Haan Palcu-Chang didn't set out to plant a bomb on the Parisian palate, but that's what he ended up doing. "When we started, people were just losing their shit because we use chili on half the dishes," he laughs.
The Canadian-born chef of Le Mary Celeste, a cocktail bar and restaurant located in the Marais, ignores borders and the hewing to tradition that has historically characterized French cuisine. The dishes at Le Mary Celeste—named after a 19th-century British ship that was mysteriously abandoned, but found with 1,701 barrels of alcohol intact—can't be traced back to a single origin, and are best understood as drifters.
Beef ceviche with peanuts, jalapeños, and bean sprouts. Quinoa terrine with chimichurri and hoisin sauce. Veal tartare with pickled beets, rhubarb and dill. Lobster and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Vagabonds, all of them.
Palcu-Chang understands this as a natural progression. "It is not something that I have to think about," he tells me. "Some of the ingredients that I'm using are Asian, some aren't Asian. 'Holy shit, it's fusion food!' But that was never the goal."
"I don't feel like I'm a creative person because these things just seem to make sense to me," he says. "I'm not sitting there formalizing flavor profiles in my head."
Before landing in Paris, Palcu-Chang cooked his way from Vancouver—where he went to cooking school and got his first restaurant gig—to Toronto and Copenhagen, where he grounded himself in Michelin-starred kitchens. Born to a Chinese father and Romanian mother, Palcu-Chang attributes his international approach to food in his Toronto upbringing. "I grew up in the most multicultural city in the world," he says. "It was not abnormal for me to have cold cabbage rolls in the morning and then go out and eat dim sum with my Chinese grandparents."
Paris is indisputably a culinary capital, but instead of repeating the same chords of its greatest hits, Palcu-Chang is offering a song in a different key. He plays with French ingredients without the expectations of French flavors. How do endives taste with tamarind? Or raw beef with bean sprouts? "It's about big flavors and balancing those flavors and texture differences," he says. "So it's really about the yin and yang, which you find in Asian cooking all the time."
It took a little while for Parisians to understand that balance, though. "With our oysters, we don't do a traditional mignonette. We do a Thai nam jim, which has lots of Thai chilies," he says. "They were just losing it, but eventually, as soon as they start getting used to the spicing, they're like, 'This actually tastes really good.' And now most of our clients are still Parisians."
Still, he's had to compromise with certain unwavering elements of the French appetite. "After six months, we had to get bread," he laughs. "It's just a cultural thing." His kitchen keeps an emergency stash of the stuff—the only thing not made in-house—to offer diners who specifically ask for it. "It doesn't make sense to me to serve bread with tacos, " he says, "even though French people will ask for that."
Le Mary Celeste offers only small plates for sharing. "I just think that the entré-plat-dessert is such a possessive endeavor. It makes dining a singular activity because you have possession over your plates," says Palcu-Chang. "It just doesn't make sense to me to be eating in that way—the traditional, Western European, one-plate-per-person way."
Despite diners' initial surprise at these flights from tradition, Le Mary Celeste's model works. The proof is in its stream of regulars, and its place in Le Fooding's 2014 guide as the city's "best bar of delights."
It's also apparent in Le Mary Celeste's deviled eggs, the one dish that remains a constant on the daily or weekly menu. Not to be confused with the rubbery pucks drowned in mayonnaise that you've been forced to eat at Christmas parties, Palcu-Changs' deviled eggs are crispy (thanks to fried black rice), creamy (because of lots of fresh ginger), and slightly hot.
If it's the small details that make the food exciting and memorable, it's the bigger picture that makes it important. Palcu-Chang has done his time in kitchens where yelling is fair game. But, along with the rest of his staff, he wants to practice a healthier and kinder philosophy, and to be better at keeping staff in the kitchen. He believes that this is what differentiates him the most, not the food that he's cooking.
"The food isn't the bottom line," he says. "Of course, that is very important—but I want to make sure that my staff are happy and that I feel good about what I'm doing."
Still, he's happy when the food's spicy.
"I believe that at the end of the day tasty food is going to be tasty food," he says. "It doesn't really matter where you come from. People are going to eventually come around."