A Parisian restaurant hidden in the “bad” part of town has a mission to combat food waste by serving creative, market-fresh cuisine…for the cost of a movie ticket.
UPDATE JANUARY 2020: Freegan Pony are looking for a new location (the one described below is closed), check with their Facebook page for the latest updates.
Searching for a Unicorn
Everyone who comes to Paris seems to be looking for the perfect little hole-in-the-wall, a casual bistro frequented by locals that serves excellent food. I usually tell my clients that Paris is under such constant scrutiny by food writers that as soon as a place like that exists it’s immediately written up in the New York Times and booked months in advance by American tourists. But of course that’s not completely true. Some chefs aren’t part of the Parisian foodie clique and its well-connected hype machine, so their restaurants pass beneath the international press radar.
But in my experience working with tourists for over 15 years, I’ve found that even when people claim they only want to eat where the locals eat, they still only go to places “legitimized” in the Anglophone press or TripAdvisor reviews. I’ve given clients a list of my own local favorites, but if their Google search doesn’t turn up any reviews (or at least none in English), they rarely risk checking it out. I’m not a food writer, so I don’t take it personally, but I can’t help thinking that although they’re searching for a unicorn, what they really want is a pony. Not that ponies aren’t adorable, but they’re just not unique like unicorns. Unless you’re talking about the Freegan Pony, of course.
Hidden in Plain Sight
The best-kept secret restaurant in Paris is not actually trying to hide. They have a public Facebook page, after all. But although Freegan Pony has appeared in Le Monde, Madame Figaro and other French press, I was surprised to find no mentions at all within the expat-tourist-foodie blogosphere. Not one article in English. Perhaps that’s how I was lucky enough to finally get a reservation Monday night. There was only one spot left so I couldn’t bring a friend with me, which isn’t unusual for a journalist used to working alone; I often have to visit restaurants, nightclubs and formal events sans “plus one”. But I was a little nervous about this visit for completely different reasons.
Packing Heat is Recommended
On the way there, I stopped to see my friend Hannah, who lives just a few metro stops away from the restaurant, near the Bassin de la Villette (just north of the now-trendy Canal Saint-Martin). As we chatted over tea, she asked what brought me to that corner of Paris and her eyes lit up when I told her I was on the way to a secret restaurant near the périphérique. “Are you going to Freegan Pony? We were there last weekend, it’s amazing!” I was immediately relieved, because if my soccer-mom friend and her two young daughters liked it, I had nothing to worry about. “The only downside is there’s no coffee,” she says, filling an insulated mug with more hot tea for me to take along. “And it’s chilly in there; you’ll want to keep a fleece on.”
Hannah explains exactly how to find the restaurant from the metro exit and – as if it’s as normal as giving directions to the grocery store – how to go around the back in case the door is welded shut again. Noted. As I bundle up she tells her daughters I’m writing an article on Freegan Pony. “Mommy, does she know it’s not allowed?” asks her youngest with wide eyes. At first I thought she meant the press wasn’t welcome, before realizing she was talking about the restaurant itself. “That’s what makes the story so exciting!” I said, giving her a bisous before heading out into the cold January evening with Hannah’s tightly-sealed mug of hot tea and my Paris par Arrondissement map at the ready.
“Are we there yet?” Stay with me…
True to Hannah’s directions, after exiting the metro and crossing a busy street I pass under a bridge to a large roundabout and see the big steel doors with “Freegan Pony” painted in giant letters. I step inside and, as my eyes adjust to the dim hallway, hear the comforting sounds of mellow jazz music and the familiar kitchen noises of chopping boards and tinkling glassware. A young woman welcomes me and checks my name on her list, offering to hang my coat on the rack next to her. It was definitely warm enough to remove my hat and scarf, but I keep my jacket just in case. My first instinct upon entering the dining room is to take a photo, but I didn’t want to ruin the cozy atmosphere.
Not cozy as in the usual Parisian shorthand for “small and cramped”, but cozy because they’ve transformed the immense concrete hall into a warm and inviting bohemian lounge, decorated with Persian carpets, mismatched flea market furniture, vintage lamps and twinkling candles on every table. Couples and small groups of mostly 20-somethings occupy some of the sofas and stuffed armchairs, while a few other early arrivals sip red wine or pints of local beers at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, where that night’s chef and a half dozen volunteers busily prepare the first course.
