Earlier this year the multi-starred French chef Alain Ducasse opened La Manufacture de Café, his own coffee roasting workshop fronted by a café and boutique on a tiny street northeast of the Place de la Bastille. I came across it by chance one morning when walking with friends from the Marais to the Marché d’Aligre. We had a peek at the menu in the window and couldn’t help but notice there was a single-origin coffee from France selling for €15. Per cup. Intrigued, but already full of caffeine for the morning, we continued on our way. Since then I’ve been meaning to go back and try it, but despite the click-bait sounding title of this article, I couldn’t escape the question of whether it was really worth the time and expense to cross Paris for a €15 cup of coffee. After all, there are cafés on almost every single corner in Paris. I discussed it for months with my Parisian-born-espresso-addicted partner-in-crime, Fred, and we finally got a chance Saturday morning to check it out.
Before We Go Any Further…
If you’re looking for a flattering regurgitation of the press kit or an expert coffee review by someone who knows more about coffee-making and brewing than any of you, then you’re in the wrong place. But in the spirit of being helpful, here’s a direct link to the official and extremely detailed Café Alain Ducasse marketing spiel in all its glory. Continue reading if you want to know the back story to coffee culture in Paris, or skip to “The Setting” to go right to the Manufacture de Café description.
As a journalist, I wanted this article to be an unbiased-yet-well-researched description of Alain Ducasse’s café. But after months of inquiry into the Paris coffee scene and late-night conversations with my French and American friends about it, I’m going to stray into my own personal experience and thoughts on the Paris coffee scene. I’m far from being a coffee expert. I’m not even a coffee snob. I’ll drink pretty much any version of it as long as it’s cheap, hot and – at least before noon – caffeinated. I’ll spring for a good oat-milk cappuccino when I’m at a nice café, but I have nothing against instant decaf.
I do like my coffee to taste good. Who doesn’t? But I think taste is subjective, so like most normal human beings I hate it when someone tries shaming me for liking “cheap” coffee instead of their favorite “authentic” coffee. A few years ago, I visited one of the many Anglophone hipster coffee bars that “revolutionized the Paris coffee scene”. It was a tiny establishment near the Canal St Martin with the requisite beakers, bearded coffee experts, and uncomfortably minimalist wooden stools. I paid €2.50 for an espresso I could barely finish. “That’s what coffee is supposed to taste like,” said the friend who took me there, clearly disappointed. “Says who?” I replied while scarfing down a cookie to remove the aftertaste. But who am I to say what I like?
Before I ever came to Paris, the only thing I knew about French coffee was what I learned from a 1980s commercial for General Foods International Coffees. When I moved to Paris in 1995, ready to meet my own “Jean-Luc”, I was understandably disappointed to find out there was no such thing as French Vanilla coffee in France. Swindled by marketing! The typical Robusta-bean espresso was hard to get used to after the American preference for Arabica filter, but my Parisian classmates showed me how to improve it with a few sugar cubes and the little square of dark chocolate to finish it off. At some point I asked why it tasted so bitter, and the explanation I was given was that most French cafés have been importing the same beans used since Colonial days, and that it was simply what everyone was used to. If Parisians wanted something a bit more refined, they’d look for a café serving Italian coffee, like Illy or Lavazza.
Despite this, the French still have a reputation for their cafés. It seems unthinkable for visitors to come without “experiencing” a sidewalk café where they can people watch with their coffee. But as Joanna Shen in her article “The Bitter Truth about French Coffee Culture” noted, France is a country of café culture, not coffee culture. I lived above a traditional Parisian café for 12 years. It became an extension of my apartment, the place where I could work all afternoon, schedule meetings, watch local news on the TV screen, have packages dropped off or leave my keys for a friend. The servers and regulars were like an extended family, always welcoming when I stood at the zinc bar for my espresso. And it was mediocre-bordering-on-awful espresso, the same Cafés Richard brand found in almost every French café. But I wasn’t there for the taste.
