At 28, Shaun Kelly is one of the rising stars of the Paris culinary firmament. Translation? He’s one of the hottest chefs in town. It’s difficult to get a table at the restaurant where he cooks: Au Passage, a small bistro tucked away on a tiny street in the 11th arrondissement. It attracts a mixed crowd of hip young Parisians and knowledgeable diners from around the world, drawn by the striking originality of the food, the interesting wine list and the slumming-it ambiance of the bistro itself.
The restaurant’s formula is different at noon and in the evening. At lunchtime, Au Passage offers a set-price menu, three courses for less than 20 euros. For dinner, Au Passage proposes dishes served on small plates – easy to share, tapas style, or simply to enjoy. Everything is perfectly fresh, and both menus change daily.
I’ve been a frequent visitor to Au Passage, and stopped by on Saturday for a chat. During a break from preparing dinner, Shaun – a former art student and self-described ‘punk-rocking youth’ from Australia – spoke with The Everyday French Chef about beauty in food, his love of fresh herbs and how he got his start.
Hi Shaun. What’s for dinner?
We will also have lapin à la moutarde verte et aux carottes (rabbit with green mustard and carrots), and lamb and rosemary pie. For dessert, we have framboise, grenade et yaourt (strawberry, pomegranate and yogurt) – I really like that one – and ganache chaude au chocolat avec noisettes (rich chocolate cake with hazelnuts).
Every day. I write the lunch menu in the morning and the dinner menu in the afternoon. There are about 22 choices in the evening, including the specials on the board.
There’s a lot of fresh food on the table here. Do you go to the market yourself?
I buy my produce fresh from Joël Thiébault. He has a stand Wednesdays and Saturdays at the market between the Alma-Marceau and Iéna metro stations. His herbs are brilliant – everything he grows, actually, is really fresh, really intense in flavor.
It’s almost like a kind of romantic thing for a chef, actually, heading out to the market – that whole idea of going to the market in the morning, taking what you choose back to the restaurant and cooking it.
It’s hard to get a table at Au Passage. How do you explain your success?
Chance! No, one of the main things I try to do is to keep things simple. There’s often only two of us in the kitchen so it’s kind of a matter of necessity.
Your food is simple, but it’s also very sophisticated…
It has to be food that I want to eat. I get a big kick out of things that are still quite new to me. I love eating offal, and I’ve got a massive thing for fresh herbs.
The recipe you contributed to The Everyday French Chef, ricotta with mirabelles and lavender, has had more visitors than any other recipe on the site. Your cuisine is very creative. How do you get your ideas?
A lot of it just comes to me in terms of availability. All of our produce is seasonal. We base our menus around what we can get at the market.
We start with the stalks of and put them in bouillons, etc. Then we layer up, using herbs in various stages of cooking a dish. We finish off with fresh herbs on top.
I’m pretty fond of savory (sarriette in French) – with roasted potatoes its brilliant. Also with dessert. I use the spiky blossoms as a garnish with roasted figs. The flowery dill will probably be a garnish on trout or brandade (a purée of cod).
To me, it’s just a squash. I’ll roast it and serve it with radicchio and ricotta salata (ricotta that has been dried and salted). I get the ricotta salata from a guy called Vince. He turns up in his truck and brings us our burrata (creamy mozzarella) and ricotta.
When do you think up these dishes?
The idea for the trout came to me on the metro back from the market. I thought up the recipe for the coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops) when I got back and remembered we had them. I’ll pan-fry them, baste them with butter and serve them with a chou fleur (cauliflower) purée with a thin layer of lardo (cured fatback) on top that I’ll probably give a quick psssht with the blowtorch.
Your food is not only delicious, it’s also pleasing to the eye. What is your approach to beauty in food?
I’m a very visual person. Everything on the plate is there to enhance the beauty of the natural product. Everything is there for its own purpose – there are no artificial garnishes.
Au Passage opened about a year and a half ago and you’re the second chef, right? How long have you been here?
I started around the time of the Fête de la Musique (June 21). The previous chef was James Henry, a mate of mine from Australia. He had been there from the start with the owners, Audrey Jarry and Jean-Charles Buffet, who are part of a collective called Les Pères Populaires. James felt it was time to move on, and they hired me.
Since James Henry left, there have been some changes to the menu. For example, Au Passage used to serve burrata with poutargue (botargo, or cured mullet roe), but now the poutargue has disappeared…
That’s because it’s no longer poutargue season. We will only put it on the menu if it comes from a mullet we use. But don’t worry – it’ll be back!
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Queensland and grew up in a little town called Eumundi. It used to be kind of a hippy town. It’s tiny, really, with two pubs, one post office, one general store – but every Saturday it has the largest market in the southern hemisphere.
I never cooked as a kid. I was from a steak-and-three-veg kind of family, but I never ate the veg. It wasn’t until I left home at 17 that I realized how good food really is.
First I moved to England, to Manchester, and worked in pubs. Then I went to London and did the same kind of thing, being a punk-rocking youth.
I went back to Australia about a year later and started studying art. By this time I was regularly cooking for my housemates. It was my student meal ticket – I convince people to buy the food and I would cook it for them.
Toward the end of my time at art school I found that instead of reading art books, I was reading cookbooks. So I spoke to a guy I knew in Brisbane who was a chef, and he started a kind of mentorship of my cooking.
That was the start of my apprenticeship. I worked with him for three months, and then moved back to work at a Thai restaurant near Eumundi, The Spirit House. I completed my first year as an apprentice there.
Then I moved to Melbourne and started working for Geoff Lindsay at the Pearl Restaurant and Bar. It has two hats, kind of the Australian equivalent of two Michelin stars. He does a mixture of French and Thai food. I started out doing salads, and moved on to pastry and fish. I went on to Cumulus Inc. and worked with Andrew McConnell, the best chef in Melbourne. He’s brilliant! I stayed there nine months. Then I had a quick job at another place before moving back to London.
I was dead set at getting a job at St. John (a restaurant in the Smithfield area of London) and working with Fergus Henderson. I think it’s one of the most important restaurants in the world, or at least in the English-speaking world. Fergus Henderson has really promoted the use of the entire beast, everything including the offal. It’s very simple cooking, no bullshit. He’s brought pride back to English cuisine.
Some friends in Australia said they could get me an introduction, but I turned them down. I just wanted to go see Fergus Henderson. So I went to St. John for lunch and got chatting to a waitress, and then to a chef. I told him it was my dream to work there. And two weeks later I started. That was about two-and-a-half years ago.
I came to Paris this past March. I came because James Henry was a good friend with whom I had worked at Cumulus Inc. I thought it would be a short visit, but I ended up getting a job at Saturne (in the 2nd arrondissement, near Métro Bourse). The chef there, Sven Chartier, is a young guy who trained with Alain Passard of Arpège. I was working on the fish section for two or three months, and then the position came up here. I was actually living upstairs from Au Passage, where James has an office. I did a week of lunches to try it – to see if they were interested in what I was doing. And they hired me.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers of The Everyday French Chef?
My advice – throw out the recipe!
— Interview by Meg Bortin, photographs by Nick Stout
For more from Shaun Kelly, go to Paris Update, a weekly review of what’s hot in town, where he talks about some of his favorite things.
Shaun Kelly is the chef at: