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The pandemic shut down dining as we knew it. Rose Chalalai Singh is doing her part to revive it—with a modern twist.
It’s a sunny summer afternoon in Paris, and the restaurateur Rose Chalalai Singh is finally getting a moment to sit down after a chaotic but celebratory lunch service on the opening day of her namesake Rose Kitchen, a small café with a curated menu of home-cooked Thai dishes. It’s located in an intimate 1,000-square-foot space on the edge of Le Marché des Enfants Rouges, the city’s oldest covered market, beloved by locals for being a rare stronghold of authenticity in the trendy Marais neighborhood. Every 15 minutes or so, someone stops by to say hi or to congratulate her. An old friend who lives nearby joins her for a drink at a small table just outside the entrance, overlooking the bustling market.
Although the 41-year-old from Bangkok has already overseen her share of culinary spaces in Paris—including the low-key Ya Lamaï, which she relocated from the Marais to the 11th Arrondissement in 2015—today’s launch is especially poignant. Opened less than two months after pandemic lockdowns kept the city’s eateries closed for almost seven months, Rose Kitchen is a symbol of the tenacity of Paris’s café culture, a testament to how cafés are both the heartbeat and the nerve center of Paris society. More personally, it’s also a love offering to her adopted city and community.
“When the second lockdown happened here, at the end of October, it really felt like the end of the world,” recalls Singh. “I am so happy that Paris is getting back to life again. Cafés and restaurants are really the culture of the Parisienne. Paris without cafés is not Paris.” Her friend nods his head and comments that he knows someone who was so excited about the reopening that she went to Les Deux Magots at 7:00 a.m. on the first day to make sure she got a table.
Just a few yards away, the counter at Les Enfants du Marché, a natural-wine bar and avant-garde kitchen with a palpable punkish energy, is filling up, and Singh nods in that direction, mentioning that the chef, Masahide Ikuta, has a cult following. For years, Singh says, she had tried to get a place in Le Marché des Enfants Rouges, but it was only when the gallerist Frank Elbaz, husband of her close friend Vanessa Bruno, the designer, bought a space here and she convinced him to rent it to her that she succeeded. “I have dreamed to be in this market for a long time,” she says. Opening up a modern Thai café as somewhat of an outsider in one of the city’s most revered historic markets didn’t happen without some politics, but Singh shrugs it off. She describes it as seeming at first like being “a new classmate and everyone is watching you. There are politics here, but now we are friends with everyone.”
If Paris is not Paris without Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, Rose Kitchen is a new archetype of the city’s celebrated café society: a place where influential members of the art, design, and fashion communities gather to share and inspire ideas.
Attracted to the world of contemporary art early on, Singh befriended the now internationally reknowned Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija when she was a 17-year-old in Bangkok. For Tiravanija, food is literally an art; he became a major figure on the global art scene starting in 1990, when he converted a New York gallery into a kitchen where he served pad thai for free. Singh tells me that Tiravanija’s grandmother wrote a popular Thai cookbook from which she has borrowed many recipes over the years. Tiravanija has also introduced her to many of his artist friends; from the moment she opened her first place in Paris in 2010, she has fed many of them, as well as most of the city’s fashion designers.
“I love feeding artists,” Singh says. “Even when they are not hungry, they have an appetite.” Later, in a conversation about Singh’s restaurants, Tiravanija says that “space and place are even more important than the taste of the food. It’s about the energy that is given. Guests can kind of feel that energy.”
Back at Rose Kitchen, Singh’s 11-year-old son, Gabriel, comes over after having run an errand to find a replacement lightbulb for the café. He is a regular fixture at Singh’s venues, sometimes seating guests. At Rose Kitchen, he painted the name of the café over the front door. She glances at him proudly. The alternative family she has nurtured in Paris and beyond is also for Gabriel; her immediate relations are all still based in Thailand.
“Rose!” calls out the designer Haider Ackermann as he approaches the café with the actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia. They all happily embrace. The master perfumer Barnabé Fillion grabs more chairs, and everyone sits for a while and catches up. Model Audrey Marnay arrives with three friends, gives Singh a big hug, and sits at a nearby table. Plates of spicy beef salad, sautéed greens, and larb gai (minced chicken covered with a flurry of green herbs) arrive. Later, Ackermann describes Singh’s ventures as warm, welcoming places, like a favorite cousin’s home, where food is always on the table. “In turbulent times, it’s something very nice to have.”
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