Fred is a typical Parisian who loves to stop at any local café for a quick espresso at the zinc bar. When I asked him if he thought it tasted good, the question stunned him. After much thought on the subject, he summed it up this way: “It doesn’t matter how it tastes. It’s the ritual that counts.” Like many of his compatriots, it’s the comfort of the tradition, knowing exactly what you’re going to get when you walk up to the zinc counter of any local French café and order your coffee, whether it’s an espresso, a noisette, a crème, or an allongé. You watch the bartender prepare each cup in the huge, noisy machine, placing it on a tiny saucer with its own little spoon, sometimes with a little chocolate or cookie on the side. Sugar is on the saucer, in cubes or a little tube, or in a container the bartender will place next to you for easy access. It’s usually somewhere between €1 and €1.50. You might be tempted to indulge in a croissant from the basket on the bar if it’s the morning. There are usually newspapers nearby to peruse, or a TV screen showing the news. Or you can simply people watch and maybe exchange a few words with the bartender before you pay and leave with an “Au revoir, merci!”
This scene plays out with endless variations in cafés all over France every single day. You can linger as long as you like, but most people drinking their coffee at the bar tend to move on quickly. That doesn’t mean they’re just there for the coffee itself. Starbucks landed here long ago, but you still don’t see many Parisians drinking their coffee as they walk down the sidewalk. The “pause café” is sacred in France, even for busy Parisians. Fred goes to cafés because he enjoys this little “time out” in his day, a moment to relax and be a part of the local café ritual. “Of course I like good coffee,” he says, reminding me that he makes Arabica-bean coffee at home. “But that’s not why I go to a café.” He said he expected the coffee to be good if it was served in an upscale restaurant at the end of a gourmet meal. But he admitted he probably wouldn’t cross town for it on a daily basis, especially if it cost more than the loose change in his pocket.
But despite my inherent journalistic skepticism, I know Alain Ducasse walks his talk when it comes to food. A champion of ethically-sourced, quality ingredients from farm to table, he hosted a presentation by the American chef and food “taste” pioneer Dan Barber at the Plaza Athénée in 2012. I will also happily shell out an absurd (for me) sum of money on his bean-to-bar chocolates from La Manufacture du Chocolat. So I was ready for a really good cup of coffee. But I needed an accomplice for a second opinion. Preferably someone who takes better photos than I do.
“Aren’t you curious what a €15 café tastes like?” I asked, appealing to Fred’s French sense of intellectual curiosity (and need to know everything). So, on Saturday morning we Vélib’d across the Seine and through the Place de la Bastille to give it a try.
Alain Ducasse’s Manufacture de Café is located in the bend of a quiet side street (12 rue St Sabin, 12th arr). The neo-industrial loft style décor – the same found in the nearby Manufacture du Chocolat on the Rue de la Roquette – fits squarely into the ongoing trendiness of the Brooklyn hipster aesthetic Parisians love so much. A pewter counter with a few wrought-iron and leather stools for guests to sit at the bar is on the left, the boutique shelves stocked on the right, and the roasting machines can be seen in the back, through the large glass window separating them from the public space so guests can watch the coffee makers at work (although they don’t appear to work on Saturday morning, good for them). Aside from the young server in his designer apron, the café and boutique were empty except for one local gentleman having his coffee while perusing the Le Monde.
If you didn’t read the press release, you wouldn’t know that vintage coffee items and 19th-century architectural elements were added to the spanking new establishment for “authenticity”. I put this in quotes because this effort to imbue historical significance in something created less than a year ago seems more contrived than authentic. I even like neo-industrial loft-style décor. But this fabrication of a historic back story has become such a clichéd marketing gimmick that even the expensive version seems pretentious.
