There are certain bars and restaurants that transcend their industry. The roll call of chefs who learned their métier at Le Gavroche reads like a who's who of haute cuisine – Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Rowley Leigh & Andrew Fairlie, to name a few. Likewise, back in the day, Oddbins was the launch pad for many a career in the wine trade.
Just north of Palais Royale, at 13 rue des Petits Champs, sits Willi's Wine Bar. Opened in 1980 by Mark Williamson and Tim Johnstone it introduced Rhône wines to Parisian drinkers and the wine trade to many a wayward ex-pat 'yoof'...such as myself. In 1988, having left school and seeking remunerated adventure during a gap year, I pitched up at their door on the advice of Robin (Yapp) and spent the next year in their employ. I shared digs in the Marais with Tim's nephew Richard Manners who now owns a successful London pub group (The Atlas, Anglesea Arms) with his brother George. Ask around the UK wine trade and you'll find many who washed glasses, pulled corks, delivered fish or ran errands for Tim & Mark.
The duo parted company in the nineties, Tim now focuses on the equally successful Juveniles bar/restaurant, 50 yards around the corner in rue Richelieu. However, this wave of Brits in Paris including, of course, Steven Spurrier, whose famous Caves de la Madeleine Tim & Mark bought in the late eighties (I vividly recall gutting it with sledge hammers one Sunday afternoon), were the pioneers of a wine bar movement that now thrives in both cities. On a recent weekend in Paris I popped into Juveniles to pay my respects to Tim who was holding court after a generous lunch. I would highly recommend you to do the same.
Working at Willi's – memorable moments:
- Learning about great food, wine and poster art.
- Serving Willi's regulars such as Chanel's style icon, Ines de la Fressange.
- Seeing ‘new band' Hot House Flowers play the Cirque d'Hiver.
- Christmas in The Marais with my family.
- Clubbing at the Rex, Locomotive and Bains with young (now legendary) DJ Laurent Garnier whose Mancunian girlfriend waitressed at the restaurant.
Working at Willi's – best forgotten:
- Unloading fish into iced containers at Rungis market at 4am in minus 10 degrees.
- Breaking the lift at Steven Spurrier's apartment block (with his son Christian, plus others who shall remain nameless) and having to be manually winched down by an irate concierge.
- Confusing a bar regular's request for an ashtray (cendrier) for an order of wild boar (sanglier), to the never-ending amusement of the locals.