“In the years in Paris, I had never been homesick for anything American,” James Baldwin wrote in his 1972 book of essays, No Name in the Street. “But,” he added just a page or two later, “I had missed my brothers and my sisters … I missed Harlem Sunday mornings and fried chicken and biscuits.”
I’m thinking about these lines as I bite into a piece of fried chicken — the thinly breaded skin crispy, the inside juicy enough that I need to wipe my lips — while sitting in front of Gumbo Yaya. The tiny restaurant’s red facade bursts through the otherwise grayish nook it occupies at the northeastern edge of Paris’s 10th Arrondissement, just streets away from the French Communist Party’s curving, concrete, Oscar Niemeyer-designed headquarters.
Located in one of the city’s last remaining (relatively) affordable neighborhoods, Gumbo Yaya proudly advertises itself as “Soul Food” and a “Southern Kitchen” on its facade, which looks out onto a miniature cobbled plaza. The restaurant’s small interior is closed off because of COVID-19, and though some diners are eating at the few well-spaced picnic tables that have been placed outside, there’s also a continuous line of people ordering takeaway.
At one of the tables next to me, Zoé, a 23-year-old medical student from Grenoble, gingerly picks up a fry and dips it into a small container of unknown sauce. It’s her first experience with soul food, and she seems unsure of how to react to the waffle-as-bun concept of her fried chicken sandwich. She eats the fry and then lets out a small exclamation of surprise. “It’s sirop d’érable!” she says, correctly identifying the sauce as maple syrup. Her friend Najat, who has ordered the same thing, takes a bite, looks at me, and says, “It’s perfect.”
Though chicken and waffles may be an unfamiliar combination for many European diners, soul food has had a home in Paris for as long as jazz has. The postwar Paris that Baldwin knew had a handful of soul food restaurants, places like Chez Inez, which Baldwin visited, and Gabby and Haynes. The latter belonged to Leroy Haynes, a Black American GI who stayed in Paris after the end of World War II and opened the restaurant with his first wife, a French woman named Gabrielle Lecarbonnier. It was the predecessor to his more iconic Chez Haynes, which he opened in 1964; by the time Chez Haynes closed in 2009, it was the oldest American restaurant in Paris. In between, during the 1990s and 2000s, a smattering of African-American expats opened and closed a few other soul food restaurants in Paris, like Bojangles, the Rib Joint, and Percy’s Place.
These restaurants were a reflection of the city’s standing as an adopted home for African Americans during the 20th century, from former soldiers who stayed after finding less discrimination abroad to Black intellectuals who had intentionally expatriated themselves. As such, Paris was intertwined with the development of the civil rights movement in the United States. And yet today, with one of Europe’s largest Black populations, France faces its own questions over discrimination, police violence, social and economic inclusion, and what it means to be French.
Against this shifting backdrop, a new crop of soul food restaurants has opened in Paris over the past five years: Gumbo Yaya and New Soul Food-Le Maquis near the Canal Saint-Martin, and Mama Jackson farther east. But instead of being African-American projects, they’re all run by Black French chefs, and their engagement with soul food — and all its history and cultural significance — coincides with a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked global conversations, solidarity, and participation. At Gumbo Yaya, I found an homage to the culinary tradition itself; at Mama Jackson, an admiration for and adoption of American Blackness in its ensemble; and at New Soul Food-Le Maquis, a daring jaunt into the deepest questions of identity itself, and food as a vehicle for laying claim to who one is, and who one wants to be.
“Soul food is immigrant cuisine,” says Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. By that he means that soul food is the product of the Great Migration, the movement of millions of African Americans out of the rural South to Northeastern and Midwestern industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York during the first half of the 20th century. Like any immigrant group, they brought their food with them — cornmeal mush, greens, stewed black-eyed peas, and cheap cuts of meat, like pig and chicken feet.
Though these rural arrivals were initially disdained by northern Blacks — the Defender, Chicago’s Black newspaper, decried the “pig-ankle joints” opened by newly arrived rural southern Blacks as “unsightly, unsanitary eating places” — by the 1930s, rising incomes had propelled many of these former Southerners, along with their food, into the Black middle class. During the 1960s and the civil rights era, the word “soul,” seized by Black intellectuals as an avenue to promote Black cultural identity, became attached to music, style, and food, and eventually became synonymous with a certain countercultural sense of “cool.”
With its particular historical weight (and, of course, the indelible connection between what we eat and who we are), soul food also became a political football within Black politics. Elijah Muhammad, a mentor to Malcolm X and the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, insisted that heavy, fatty soul food was an artifact of the destructive culture imposed by whites during slavery, and that whites sought to promote it in order to weaken Blacks. Dick Gregory, a comedian and activist, advocated for vegetarianism instead, calling soul food “the worst food you can eat. Nothing but garbage.”
What we think of as soul food today was celebratory food — the stuff that poor sharecroppers, the direct descendants of slaves, would have eaten on Sundays and special occasions. But beyond that, soul food doesn’t adhere to a universal definition.