Le Menu, C’est Bon
The slate chalkboard announces that evening’s menu: endive soup and salad with a persimmon sauce to start, Naan bread with spicy tomato sauce, Romanesco broccoli and crumbled hardboiled egg for the main dish, and a fennel dacquoise with stewed pear for dessert. I take a seat at one of the long, wooden communal tables with my tea to wait for my name to be called, trying (discreetly) to take a few photos. My smartphone photography skills are seriously challenged in the low-lit dining room with the bright kitchen spots in the background.
I can’t find a good angle to properly capture the unique ambience of the space. More people arrive, offering friendly bonjours as they take seats next to me. When the first course is ready, I collect it at the front counter along with my silverware, napkin and a few slices of bread. I’m amazed at how fresh the endive tastes. “C’est bon?” asks Aladdin, one of the Freegan Pony founders, sitting down at our table. “Really, I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. Is it good, or disgusting?” “Non, non, c’est bon,” says the French woman across from me, and everyone else at the table nods in agreement.
Wait, what are we eating?!
Again, I’m no food critic, but I enjoyed the entire three-course meal, especially the dessert, which was served with a tiny poppy seed brioche. I even feel a bit silly remembering how nervous I was about coming alone.
Because while relaxing in this comfy and welcoming establishment, enjoying freshly-cooked market cuisine for less than the price of a movie ticket, it’s easy to forget we’re really sitting in an illegal squat beneath a highway, eating food rescued from the garbage earlier that morning.
The Birth of Europe’s First Freegan Restaurant
Freegan Pony was started in 2015 by a small group of young volunteers led by Aladdin Charni, an energetic 32-year-old “Freegan” from Lyon who has been hosting parties in squatted buildings throughout the city for the past eight years. One of the most popular soirées was called the Pony Club because it took place in an abandoned horse slaughterhouse (thus the “Freegan Pony” name). In the fall he discovered the current location, a vast 500m² concrete and brick storehouse tucked under the périphérique (the highway circling Paris), owned by the City of Paris but left unused for over 15 years. After throwing a few parties, Aladdin decided it would make a great location for a restaurant. Or, to be specific, a Freegan restaurant.
1. a person, usually vegan in diet, who forages discarded food from supermarket dumpsters and dining establishments; derived from free + vegan.
2. a person opposed to consumerism and wasted resources who attempts to live without buying consumer goods, recycling discarded goods instead.
So Aladdin and five like-minded young friends, all passionate about the Freegan principals of putting discarded food to good use, cleaned up and transformed the concrete warehouse with flea-market furnishings and décor provided by the local Emmaüs thrift shop. One volunteer covered the pillars with decorative moss, and another donated what look like deer antlers hanging from the wall, but are actually crafted from tree branches.
The open kitchen is equipped with the bare essentials needed to prepare each meal, including an oven, burners, sinks and lighting. Watching it in action, the entire operation appears to be very well-organized and surprisingly efficient. One of the organizers, Gilia Bataille, sits down with me to explain how it all works. “It started with just six of us,” says the young Parisian. “An architectural student who helped set up the space and the five of us who work each day to keep everything running.” Most of that work takes place behind the scenes, before dinner even starts. “Each morning we go out to collect the food, mostly from Rungis market and organic food shops,” says Gilia. “Once I know what we have, I tell that night’s chef, who then designs the meal. Sometimes we have to buy one or two ingredients to make it work.”
The Freegan Pony has about eight professional chefs on rotation, each one volunteering a different night depending on their availability. Chefs used to working in stainless steel kitchens with sous-chefs must quickly adapt to the challenging surroundings and the varied capabilities of their volunteer helpers. They’ve become veritable MacGyvers in the kitchen. “We’re always looking for volunteer helpers,” says Gilia. “It’s better if they know basic skills, the chefs don’t really have time to teach them how to peel an onion,” she adds.
Ewww…who would want to eat garbage?
Before you imagine them picking through stinky, rotting garbage on the street corner, keep in mind most Freegans forage in supermarket bins, which only contain discarded shop items, not “regular trash” like coffee grinds, used diapers or half-eaten burritos. The Freegan Pony volunteers get their fresh produce from Rungis, the enormous wholesale food market just outside Paris near Orly airport. Since all of the produce is sold by the crate, vendors discard the whole box if even one potato is bruised or rotten. So there’s plenty to choose from when they arrive at 7:30am (see photos of Freegan Pony at Rungis in Le Bon Bon article). Because they serve the produce that very night, it’s often fresher than what the average Parisian finds at their local supermarket two-three days later. They also visit several organic supermarkets in Paris, where they retrieve packaged or processed foods past the labeled “sell by” date.
