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Le République may be one of the most beautiful restaurants in Marseille. A historic space that once housed Café Parisen (from 1905, with its boulodrome for games of pétanque on the lower floor), it has been elegantly renovated and was reopened at the beginning of 2022 as a restaurant gastronomique solidaire—a gourmet “solidarity restaurant” and unique community project that embraces both guests and workers.

But, without reading about it, diners would never guess this. Instead, they would take a table in the luminous space (1200 square meters!) with minimalist aesthetics, lofty ceilings, cornices, and great, dried flower-and-leaf chandeliers. There, they would discover Michelin-star chef Sébastien Richard and his team’s delightful creations, refined and simple, kindly served. Unknowingly, these guests participate directly in Le République social project.

The restaurant is located at Place Sadi Carnot, between the Vieux Port and the new port at La Joliette, in one of Rue de la République’s stately Haussmannian buildings. The buildings were constructed in the mid-19th century to attract the bourgeoisie back to Marseille’s downtown and the maritime world of the Vieux Port. It did not work, and the neighborhood, like downtown Marseille, is made up of a majority immigrant, working-class community. But a series of upscale restaurants have opened up on this street, particularly post-Covid-19, mainly of the large, soulless type. Le République, one of the new establishments, is anything but soulless, sending roots into the community. The founders discovered a marvelous way to bring these worlds together and give play to culinary and social distinction.

Chef Sébastien Richard and his associate Sylvain Martin were each working with organizations to distribute meals on an impressive scale during the Covid-19 crisis. (Sébastien has his own, exclusive restaurant in the Panier neighborhood, and Sylvain continues to work as director of development at Tier Mobility.) Afterward, they imagined and researched how a special restaurant might give new form and direction to the spirit of these community engagements. There are many, but never enough, solidarity restaurants in France and in Europe (restaurants offering food for people in need). They normally are simple cantines with crates of organic produce in view. More upscale versions exist as well, but only at Le République do guests paying full price and those paying a reduced rate eat in the same space at the same time, with the goal of attaining a one-to-one ratio.

Around 36% of guests who dine at Le République are families living in social and economic exclusion. They are referred to the restaurant by numerous organizations, in coordination with the restaurant’s own organization, La Petite Lilli. Silvain Martin, vice-president of the organization, who cofounded Le République with Sébastien, remarked that they were at first surprised they did not encounter an unmanageable number of demands. But they’ve found that no one attempts to abuse the system, and repeat diners return no more than once a month.

The way it works is this: fully-paying guests pay 21 or 25 euros for lunch, which includes two or three courses, up to two glasses of wine or another beverage. Guests paying the reduced rate similarly receive a bill for their meal, but they pay just one euro per person. All guests pay discretely at the cash register, enabling parents who pay the reduced rate to settle their bill without their children seeing it, for example.

Le République is also a reinsertion (re-entry) enterprise, which employs people experiencing social exclusion and previously unable to find work. They are trained by Le République’s professional staff and integrated into regular restaurant employment through a state-run program. Twelve of the 22-person team are part of this program. Le République’s founders believe that many will soon gain employment in other eateries after working for the restaurant and could return one day as regular paying guests.

The Mediterranean-inspired menu proposes three choices for each course, made from locally-sourced, seasonal produce. On a bright summer day, we were seated near the entrance and the gem of a zinc art-deco bar the restaurant has plans to refurbish. The amuse-bouche that day was a refreshing, orange-spiked gazpacho. One entrée featured thin slices of the catch of the day, with dried anchovy powder, mulberries, and olive-oil drizzled brousse (a local goat cheese so soft it is sold in plastic cones). It was delicious with the crisp and fragrant house white.

Chef Sébastien Richard once commented on how he entertained himself with food presentation. Indeed, each plate is colorful, playfully arranged, and tastefully so. This playfulness includes sweet and savory role-switching: marinated cherries and mulberries, jellied bell peppers, beets marinated in hibiscus juice. Textures and flavors from these condiments at once maintain their integrity and enhance fish, meat, or poultry dishes. For dessert, the light-as-a-cloud chocolate gâteau, set on a bed of caramel-coffee foam, included crispy buckwheat nougatine, and orange crème brulée. The green grassy bit on the cake’s top turned out to be coriander sprouts, which marries well with the chocolate. No condiment is mere decoration in this kitchen.

Le République’s culinary ambitions include soliciting other star chefs and “chefettes” (the restaurant’s chosen term) to add to the menu their signature dishes. Many chefs already stop by on occasion to orchestrate meal preparations. The founders and friends of Le République are very well-connected in France, not only because Sébastian is a respected chef himself, but because over 200 chefs volunteered to cook meals for those in need, distributed through organizations, during the Covid-19 crisis in Marseille. The same took place in many cities and towns throughout the country and beyond, and the founders of Le République have been in conversation with those involved in their quest to develop and continue this community experience.

We ask Silvain, given the ethnic origins of the restaurant’s guests paying the reduced rate, why not cook more world cuisine or fusion? For many, he explained, it is their first experience eating in a restaurant, and their first taste of French cuisine, let alone gourmet. People are really happy to have these experiences and, the team imagined, they would probably not like to eat versions of what they already have at home.

What else is palpably felt when we frequent Le République is one consequence of the restaurant’s social experiment. There is something about sharing meals and overriding social segregation – even in a relatively modest space and measure of time – that gives off a positive, contagious vibe. Silvain explains that well-wishers at the beginning, commenting on the restaurant’s imagined social organization, expressed doubts whether fully paying guests and those paying reduced rates would feel comfortable eating in the same space like that, even discreetly, en cachette, as it were. But once put into practice, it feels right, and Le République is an inspiring success.

Jenine AbboushiMarion Péhée

Published on September 30, 2022

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