According to some, the French have an unmistakable air of superiority on their own turf. But, when in Birmingham, native Parisians Evens Estinfort and Serge Pambo do as hospitable Southerners do. Quite amiable, the two are cousins, co-owners and executive chefs of Cafe De Paris, their restaurant in the Lakeview District. “We just love what we do,” says Estinfort. “We want to share our experience and bring a little piece of Paris here.”
Pambo met Birmingham’s celebrity chef Frank Stitt in Paris, and Stitt invited him to come to Alabama and train in the kitchen of his restaurant in Five Points South. After two and a half years under Stitt’s guidance, Pambo branched out with Estinfort about a year and a half ago, bringing authentic French cuisine to Lakeview.
Not long after they opened, they decided to institute an educational program, inviting students from local schools to come and get a taste of their food, language and culture. Many French students may never have the opportunity to travel to France themselves, and the two believe the program is an excellent way to expose them to French life. “For them, it’s a new world,” Estinfort says.
Over the course of a visit, students eat a multi-course meal, getting the chance to rehearse their salutations, ordering and conversational skills with the chefs themselves.
“It gives them an authentic situation you aren’t always able to recreate in the classroom,” says Brandon Darby, French teacher and French Club advisor at Pell City High School.
On the day of my visit, a busload of 45 students accompanied Darby for a lunch and lesson in French. Chicken-stuffed crepes and mousse au chocolat were the most-ordered items, and adventurous and timid palates alike seemed to take well to the offerings. In addition, the students were happy to be able to try out their language skills on bona fide Frenchmen.
“This is the only place I know of to practice,” says Morgan Cole, a Pell City 10th grader. “We’re already talking about coming here with our families,” Cole’s classmate Corinne Lawson says.
Fourteen local schools have participated in the program, and Estinfort and Pambo hope to see many more cross their threshold. “They’re just trying to bring a different flavor to Birmingham,” says Jennifer Banks, the chefs’ public relations representative.
Shopping daily at the Finley Avenue Farmer’s Market, the duo prepare fresh-baked bread, pastries and entrees for both lunch and dinner. On Sundays, they’re open for a brunch that often features French music. In addition, Estinfort and Pambo exhibit a palpable joie d’vivre. “People love to linger and speak with them,” Banks says.
Café de Paris is located at 2801 Seventh Ave. South. For information, call (205) 202-4024 or visit www.cafedeparis.us. The menu is available for viewing on the web site.
Cory Bordonaro writes about food for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.