Art & Design
Posted by Dan Kuseta
14. Jul, 2011
The best cafes are those you frequent for the atmosphere and people, not just the coffee. Fitzroy’s La Niche Café is one such place. One of the first cafes reviewed on the Milk Bar, it remains one of our favourites – bringing French food, music and a sense of community to the city end of Smith Street.
We thought it fitting on Bastille Day to revisit and enjoy a drink, some cheese and a chat with Antoine Sergent, La Niche’s affable owner, about what inspired him to move from Brittany to start a café on the other side of the world.
You’ve were born and raised in Brittany, northern France. Tell us about your time there.
I am a musician, a guitarist and a singer. In-between I worked for a jazz promoter, and because I was the only one who spoke English I got to work with the international acts. These big stars like Herbie Hancock would arrive in Brittany and realise they’re in this small town and no-one knows who they are. So we’d give them oysters and some good wine to relax them a little bit, and backstage there was always a bottle of mead. I didn’t know jazz really, didn’t know how big these guys were so I wasn’t shy, and I think that was a good thing.
I used to sing in a rock band in English, but in the 90’s in France it was hard to get by not singing in French. Still, we crossed the channel, toured England a few times. I moved to London, but it was impossible because so most people were only interested in electronic music during that time.
But it worked out because one night I was in Piccadilly Circus at a pub, but couldn’t pay with my French credit card. An Australian lady tapped my shoulder and said “I’ll buy you a beer if you want” and she became my wife. That was Amanda.
What happened next?
Amanda was only visiting, and went back to teach in Japan. I moved to Paris, where my cousin worked at Le Jeu de Paume (the national contemporary art gallery) and said he could get me a job hanging pictures. When I had my interview the boss of the gallery looked at my resume and said ‘I see you’ve been a barman, would you accept a challenge?’ I said ‘OK’. She told me the lady who ran the restaurant in the gallery had just left without any notice, and they had big opening in a week. Could I come up with a menu for that?
I had a day to make up a menu and cocktail list. I guess they didn’t have much choice so they hired me, and I stayed there two years. I am not professionally trained, but I always used to cook with my grandmother and mum, so I always had an idea about what food should taste like and smell like, which is important when you start. So I read a lot, I tested a lot, tried a lot of different produce and improved.
Amanda came to Paris, and worked with me in the bar. She learned French there, and in 2002 we decided to move to Melbourne. So I moved from working on the Champs Elyssees to living by the Bi-lo at Diamond Creek (laughing). This took a little while to adjust to.
How did you find living in Australia?
The culture is different one, obviously. In France in school you learn about French literature, French culture, French history which is huge. In a typical dinner party you’ll definitely talk about philosophy or literature, and that doesn’t happen as much here.
On the other hand, in Australia if you want to do something or if you’ve got an idea you’re going to push yourself to do it, knowing there’s a chance you can do it. I find Australians are more optimistic, especially in Melbourne, because it’s a young city that is still developing, so there’s room for young business and new ideas. So when you do it, boom it’s new!
What did you do for work?
I found a job as a wine rep for French wine, but it was horrible. I remember walking into houses and seeing cask wine on the table I knew they weren’t going to buy my $25 bottle of wine. I’m not much of a salesman. I enjoyed talking to people for an hour, but at the end I remember whoops, there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing here! It didn’t go very well. But it was good getting to meet people and know the geography of Melbourne.
The strange thing was how people would say ‘You’re French, you’re lucky to have so much culture’ but I always found the sense of culture strong here, in the way people welcome you, in the way people chat with you much more easily than in France. In France you say vous but here people say mate, which took me a little while to understand. But actually I loved it, people were always happy. They’d bring you coffee, have a chat, it was good.
When did you start thinking about La Niche?
I was working at a French restaurant called The Basment Café, and pretty soon Amanda and I started talking about opening our own little place. When we saw an ad for a bric-a-brac shop going cheap in Smith Street we decided to go for it. That was six years ago.
There was a four-burner stove and that was it, we started baking a quiche every day and serving baguettes. After a week I realised nobody wanted the baguettes, so I toasted them and suddenly they became a hit. Then we got our liquour license and started to have musicians. I remember the first band we had here, it was a jazz band and they played for me and Amanda and no-one else. But slowly it became more popular.
When our five year lease was up the landlord would only give us an extension for two years. Luckily a customer of ours (writer and comedian) John Clarke heard this an offered us his building two doors down. So we converted what was an office block into where we are now. We had to rip everything out, we made the chairs and the tables, because I wanted everything to be wood, and warm. And here we are today.
What do you want La Niche to be?
I spend so much time here I try to make this place like my living room, you know? It’s a lifestyle more than anything. If you expect to have money as the end of the day, forget it. Any money I make I put back into the cafe, in musicians, good produce, wine, things that people can enjoy.
More than just food and drink, I want music and art at La Niche. So every month we have a new exhibition by a local artist and every week we have live music. All this contributes to the life of the place. I’m never bored, I never think, ‘oh shit I have to go to work’ because there’s always something new.
In Brittany, a cafe isn’t only the place where you get the best latte or this and that, the consistency is being there every day, knowing everybody. You come, you sit, you order the special of the day, you know there’s always cheese and wine and that’s what I’m doing here. It’s exactly the way I would have opened it in Brittany.
La Niche Cafe has live music Thursday and Friday nights from 7.30pm.
The cafe will be hosting a special Bastille Day celebration with accordion players and plenty of French wine and cheese tonight from 7pm.
67 Smith St, Fitzroy
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