Does This Smell Funny to You?
Aside from the stigma of getting caught rifling through the trash, another reason most of us wouldn’t eat expired food or “tired” produce — even out of our own refrigerators — is the fear of getting food poisoning. Most of us simply weren’t raised to know what’s edible and what’s not.
Post-WWI affluence and abundance has fostered our “when in doubt, throw it out” mentality. But our ignorance of basic food knowledge means we’re almost always in doubt, throwing out what could probably be eaten if we only knew how to prepare and cook it properly, letting perfectly good produce go to waste instead of canning or preserving it like our great-grandparents who lived through the Great Depression (or two world wars in France).
One of the reasons Freegan Pony relies on professional chefs instead of just cooking the food themselves is because these chefs have been trained to know what’s edible and what’s not, paying close attention to cooking temperatures and kitchen hygiene.
Aladdin hopes to address this issue in the future by offering canning classes. “We thought it would be great to make chutney with the extra produce we collect so we can give jars to the volunteers,” says Aladdin. “But why not also create classes where people can learn how to do this in their own home?” He’s surprised when I tell him canning has become very trendy with young urban homesteaders in the US, a bit like knitting and raising chickens. “I think that’s great!” he says. “We’ll make it trendy here too, you watch!”
Straddling Paris and the Banlieus
Freegan Pony isn’t in the prettiest part of Paris. It’s barely in Paris at all, straddling the city limits of the 19th arrrondissement with some of the less salubrious suburbs most people only see on their way to the airport. “I like this location, it’s good to visit parts of Paris you don’t know,” says Gilia. “I’ve seen some crazy stuff at night,” she adds, mentioning the prostitutes who frequent the other side of the intersection. “But I don’t feel like it’s dangerous here, there are always people walking around, even when we leave here late at night.” The location certainly doesn’t seem to be deterring their clientele, considering they’ve been completely booked almost every night except the evening of the November 13th attacks.
As the restaurant fills us, the chattering clientele don’t always hear their names called. Sandrine, one of the organizers coordinating volunteers behind the counter, is handing out the main course. She repeats a name, adding loudly “Get it while it’s hot!” I already feel bad making her call out my name since it’s so difficult for the French to pronounce. With her accent it comes out more like “Eezaire!”
Aside from one older couple and a family with their dog, I notice most of the other diners are firmly in the 20-35 age bracket, and they all appear to be from the “nicer” part of town. Not exactly bobos, perhaps because there’s neither the standard hipster fare of burgers/BBQ/hotdogs, nor the green smoothies in glass mason jars, either. This isn’t the yoga crowd, but there’s definitely a lack of mixité, as the French would say. “No, there’s not much of a socio-economic or age mix, that’s true,” says Aladdin. And yet it hardly feels like we’re slumming it. But maybe the crowd looks very different on a Friday night.
“Sometimes I lie awake at night having a crise de conscience,” adds Gilia. “But then I have to remember that we’re just starting out, and we’re spreading the news through word of mouth and Facebook, so it’s natural most of the people here are from our own social group.” Now that they’ve got the daily operations running smoothly, she hopes to connect with the local charities whose clients could really benefit from an affordable meal.
A Fully-Booked Vegetarian Restaurant? In Paris?
Despite the name, Freegan Pony is not yet completely vegan yet, since some chefs use butter or eggs, but it is 100% vegetarian. “It’s partly a question of hygiene,” says Aladdin, explaining the Freegan concept to the newest arrivals at the table. “A vegetable can be bruised and we can just cut off that section and no one gets sick. But even if the meat looks good and smells okay, it might poison someone.” But he insists that even if the meat was guaranteed fresh they still wouldn’t use it. “Because it’s against your values…” says one woman. “Yes, and it’s just stupid and anti-ecological to consume meat every day,” says Aladdin. “Maybe a little, but not at every meal like most people do.”
Vegetarian restaurants are rare in Paris compared to New York or Berlin, so I’m surprised it’s fully booked every night. I ask Aladdin how many of their clients are actually vegetarian. “I don’t think they’re vegetarian,” he says. “I think they just like the Freegan Pony concept.” Vegetarianism isn’t such a radical concept for the latest generation of Parisians already exposed to juice bars and gluten-free pastries at a young age. So who’s to say they don’t just come to enjoy an affordable meal in a cool setting with a laid-back atmosphere of French solidarité? Aladdin admits the price probably plays a role. “I’m not sure it would work if our menus were €30.”
