For Olive Davoux, cooking is a form of expression, and her calling. She is especially passionate about seafood, which is also the main character at her restaurant Sur Mer in Paris. Here, cooking and sourcing go hand in hand; with a menu driven by what’s available in the moment. We caught up with Olive to discuss the restaurant lifestyle, being an outsider in the French industry and making her own way by surrounding herself with people who empower her.
Jonathan Soriano: We are here with Olive Davoux. Please start from the beginning.
Olive Davoux: I’m born in Uganda. I’m Ugandan & Belgian, I’m a chef and I have a restaurant called Sur Mer.
J: Where did you grow up?
O: I grew up in Africa. Born in Uganda, lived in South Africa & Cameroun. I studied in Cardiff, Wales where I have a Bachelor’s degree in business, management & finance. After that I moved to Zimbabwe where I worked for an NGO. After a year of this, I caught the cooking bug and decided to do something about it and moved to Paris.
J: How old were you when you made that move?
J: So, you arrived in Paris and what happened next?
O: I went to FERRANDI, the Parisian cooking school, and I did a pretty intense program as I really didn’t want to do the school thing all over again. Did the grind and went through the kitchens to learn.
J: Which kitchens do you feel gave you your current path?
O: There are really only two places that were highlights for me. I did the opening of Mary Celeste 10 years ago, I really had an eclectic team consisting of 2 Danes, 1 Italian, 1 Colombian and the chef was Canadian Chinese/Romanian. It was really an introduction to cooking what you like, and it was the moment we realised that cooking for us was a form of expression. L’Ecailler du Bistrot on Rue Paul Bert was my first Chef de partie position and where I really got into all things seafood. It is really an institution for seafood and natural wine.
J: From there to Sur Mer, how long did this take?
O: It was rather quick. One thing led to another. Sur Mer was Verre Volé Sur Mer at the time, and it was my first head chef job. After two years, I kind of made it my own and had my clientele and I was ready to do my own thing. That was the plan and Verre Volé offered to sell me the restaurant, which I bought 5 years ago.
J: How old were you then?
J: Wow impressive, so young!
O: Yes, but Paris gives you room to evolve without the hierarchy of things. If you are hard-working and ambitious and follow the opportunities that you are given, or the ones you manifest yourself, it will take you somewhere.
J: And being a woman in this industry, how has that been?
O: Honestly, it has been good. I have to say I have always just surrounded myself with people who empowered me.
J: Now, 5 years in, you are kind of a veteran?
O: Yes, you could say that. It’s a good place to be, things are working well. I’ve reached that stability and I have a loyal following and client list.
J: Do you change the menu often?
O: Yeah, daily.
J: And produce? How do you work with that?
O: I’m really into sourcing. Sustainable fishing, foragers and a gardener/farmer. For example, I have a fisherman who just has his one boat where he mostly fishes by line, and in small quantities, respecting the seasons. I get a list and I adapt my menu to what he catches. I have few suppliers like this. I feel this is the amazing thing with France that you have this direct sourcing and traceability.
J: I guess it keeps you sharp in the kitchen as well? You need to be flexible?
O: If you work with good produce, it is really hard to go wrong. I guess it is the same with wine; everything goes together.
J: Speaking of wine, you work with natural wine?
J: Do you only work with French winemakers?
O: Almost. We have a few Italian wines. I’m just in general very happy to work with the many talented winemakers and their delicious wines.
J: Are you content where you are now, or do you have any aspirations for the future?
O: I have and I’m waiting for that window of opportunity to open. I’m kind of onto something now that I cannot disclose yet. I am hoping that it will happen, but if it doesn’t, something else will happen.
J: Looking forward to seeing how that turns out.
O: Yeah, and in the meantime, I have made time to start travelling more and doing more events. You know, move a bit around, it’s kind of nice.
J: That is the next thing I want to get into. You mentioned family earlier today – how do you balance work and life?
O: You always have to work on that. My partner is also in the industry, and you really need to support each other. Work around each other's schedules and stuff like that.
J: You work together?
O: No - it’s best that way!
J: How old is your son?
O: He is 4. Now that he is growing up, it is changing things. When they are babies, you have a feeling that you can go to work without them being conscious about mom not being home.
J: Talking to friends in the restaurant industry who have kids, it seems like it becomes a lifestyle, and the kids grow up in the restaurant either hanging out or doing homework.
O: It is a lifestyle. Either he is with my husband or me, and they come and eat at my restaurant. But 5 years in, I am more flexible to take time off. It is nice that I can prioritize and take nights off when needed.
J: How is your support system? Do you have family to help you out?
O: I have family everywhere but not in Paris, but I have close friends who are extended family who we can count on for support.
J: With your international background, do you ever get to go back to see family in Uganda or Belgium maybe?
O: This is one thing I’m thinking about a lot, but I had my son almost the same time I opened Sur Mer and there has just not been an opportunity. I need to make time for my family.
J: If it is Olive time, what would you do? No family, no work, just you?
O: Cooking is such a big thing for me, working with my hands, so maybe I need to find a hobby where I can use my hands too. Before I got into cooking, I used to play basketball, draw and all sorts of stuff. There is just no time for it.
J: Last question, who inspires you the most?
O: My friends. I have two amazing friends who inspire me. Kristy Armstrong from Barbados, she’s a veteran cook and has been doing it for 15 years. Badass and has an amazing palette. My second is Julie Della Faille, she is really a nut for perfection. She is just one of those people who must execute things to perfection. There is no room for error.
J: I really like that you made these choices.
O: Honestly, I do interviews and this question often comes up: “Who inspired you Olive?”, But I just have a passion for cooking, I had no aspirations to work for somebody or some specific place. To me, it is a form of expression. I grew up in Africa, so I didn’t have the same references as other chefs, especially here in France.