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In Marseille, dining out in the Covid era has often meant eating in. Pizza, kebabs and other fast food have triumphed over cooked dishes, since they can more easily withstand travel in cardboard containers. While many restaurants have either pivoted to portable sandwiches or tried to implement new packing methods (like soupe à l’oignon in a vacuum-sealed bag), La Cuisine de Gagny has embraced glass jars – a return to its roots.

At this tiny restaurant and caterer, the plats du jour are dished into glass containers – the kind of jars (bocaux) filled with rillettes and jams in a French country kitchen. Sealed with glass lids and a thick orange-rubber band, the old-school jars don’t make the food taste like plastic. They are good for the environment – especially when you return them for re-use. And they keep the dishes heated. When we brought our daube de poulpe (red-wine, octopus stew) home, all we had to do was spoon it into a bowl, and voila, home-style cooking chez nous. Fitting for a restaurant that’s all about thoughtfully made comfort food for the community.

La Cuisine de Gagny is the brainchild of Gagny Sissoko, a smiling, self-taught chef from Mali, and his amiable French partner, Julie Demaison. The couple serve homemade, organic fare that makes the most of local goods. Think slow-roasted chicken slathered in herbs, shredded carrot salad with crispy chickpeas, and hearty house-made focaccia sandwiches. Since opening in 2017, Cuisine de Gagny has been a neighborhood fixture, with regulars drawn to the duo’s warm welcome and fantastic, fresh food. Ironically, the couple never expected to be restaurateurs.

The couple met in Bamako, Mali’s capital, in 2002. Julie, a Grenobloise who had come to the Malian capital to study, was working in the cultural sector while Gagny discovered a love of cooking while working for a family that sold kebabs and other street food. He honed his chops during an internship at a Lebanese bakery, which was followed by catering gigs for a friend’s theater company. When the director moved to Marseille in 2010, the couple followed – though Gagny was delayed by red tape for two years.

Their son arrived soon after. Born with multiple food allergies that made eating out a risky affair, Gagny started cooking healthful dishes without allergens – like his famous gluten-free manioc pizza. Word spread to fellow families with food-sensitive children, and he began cooking for them, using the glass bocals still in place today. An instant success, the couple searched for a community kitchen to expand the business.

They launched their small catering company at a former butcher on the Boulevard Chave in Le Camas, thanks to help from ADIE, a local organization that gives microloans to individuals who get turned down by traditional French banks. The couple never intended La Cuisine de Gagny to be a restaurant, but when their patio license was approved – the golden ticket in temperate Marseille – they suddenly had the seating to do so.

Seeing a Malian man at the stoves, neighborhood residents assumed La Cuisine de Gagny would serve African food. Gagny’s Provençal fare, “changed the stereotype,” says Julie. The deli counter is temptingly filled with salads, sandwiches and tartes stuffed with various fillings like locally sourced mushrooms, spinach and brousse cheese. Made with his homemade focaccia bread, Gagny’s gargantuan sandwiches often sell out in advance as they did on our first visit (in-the-know regulars reserve theirs via phone.) But, to truly taste Gagny’s culinary prowess, Julie insists you should “order one of the plats du jour.”

His tian de legumes (sliced veggies) and squid sautéed in pastis illustrate his Provençal savoir-faire while his daube de poulpe (octopus stew) and carbonnade de boeuf (beef stew) show off his sauce skills. Often, veggies are simmered to the point of being bland in stews. In Gagny’s daube, the mushrooms, turnips, and carrots brim with flavor. Other popular dishes include tender magret de canard (duck breast) and a lamb (agneau) couscous, the latter influenced by his Malian heritage.

According to Gagny, Mali’s cuisine isn’t particularly complex, but he inherited certain techniques from his homeland: a knack for making perfectly fluffy rice and attiéké, grated cassava with a couscous-like texture from the neighboring Ivory Coast; a flair for grilled meats and long-braised lamb shoulder (epaule d’agneau), used for the popular Wednesday burger; and the bracingly fresh ginger and candy-red hibiscus (bissap) juices they make in house.  

Without a culinary education or experience at other restaurants, Gagny has learned to cook by doing, tasting, eating and sharing. And, by an intense passion: “It’s the only thing I love to do,” he says. Unable to read, he doesn’t use cookbooks, instead finding inspiration in his surroundings. “Working with fellow chefs feeds me,” he explains, proud to take part in the Kouss-Kouss Festival and other local events at the Grandes Tables de la Friche.

Without a culinary education or experience at other restaurants, Gagny has learned to cook by doing, tasting, eating and sharing.

Each encounter has been a cooking class. On a trip to Haiti, he picked up how to make chiquetaille, flaked fish that he stuffs in sandwiches. Chef Bernard Loury from the Vieux-Port’s Chez Loury taught Gagny how to make bouillabaisse. “Thanks to him, I learned how to cook fish,” he says, a skill much-needed in seafaring Marseille. His fish dishes – rouget (red mullet) with ginger sauce or daurade à sauce chien (sea bream with an herby Antilles pepper sauce) – are always hits.

Gagny’s only aversion is desserts, which are “too mathematic” for the playful chef. Julie has stepped in to bake seasonal tarts (lemon in the winter, strawberry in spring) and a gluten-free option like moelleux au chocolat (moist chocolate cake.) Equally surprised to be baking for a living, she has grown to like it – and the way that her creations make people happy.

True to their commitment to eating well, the couple orders vegetables, meat and dairy products from PPL, a network of nearby young farmers. Ninety percent are organic while the rest are regional to highlight the importance of a local food system – you’ll never see an avocado on the menu. As part of their zero-waste policy, they compost food scraps, use the aforementioned glass jars and biodegradable paper packaging, and hire a bike delivery service instead of the price-gouging Uber Eats. They also give leftovers to a handful of neighborhood homeless individuals – plating the food to make it feel less like a handout. One man who has since left the streets attributed their kindness to helping him get back on his feet.

Community is at the core of La Cuisine de Gagny. Most of the customers are regulars – some even use it as their daily cafeteria. “People don’t just come here to buy – they come for the ambiance and service,” Gagny says with a smile. The couple knows which client likes pepper and which one is allergic to nuts. Even without in-person dining, they’ve maintained the interactions that are important in this takeout-only era, greeting customers by name and calling out “bon appétit” when they leave.

In most cases, the French government has offered better financial incentives for restaurants to stay shuttered. But Julie and Gagny have been committed to supporting their community. After closing in the first lockdown (which many thought would be the last), they have stayed open during the next confinements to the delight of their neighbors. Though they make up the majority of the clientele, Cuisine de Gagny merits a field trip for those who live outside of La Camas. Even in these times of takeaway – we live a half-hour away via the metro, and our daube was still wonderfully warm when we returned home.

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