Pay What You Want
When they first opened Freegan Pony in the fall they asked for a fixed price of €2 per plate, or €6 for the three courses, with free bread and pitchers of water. As Hannah warned, there is no espresso machine for hot coffee, but clients can buy beer, wine or other cold drinks at the bar. Vin chaud even made an appearance on this week’s menu. Beginning in mid-January they decided to stop posting a price, and now allow their clients to pay what they can afford. “Some pay more, some pay less, it comes out about the same,” says Aladdin. But he stresses the point isn’t to make money, they’re simply trying to recoup some of their expenses. “We don’t want people just to come because it’s cheap, we’re trying to raise awareness about the pointless waste of food.”
It helps that they’re not just any old boring dishes. It’s not hard to create an edible meal from foraged foods, but Aladdin and his team know they have to go the extra mile if they hope to win over the skeptics. The chefs pride themselves on their creativity and talent, coming up with some genuinely impressive dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in any respectable Parisian bistro.
A Lesson in Manhattan-style Marketing
I immediately thought of Dan Barber’s famous Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village which transformed for three weeks last March into wastED, a pop-up devoted to the theme of food waste and re-use. They partnered with 20 guest chefs to serve meals using what they cleverly described as “byproducts of our food system.” The fancy euphemism for trash worked and wastED was an overwhelming success, with New Yorkers lining up to pay $15 a plate for what normally goes to the dump. In 2012 French chef Alain Ducasse invited Dan Barber to speak at the Plaza Athénée about the importance of good breeding, addressing taste at the exact opposite end of the food chain. I’m curious if Mr. Barber would make the trek out to the Porte de la Villette on his next visit to Paris, assuming Freegan Pony is still around.
Zero Waste (and Zero Rent): How to Run a Restaurant in a Squat
There are never any guarantees of success in the restaurant business, but Freegan Pony faces a completely different set of challenges. As squatters, they are in a precarious situation, with an eviction notice set to go into effect in February (you can’t just throw someone out into the street in Paris without due process). But that doesn’t mean they’re planning on packing it all up in a month. Aladdin and his team have big ideas for that space, and they’re determined to stay and see them come to fruition. How? Freegan Pony might not be run by a celebrity chef with the financial resources and connections that implies, but they do have a potentially powerful ally up their sleeve: the landlord.
The City of Paris owns the space, so they are the ones who issued the eviction notice, but with their growing popularity and dedication to the zero-waste cause, Freegan Pony is the perfect pet project for local politicians. “We’ve been more or less well-received by the municipal authorities,” says Gilia. “The fight against food waste is one of the mayor’s issues, so it’s in their best interest to let us stay in a place no one else is using.”
Indeed, as hosts of the COP 21 climate talks last month, Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s administration has been leading the charge in environmental issues, even encouraging restaurants to offer clients doggy bags for their leftovers. Even the National Assembly unanimously voted in December on anti-waste measures requiring the redistribution of unsold (yet still edible) food from supermarkets to food charities, with the French Senate is due to approve the law later this month. The press is clearly on Freegan Pony’s side. An article in the French newspaper Le Monde, quotes the local mayor of the 19th as saying “In theory we share the same combat against food waste. Concerning the squat, we simply need to make sure they don’t endanger public safety or the proper functioning of municipal services.”
In Bed with the Devil?
But even with the politicians on their side, Gilia remains skeptical whether it’s possible to legalize the restaurant while respecting the Freegan values and methods. “I’d like to work something out with the City to stay here, but I don’t know if they’ll let us serve this kind of food legally,” she says. Aladdin says the appeal process to legalize could take five weeks to two months. “That sounds pretty fast for French bureaucracy,” I tell him. “Well, yes, two months would be pretty quick, but I’m impatient!”
In the meantime they deal with the issues of operating in a squatted building. When Hannah and her family visited in early January the front doors were welded closed so they had to find the back entrance (there’s a sign on the door now asking the municipal services not to seal the door because “There are people in here”). Then there’s the limited power supply, which means they can’t use big space heaters without blowing the fuses. The dining room may be romantic under candle light, but the kitchen needs electricity to function properly. “Every night is a surprise,” says Aladdin. “There are always problems to manage, but also amazing people we meet, so overall it’s really great.”
