The first thing you notice when you walk into Paule Caillat’s chic Parisian apartment is her magnificent kitchen. The front door gives a splendid view of what is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the house. A generous marble workbench and a professional, gleaming, burgundy-coloured oven handmade and delivered by French master cooker-maker Lacanche are witnesses to Caillat’s wonderful culinary adventures, which she shares with an eclectic bunch of international guests – usually strangers – while the sweet smell of fresh herbs fills the air.
The concept is as clever as it is delicious. You call Caillat and schedule an appointment. She will then take you to her local food market on rue Montorgueil, which in the evenings overflows with bohemian hipsters besieging the street’s convivial coffee shops and restaurants. You, however, will use the cool of the morning hours to choose from the freshest produce – vegetables, lobsters, herbs and cheeses – while Caillat entertains you with delicious culinary anecdotes.
She will tell you about the oriental origins of French goat cheese and give away the secret of a perfectly fluffy soufflé, before taking you back to her elegant apartment in the Marais quarter to show you how to prepare a mouth-watering three-course meal à la française. This is an authentic, rare and unforgettable experience, so genuinely French it couldn’t be invented. Imagine a day with a French Julia Child and you’re part way there.
‘People enjoy the promenade gourmande because it’s private and covert and because there is a certain honesty about it,’ explains Caillat. ‘I know how difficult it is to meet local people in a foreign country and I know I would love to stumble across someone like me when I travel.’
The Frenchwoman agrees that globetrotters coming to Paris are more and more hungry – no wordplay intended – for something less ordinary than a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Mainstream is passé, niches are le dernier cri (the very latest thing). This is also reflected in the new trend of ephemeral boutiques, which are taking over the city’s corners. You never know where or when these little shopping heavens will pop up next but if you’re lucky enough to stumble across one by chance the thrill is all the more exquisite.
Stella McCartney’s pop-up store at the Parisian department giant Printemps recently stunned even the most fashion-savvy buyers. The British designer concocted a number of exclusive accessories for the occasion, leaving her fans with unique pieces and an appetite for more.
Likewise, French leather specialist Hermès was stormed by eager visitors last spring after launching a pop-up endeavour on the fashionable rue de Sèvres, offering an exclusive look at its autumn/winter shoe collection. Karl Lagerfeld, no stranger to spontaneous visits and cross-brand adventures, temporarily set foot in Saint-Tropez to introduce his two new lines, Karl and Karl Lagerfeld Paris, to the chic south.
While the gold standard used to be flashing a luxury brand’s logo on your chest pocket, purse or ballerinas, today is more about subtle discretion. It’s about snatching a statement piece, a one-off or an exclusive for your personal collection. And this goes beyond fashion to encompass food-related and cultural experiences, like Paule Caillat’s gourmet walks or pastry shopping in the tiny kitchen of Rachel Khoo’s apartment, where the young British chef sells her delicious creations to Paris’s elite.
While on a mission to uncover Paris’s secret venues, be sure to give Jim Haynes a buzz. Not for nothing did the Guardian newspaper in the UK refer to him as ‘the godfather of social networking’. Long before Mark Zuckerberg was heard of, Jim Haynes had transformed his former sculpture studio in Paris into a global feast where people are invited to congregate, drink, eat and mix in real time as opposed to online. Over 30 years later, international travellers and locals continue to stream to his home every Sunday night.
In the summer months, close to 100 guests spill into Haynes’s charming little garden. ‘People tell me, they have never been to a party with such mixture. Mostly, these events are very homogenous – it’s all bankers or doctors, all the same age. First come, first served – that’s my only criterion, though I do keep gender equality,’ says the kindly host.
The appeal of such happenings is that they never become mass events, but provide unforgettable souvenirs and memories. Like an exclusive Stella McCartney Falabella chain bag crafted from delicate grey faux python, a spontaneous tango in the arms of a complete stranger on the steps of the grand Opéra Garnier can turn a trip to Paris into a truly exceptional experience. In the case of the latter, Thibault Cresp might be your man. This young Parisian organises street milongas (tango balls) which are as popular as the city landmarks where they take place.
His reasoning is simple: ‘When you go to a club, you have to pay to get in, pay for a table with a pricey bottle of Champagne, and, before all that, pass through the door where someone will judge if you are good enough to be there.’ A milonga, assures Cresp, pulls down barriers. ‘It’s a place where you can actually have a conversation, it’s free and most importantly – you get to dance outside with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Can you imagine anything better?’