy straight away. After these six years, I will leave with the same idea of Primrose Hill.”
L’Absinthe has notably supported the community, for instance giving wine-tastings to raise funds for the library and donating vouchers for meals to the Community Association Fair every summer.
“I think we arrived in the right place for us, because naturally we are like that. We like to help people, we like to participate, so it’s like an ‘alchimie’, we arrived in the right place, where people can understand us as well and what we are trying to do.
A sincere, modest and very special character, Laurent has been instrumental in creating the warm atmosphere cherished by L’Absinthe’s many regulars, where everybody knows your name, and you’re always glad you came; and no doubt he will take that same philosophy to his new business in Canterbury. He will be greatly missed in Primrose Hill, and he, Monica and Gaspar depart with our warmest wishes for every success for the future.
Text and photos © 2013 iLovePrimroseHill.com, all rights reserved.