Although restaurants, bars and cafés in France have been shuttered since October 2020, “clandestine restaurants” have become the hottest trend for some of Paris’s elite. Entry requires a third-party referral. These secret restaurants have been serving up champagne, foie gras with truffle and caviar, despite France entering its third national lockdown.
Menus start at 160 euros ($190) and go up to 490 euros ($580). Considering you can now technically get a 135 euro ($160) ticket for drinking a beer outside along the Seine, 160 sounds almost reasonable. Almost. If there weren’t also a public health crisis, with ICU beds in the Ile-de-France region at 150 percent capacity. Some patients have already been transported by train to other regions, and more may be soon.
The controversy has taken over France after a television report from French media M6 published last Friday unveiled these secret dinners.
The video report documents dinners at luxury private apartments and a high-end restaurant. Journalists filmed some of these soirées using hidden cameras. None of the guests or waiters are wearing masks.
“Once you pass through the doors, COVID no longer exists,” you can hear one waiter telling an undercover journalist in the video.
The rooms gilded in gold in the video were identified as the residence of Pierre-Jean Chalençon, a Napoleon collector. His private residence, known as Palais Vivienne, is just a four-minute walk from where I work, but I never received an invite to one of his illegal dinners. I guess young, foreign journalists are not really the same milieu as French aristocracy.
Chalençon also initially claimed that ministers had been present at several of these clandestine soirées he attended. However, he then backtracked, saying that only nine people attended and his comments had been an “April Fool’s joke.” Somehow I am skeptical.
Chalençon’s dinner was catered by his friend Christophe Leroy, a well-known chef among celebrities, known for cooking for Pamela Anderson and Johnny Hallyday. Leroy even posted photos of the dinners on his Instagram page before the scandal broke. They’ve since been deleted.
In classic French fashion, half of the scandal was over the quality of food documented. The meals appeared to consist of whole fish on limp beds of lettuce, sunny side up eggs and sad chunks of Comté cheese.
France prides itself on its gastronomy. Who would flaunt national restrictions, a potential fine and risk contracting a deadly virus to eat that?
For our three-person Easter dinner, I roasted a chicken with lemon and dates, and my roommate’s girlfriend made a tarte tatin.
“We eat better than we would with Christophe Leroy,” she said.
I couldn’t agree more.
Jokes aside, French people are demanding accountability. The television report blurred out attendees' faces, but there have been rumors that several government ministers have been in attendance. The Paris prosecutor launched an investigation, though Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said on French television on Monday that he is thus far unaware of any ministers who participated in these dinners.
#OnVeutLesNoms, or #WeWantNames, started trending on Twitter as French citizens, exhausted by a year-plus spent under various restrictions and three separate lockdowns, demanded accountability.
Watching this video of France’s elite flaunting the rules and pretending the pandemic does not affect them brought me back to the Christmas holidays I spent at home with my family in Aspen.
Despite the county being in Level Red while I was there, with indoor gatherings between families banned, many of the town’s wealthiest continued to throw elaborate — sometimes even catered — parties.
One afternoon, I had a brief interaction with one of my friend’s dad’s friends, who announced that he was headed to a Christmas party that evening.
“I’m not going to let COVID stop me from living my life,” he said.
Indeed, he and several other guests did catch COVID-19 at that Christmas party, so I can confirm that even the secret gatherings of the wealthy are susceptible.
Restaurants and cafés in France have been closed since last October, when the country entered its second national lockdown. President Macron had originally hoped to reopen restaurants at the end of January, but the British variant and relaxed rules around the holidays meant that France never reached his targeted 5,000 daily cases for reopening.
We hovered around an average of 20,000 cases per day for a couple months before the situation began degrading in March — with almost double the caseload and hospitals overwhelmed. The French government rolled out a series of regional restrictions, starting with “weekend lockdowns” in hard-hit areas, including Nice in the south, and Dunkerque and Pas de Calais in the north. The regional restrictions that Paris has been under for a couple weeks now (non-essential shops closed, no interregional transit, working from home whenever possible) are now national rules since France entered a “lockdown light” last Thursday. Well, technically only started being enforced on Tuesday, as people were allowed to travel during Easter weekend. I took advantage of permitted train travel to bike to Fontainebleau on Saturday and to Chantilly on Monday.
Admittedly, I paid the equivalent of three clandestine dinner menus for my new road bike, but the return on investment is much higher and long lasting.
Now, schools are closed, and we’re supposed to stay within a 10-kilometer radius.
There’s not really a light at the end of the tunnel yet, but vaccines have finally accelerated recently, and the restrictions appear to be lowering cases, though it is too early to tell.
Until things get better, I’ll keep cycling and making quiches and soup. Oui, on dîne mieux que chez Christophe Leroy ici (Yes, we dine better than at Christophe Leroy's here). And for much less.