Case in point: The coffees are served in contemporary clear glass cups from double-walled glass carafes, with silver trays and dainty spoons. Clearly modern and high quality. But their Viennese coffee is served with a piece of newspaper as a coaster to “evoke the two meanings of coffee: a drink and a living space.” I know this — along with the names, back stories, and inspiration behind item by every designer who contributed something to the café, whether a spoon, a coaster, or the to-go cup – because, once again, I read about it in great detail in the press kit.
You will also be informed in the press materials that the people serving the coffee are not “baristas” (a name I still find silly after all these years) but “cafeliers and cafelieres”, words they have trademarked (along with the word “coffeenomy” which they say means “knowledge and art of coffee from the bean to the cup”). Their job is to prepare each cup with irreproachable precision, knowledge and “conviviality”. These are the kinds of details that editors of glossy fashion and design magazines love to repeat verbatim in their articles. Because it’s not like our server introduced himself with, “Bonjour, I’m Jean-Luc, your cafelier.”
Maybe I’m just jaded after being subjected to twenty years of PR fluff, because Fred has a different take on it. What he really likes about Alain Ducasse is that he always takes us on a journey, “l’invitation au voyage,” to these exotic places where the coffee is grown and harvested. If the haute-cuisine dining experience is much like theatre with its own “mise-en-scène”, then the Manufacture de Café certainly has set the stage for its audience to be transported, whether or not they know the doors were crafted by a famous wrought-iron artist in the 1930s. Perhaps if you’re coming all the way across town for a €15 cup of coffee, you’ll appreciate knowing they invested heavily in the decor.
But you could also argue that, like in art and music, it misses the mark if you can’t enjoy it without having to learn “the story” behind it. Luckily, there’s also much to enjoy at La Manufacture de Café.
Much like his chocolate-making project, Ducasse decided to create a “haute cuisine” version of coffee that he could serve his restaurant guests: “Coffee is often the very last pleasure offered to a guest, and thus should be on the same level as the meal.” At the Café you will find about eight different coffees made six different ways (the selection available online may differ from what’s in the café and boutique). And luckily for my budget, they don’t all cost €15 per cup.
We started with a house “Signature” blend, an espresso allongé (espresso with extra water) for me at €2.50, and a filter coffee for Fred for €3.50. Mine came with a square of Alain Ducasse chocolate, Fred’s with a Madeleine pastry.
Our server was indeed convivial and knowledgeable, happily answering all of our questions and letting us take lots of photos (we didn’t tell him I was writing an article, but he probably figured that out on his own). When the gentleman next to us apologetically asked if there was sugar, a pretty silver covered bowl of sugar was placed next to him without any sign of disapproval. “I know you’re not supposed to, but I like my coffee sweeter,” he said in French. “it’s not a problem, everyone has their own preferences,” replied the server with a genuine smile. I decide to breach the topic of the €15 coffee. Aside from the Signature blend, there are Single-Origins that range in price from €6 to €15 for the “cru d’exception” coffees from Panama (€7/cup), La Réunion Island (France, €13/cup) and Yemen (€15/cup).
“So, aside from their exceptional quality like all of the coffees here, why are those so expensive?” “Extremely limited supply,” he answered, going into more detail about how the coffee “cherries” (which each contain two beans) are handpicked and naturally-dried in Yemen, while the farmer Ducasse buys from in La Réunion only grows 1000m² of coffee plants. Every producer is chosen personally by Alain Ducasse for their respect for the environment and their workers. Clearly none of that comes cheap.
I asked Fred if he was ready to try a filter cup of the France coffee, but our server actually steered us away. He had been paying attention when we were discussing what we liked and didn’t like in coffee flavor, and ground up a few beans of each variety so we could get a really good smell of each one. “You’re right, I think the Costa Rica Single-Origin smalls the best to me.” Might as well leave the rare stuff to someone who appreciates it.