A Freegan Food Truck and other Dreams for the Future
So can this counter-culture concept surf the popular wave of anti-waste sentiment all the way into mainstream consciousness? At this point Aladdin is just happy that so many people are willing to try the restaurant, but the Freegan Pony team has no intention of simply coasting on their success.
Assuming they eventually get permission to stay, there are many more projects in the works. “We’re only using 30% of the space at the moment,” says Gilia. “But we hope to open up the rest for art shows or theatre performances.” When I ask Aladdin about his future plans, he doesn’t skip a beat, rattling off a long list of ideas including a 100% organic Freegan Pony, and a Freegan Pony Food Truck to raise awareness about what they do at festivals around Ile de France. “I have a ton of ideas, some I haven’t shared with the team yet because I know they’ll think I’m trying to do too much too fast, even though we’re all already exhausted,” he says. “But I can’t help it; I have a lot of energy!”
If You’ve Got an Appetite, Here’s How It Works
So voilà, there’s your unicorn. If you’re feeling adventurous enough to test out Freegan Pony yourself, the first step is to RSVP on the Freegan Pony Facebook page for one of the 60 spots available Friday through Monday. They usually post the link the Tuesday before. So far three of the four nights are already booked for January 22-25, so you have to be fast!
There’s no dress code at the Freegan Pony, but you’ll want to dress warmly in layers, in case it’s chilly inside. A hot thermos does wonders, too. I didn’t see any bathrooms (and I forgot to ask), so to be on the safe just assume there aren’t any.
Reservations aren’t for a specific hour; it’s first-come, first-served. Doors open at 7:30pm and food starts coming out shortly afterwards. It’s open until 11pm, but don’t wait too long, “We run out at the end, so usually the last five people don’t get anything.”
Freegan Pony is located on Place Auguste Baron in the 19th.
The easiest way to get there is to take metro line 7 to Porte de la Villette station, making sure to follow the signs for Sortie (exit) #4 “Av. de la Pte de Villette”. When you exit you’ll be outside the Glaz’art Club; look for the wall with the mural and a silver cow on the roof (1). Go past the Glaz’art and under a bridge (2), then follow the sidewalk curving to the left to arrive at a very large intersection (and the on-ramp for the highway). At this intersection you should already be able to see the Freegan Pony (3) sign on the door across the street, beneath a much bigger bridge (that’s the périph’ highway), essentially in the island of the intersection (4). It’s a short, five-minute walk from the metro exit.
Once inside, you’ll be greeted by someone who checks your name on the list and explains how it works:
- There is a set menu of three courses listed on the chalk board. You can decide which courses you want, I recommend all three (they’re small portions).
- Give your name to a volunteer behind the counter, and then help yourself to silverware, napkin, and the bread basket before taking a seat.
- There are pitchers of water available or you can purchase drinks at the bar
- When your name is called, pick up your entrée. When finished you place your dishes on the table to the left of the counter, then go back to the person who wrote down your name and tell them you’re ready for your main dish, le plat. Same routine, name gets called, bus your dishes when done, and then request your dessert.
- At the end, you go back one final time to the volunteer at the counter to pay for your meal. It is donation-based, so pay what you can (a minimum of €6 is respectful, but I would encourage anyone who has the means to offer at least €10). Have exact change ready in cash.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! The volunteers are all very friendly, and if you sit at the larger communal tables it’s a lot easier to chat with the other clients.
If You’re Interested in Helping Out, Volunteers are Welcome
The Freegan Pony team eventually hopes to open six or seven nights a week, and possibly lunch to cater to the neighborhood locals. “For the moment we can’t do that, it’s just too much work to do on our own,” says Aladdin. “We always need a lot of volunteers. The more we have to help us, the more we’re able to do.”
I ask if he would even accept the help of the occasional volunteer, for example tourists just passing through who only speak English. “Of course, we don’t mind working with temporary volunteers if it’s just to help for one day or one night. If they can stay for the entire evening we can have a good exchange, talk and share stories, enjoy a meal together…it’s nice to get to know people a little bit. Most of us speak English, too.”
If you have free time and like the vibe, there’s a place for you in Aladdin’s Cave. Post your request on the Facebook page and they will reply in a personal message.
Note: All photos by the author except where noted. All quotes translated from French conversations.