Passing by the Première Pression Provence (PPP) outpost near the Marché d’Aligre, one could assume that the shop, which is one in a small chain of Provençal olive oil shops owned and managed by l’Occitane founder and olive oil enthusiast Olivier Baussan, is like any other. But inside, a world of flavors and savors unveils itself — a world where the plate becomes a canvas for Miss Lunch, a Paris Beaux-Arts graduate and the queen of the midday meal in Paris.
Belgium-born and Canadian-raised longtime Paris resident Claudia Cabri is better known as Miss Lunch to regulars of her small restaurant, where a first-time visitor may be surprised by the handful of tables and open kitchen, or lack thereof. The kitchen is comprised of several microwave ovens, a Kitchen Aid mixer and a rice cooker – Cabri has fully converted what was once a simple olive oil shop into a lunchtime extravaganza of her own imagining.
It all began, according to Cabri, in 2012, after she was short-listed for a Villa Medici culinary arts prize for the third time in a row. Baussan was familiar with Miss Lunch from her guided tours of her neighborhood market, which included olive oil tastings in his shop. “He just happened to hear about this,” Cabri recalled, “and he said to me, well, would you like me to be your patron of the arts for a year? It could be the Villa Medici of Paris at PPP.”
From the very beginning, Cabri knew that her restaurant would be unlike any other. The shop’s lack of official restaurant status meant that her kitchen corner had no access to gas or a stovetop; she would have to get creative, using electric appliances and microwaves to create her edible works of art, which took their inspiration from all sorts of international cuisines.
“It was tough in the beginning,” said Cabri, “because people didn’t know that this was a place where you could also eat.”
So she created advertisements by putting her art training to good use, and taking advantage of her fan following from her long-standing Lunch in the Loft pop-up lunches, which she had been hosting in her loft apartment just up the block from her new address. Soon, the restaurant was a success, and Baussan offered her the opportunity to continue the project. Three years later, Miss Lunch is still thriving.
Given her location, it’s no surprise that Miss Lunch relies quite a bit on the PPP products sold by Baussan. On the day of our interview, she was using several different oils in her weekly menu, which is entirely market guided and made up of two appetizers, two mains and two desserts, from which lunchers can choose.
“Today, I’m using the wonderful mandarin flavored olive oil,” she said. “So the olives are pressed with the mandarines. And that’s going to be served on a maatjes herring. A very fresh virgin, fatty, yummy herring with PPP black olives.”
She also occasionally uses the olive oils to make sweet dishes, like olive oil sherbet or polenta olive oil cake. But no matter the recipe, the most important ingredient in Miss Lunch’s meals is her own excitement.
“I just tasted a new cheese!” she said gleefully. “And it’s called the Rondin. Like a rondin of wood, so it looks like a log. It’s too funny.”
Today, PPP works with no fewer than 35 producers to create their olive oil line, and Cabri as a few favorites among them.
“Well, I love the naturally flavored ones, the mandarine and the lemon are quite special, and there is an early harvest, green olive oil that they make, a man and his son next to Arles, and it’s usually very, very peppery and very ardent. And very green.”
While Cabri is now an olive oil expert, that wasn’t always the case. She made sure to learn a lot about them during her tastings, which she still offers today, tailored to each individual palate. “You want them to love the products, because I love them, so you have to think about something that will seduce them,” she said. “So if they can’t understand, you know, a green, a mid-ripe and a black, ripened olive oil, then that’s OK, we’ll just do something easier.”
“You just slowly learn about them,” she said of olive oil producers in France, “I have only met a few, but I feel as though I know them all. Because it’s just such a human experience to taste olive oil and to situate them on the map and think about where they live.”
From a small beginning, Cabri’s ingenuity has created a veritable lunch empire. Not only does she sell PPP products like olive oils and olives, but she has started her own line of Miss Lunch products, like the Pantelleria capers she harvests on her favorite Italian island every year as well as the dried peperoncino from the same island. She also made 50 Miss Lunch caper flower soaps by hand this year, an adventure she’s not keen to revisit any time soon.
“I’ll never make them again, because it’s really very much like babysitting, and since I’ve always detested babysitting it’s really not my thing,” she said. “You have to be really patient and you literally cover the soap at night with a blanket and take the temperature. Forget about it. But anyway, so I have delightful soaps. I think maybe I’ll find someone who can make them for me.”
Perhaps the most exciting new venture for Miss Lunch fans is her No Brunch, a new concept she came up with that she hosts one surprise Sunday a month at 12:30.
“You’ve got a huge choice of all these dishes,” she says. “Tons of little dishes. And everything is 6 euros. So as soon as they’re ready, we serve them. And it’s like pop pop pop, and everybody has to share tables. And you can’t reserve. And it’s really convivial, and everyone loves it, and even me and Marion my assistant, we have a really great time. Cause it’s just so different. And it’s fun!”
One thing is for sure: whether it’s with her lunches, her products, her No-Brunch or her olive oil tastings, Miss Lunch’s bubbly enthusiasm is contagious – and that’s one of the principal keys to her success.