I was surprised that, side by side, I preferred my espresso allongé to the filter coffee. That made me feel smugly French until Fred said he though the filter café was a bit weak for his tastes. “It’s more like an infusion,” he said, noting that when he makes filter coffee at home it’s much darker in the glass. “I’d prefer more intensity even if it means less taste.” But that challenge would have to wait for our next visit because he was already starting to feel the effects of his third cup of the day, and busied himself taking some photos (all of the good photos in this article are his; the blurry ones are mine).
They do have decaf coffee, which normally I should have moved onto myself after two cups of coffee in under an hour, but instead I soldiered on in the name of research and asked if I could try the cold-brewed Cascara, an infusion of the outer skin and pulp of the coffee cherry. Cascara can be served hot or cold like tea, and apparently is just as strong as coffee. I liked the taste so much I decided to buy a bag to make it at. The boutique sells all of the coffees as beans, ground, or in Nespresso-compatible capsules. Our server seemed apologetic about the capsules, saying they’re still working on a more environmentally-friendly option that still preserves the coffee freshness.
Taking a note from the traditional Parisian café, the Manufacture de Café celebrates the ritual of coffee preparation, à la Ducasse: “Simply observing the cafelier’s fascinating choreography as he prepares the beverage is enough to dive into the world of coffee. The confident and precise movements echo those of the manual coffee bean picker or the coffee roaster who watches over the color transformation of the green coffee bean. As the cafelier serves the coffee, a beautiful story is told. Coffee is celebrated not only by tasting it, but also by taking a moment out of time to share.” The elaborate process of serving our coffees took a bit longer than your average café, but luckily there were never more than three other guests at the café while we were there. I’ve been to crowded coffee bars in Paris where I have to watch this process a dozen times before it’s my turn. For a lazy Saturday morning it’s a luxury worth enjoying. And in the end, like all Alain Ducasse ventures, the luxuriousness of the experience is part of the draw.
Despite being a bit disappointed with his “weak” filter coffee, Fred was impressed with the “savoir-faire” involved in creating a quality cup of coffee, and liked learning about the particularities of each origin. I suggested that, never having had much of a choice before, Parisians might need to try all of these new options before they learn what they really prefer. A bit like when Americans first start learning about French wines. It’s a whole new world, if you’re open to new things.
As a one-off learning experience, it’s a great place to initiate yourself (or your French friends) into the art of coffee making and to discover what you like best. If I lived or worked nearby I’d happily stop by for a morning brew from Alain Ducasse, but I’d probably get it “to go”. Not because I’d drink it on the run, but because I’d rather sit somewhere more comfortable. Unlike most cafés, the Manufacture de Café is not really meant to be a place to linger. Yes, there are newspapers, but the small space only has about 10 stylish-yet-uncomfortably-narrow stools (I almost toppled backwards a few times), and in the winter you’d get a blast of cold air each time someone came into the boutique.
It was not created to be the place to meet up with friends for socializing, or the place to spend an afternoon in the corner nursing a cappuccino with a good book. For once, the focus is on the coffee, not the café culture. After all, there are Alain Ducasse restaurants if you want the full “haute cuisine” experience in plush surroundings meant for leisurely enjoyment over several hours, with the promise of his signature coffee at the end. If you just want the coffee, you don’t even necessarily have to cross Paris. In addition to the 12 Rue St-Sabin location in the 11th, you can also taste and buy Alain Ducasse coffee at two other locations: 47 rue Cherche Midi in the 6th and under La Canopée of Les Halles on Rue Rambuteau, the 1st.
In general, most visitors to Paris are looking for great atmosphere, not just great coffee. But that’s a whole separate article! One that seems to check both boxes is La Caféothèque, an unfussy, cozy café right in the center of Paris that has been roasting their own coffee since opening in 2005. It was even listed in Alain Ducasse’s 2014 book, “J’Aime Paris: Mon Paris du Goût en 200 Adresses”.
What is your favorite Paris café and/or what lengths do you go to for good coffee?