It's not easy to get Tatiana Levha out of France—or even just the kitchen of Le Servan, the modern French restaurant she runs with sister Katia in Paris' 11th arrondissement. The recently Michelin-starred Lyle's in East London have been trying to get her to cook a guest dinner with them for months but it wasn't until now, on a tentatively sunny day in April, that they managed to lure her across the Channel.
Dinner had to be on a Sunday night though, so that Tatiana wouldn't miss too much of the restaurant's weekend service back in Paris.
"I was here last month for Bertrand [Grébaut]'s dinner but just for the prep," she tells me from a corner table as one of the Lyle's team folds napkins for tonight's dinner. "I didn't get to eat, I had to go back to the restaurant."
This time, of course, Tatiana is here for more than just the prep. She and Lyle's head chef James Lowe have collaborated on a menu that fuses Le Servan's trademark Filipino-French flavours with seasonal British ingredients.
"We're doing lots of small things: sharing plates, cockles with a sweet chili sauce, pig's ear terrine, and a few other snacks," she explains. "Then octopus with curry—lots of spices. It's fun, we worked the menu around."
Speaking of octopus, Lowe pops out of the kitchen to ask Tatiana which of the two plates he is holding should be used to serve the curry. She chooses the stony coloured one on the left. "It's beautiful."
Tatiana was born in Manila and she and Katia, who runs front-of-house at Le Servan, grew up in France—via stints in Southeast Asia with their father's job as a headhunter and trips back to their mother's native Philippines. This cross-continental upbringing is evident in Le Servan's Asian takes on traditional French dishes: snails with chili, terrine with black soy beans, and boudin noir wontons.
"It's pretty natural, it's what we like to eat," explains Katia, who joins us at the table now, receiving a quick briefing from Tatiana on changes to the night's menu ("We took out the asparagus dish, it was too much.")
"We lived in Asia for a long time so more than Filipino cuisine, which is very simple, where we lived in Asia influenced a lot of how we liked to eat," adds Tatiana. "From that, the way we cook is influenced by how we like to eat. The cockles we do at the restaurant are something that was very influenced by the shellfish we ate in Bangkok when we were younger."
Despite the sisters' interest in food, when growing up, the Levhas rarely ate en famille.
"Our mum didn't used to cook a lot so we cooked what we like, each of us," remembers Katia. "We made our own separate dinners sometimes!"
Their mum did, however let the teenaged Tatiana host dinners for her high school friends, perhaps sowing the seeds of the restaurant owner she was set to become.
"She used to let us cook for friends and have lots of people over, so that was nice," says Tatiana. "We always liked to eat and since I was quite young, we've always cooked with friends. Simple things like curries, pasta … Do you remember my terrine?"
"No," answers Katia.
"I used to make it all the time, I was so proud! It was like artichokes and grilled vegetables and cheese. It was nice!"
"That sounds pretty amazing," I say.
"I wouldn't say amazing," Tatiana replies. "But it was nice."
Sadly, Katia still doesn't remember the nice-but-not-amazing terrine.
What she and Tatiana haven't forgotten though is their family's love of eating.
"I loved to eat and that's mainly why I decided to cook," says Tatiana. "Not many people come to cooking through eating but for us, it was very much that way around."
This shared passion for eating eventually compelled Katia to drop out of a law degree to go to hotel school in Switzerland and Tatiana to swap studying English at the Sorbonne for a career in food, interning at Michelin-starred Paris restaurant L'Astrance before being mentored by meat master Alain Passard.
"I just realised that I was a bit bored in my studies and I liked the idea of doing something that was a bit more challenging in a more physical way," she says. "More practical—I had a hard time sitting at a desk all day and staying focused, I get really sleepy and bored."
With Katia honing her hospitality skills and Tatiana impressing Paris' culinary elite, the sisters say opening a restaurant together was a given. As a grown adult who still fights with her equally grown sister over who borrowed whose denim jacket without asking, I'm impressed at their willingness to engage in a professional partnership with a sibling. Weren't they put off by the warnings against going into business with family members?
"We wouldn't have worked with certain family members though," counters Tatiana.
"I guess it was easy, it always felt very easy," adds Katia. "We just try to make people feel comfortable and make sure that they're happy when they come to eat."
They seem to be doing a good job. Since opening two years ago, Le Servan has established itself as a favourite of Paris' burgeoning 11th arrondissement dining scene.
"The east of Paris concentrates a lot on nice, young restaurants and bars and places to go but it's still very scattered and small," explains Katia. "But it's still the main food scene. The young food scene in Paris is in the east, mostly because the rents are still affordable."
But it's Tatiana's version of traditional French dishes, not the trendy neighbourhood that keep diners coming back.
"We work a lot with offal and liver—French people like that a lot," says Katia.
"And sweetbreads," adds Tatiana. "It's actually something people come to the restaurant for. We enjoy cooking them very much and serving them. It's a bit original and yet very traditional in France, but it's been forgotten for a long time. There aren't many places where you can eat like that."
With its focus on quality food without the stuffy formalities or prohibitive pricing of traditional French dining, Le Servan also aligns itself with the a new breed of Parisien "neo-bistros" that includes Grébaut's Septime and Inaki Aizpitarte's World's 50 Best Restaurants-listed Le Chateaubriand.
"We've been open two years and already it's getting more comfortable," says Tatiana. "We work 500 metres away from where we live—everything is so small and easy to manage."
"We haven't had difficult times yet," adds Katia. "And we have each other so we've always felt very lucky."
It's no wonder they never want to leave.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.