For his part, Miller defines traditional “soul food” as a set of dishes born in the American South — black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, greens, and fried chicken, for example, chased with some kind of red drink. “In African-American culture, red is both a color and a flavor,” Miller says with a laugh.
But for Frederick Douglass Opie, professor of history and foodways at Babson College, the boundaries around soul food are blurrier. While he notes that certain ingredients, like yams, and even styles of preparation are traceable to the African origins of the slaves who were forcibly brought to the Western Hemisphere, he also points to the historic intersection of Harlem and Spanish Harlem, where various populations of people from the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean, west and central Africa, and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic mixed fluidly with Harlem’s Black residents. “When all those people came together, they influenced the food,” Opie tells me, identifying specifically the introduction and use of red beans and rice, and of plantains.
Minus the red drink, Lionel Chauvel-Maga has more or less based Gumbo Yaya on what Miller would include in his definition of soul food. As I worked through his fried chicken, hot sauce, macaroni and cheese (made with rigatoni when I tried it, but otherwise adhering to classic yellow cheddar), coleslaw, and cornbread, Chauvel-Maga explained the inspiration for the restaurant, which he opened after turning 30 in 2015, in the neighborhood where he grew up. Although he has no American roots himself — his father is French and his mother is from Benin — he made childhood visits to aunts who lived in Macon, Georgia. The memories he brought back to France were about more than just the food; they included the conviviality that accompanied it, an atmosphere that he tries to recreate with Sunday brunch, whose menu includes black-eyed peas and greens.
Chauvel-Maga is also steeped in the history of soul food as a cultural and political actor, and I can tell that his idea of success lies in producing something familiar for the Black American tourists — or expats — who make their way to Gumbo Yaya, but also inviting for French customers trying chicken and waffles for the first time. “We try to stay traditional,” he says. “No mac and cheese with fourme d’ambert [a firmer bleu cheese from the Auvergne region] or anything like that.”
If the restaurant was inspired by Chauvel-Maga’s childhood memories, then Chez Haynes provided a more local model. Like Gumbo Yaya, Leroy Haynes’s Montmartre restaurant was rooted in traditional soul food: as a 1975 Le Monde review noted, its menu included fried chicken gizzards, corn on the cob, entrees like barbecue spare ribs and chicken and red beans, and apple and coconut cream pies for dessert. The restaurant, whose outward appearance evoked what the reviewer described as “a far-away Texas ranch,” became known far and wide over the 45 years it was open, attracting jazz musicians and actors like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton.
Chauvel-Maga wants Gumbo Yaya to become the same kind of local institution. In order to do that, he thinks that he has to stay grounded and focused on his neighborhood clientele, rather than putting too much effort into being trendy. That approach has been successful enough to allow him to now envision opening a second restaurant, this one focused more on Louisiana-style seafood.
“I wanted to bring back the savors and ambience I experienced when I visited my aunts [in Georgia] as a child,” he says. “And when we have African Americans who come here, they’re touched to see that there are French people who really value soul food. There’s pride, a heritage there to maintain.”
Mama Jackson is a few kilometers southeast of Gumbo Yaya, in a dense and non-touristy part of Paris not far from the Gare de Lyon train station. The restaurant traces its origins to 2016, when its executive chef and owner, Ludovic Florella, started serving soul food brunches alongside screenings of Black movie classics, and found demand high enough to justify opening a permanent kitchen. Like Chauvel-Maga, Florella was inspired by trips to the American South, having fallen in love with soul food while visiting his (French) girlfriend’s family in Louisiana.
One step inside the restaurant and it becomes clear that Mama Jackson embodies this dual nature of restaurant and cultural experience. Its interior is plastered with memorabilia from African-American history: There are covers of Rolling Stone and Time featuring Black celebrities; iconic Obama “Be the Change” campaign posters; framed black-and-white prints of the elders of African-American music and literature, like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou; and a large-screen TV continually flipping through scenes from music videos and movies. The back wall is a giant chalkboard, with a quote from the Notorious B.I.G. (“If you don’t know, now you know”).
When I walk in, my phone tells me that the song playing is Michelle Lawson’s “Looking for Love (Soul Syndicate Remix).” The love has been felt, the restaurant’s co-founder, Naick M’bae, tells me — both Nicki Minaj and Drake have ordered delivery when performing in Paris.
As at Gumbo Yaya, Mama Jackson’s menu is centered around fried chicken (its version is more thickly breaded) and waffles (slightly sweet and airy), but it branches out to more French and Caribbean influences. The macaroni and cheese uses cheddar and a béchamel base, and though the menu has been reduced due to COVID-19, there is usually a “Vegan & Love” plate with roasted peppers and sweet potato croquettes in a green coconut curry, and Jamaican jerk chicken. Starters and sides include red beans and rice, sweet potato puree, and flash-fried plantains with a slightly garlicky, slightly vinegary spicy mayo.
M’bae, who was childhood friends with Florella, insists that I try the “Mama’s Club Waffle,” a monster sandwich that throws together fried chicken, melted cheddar, red onion, French cornichons, and sweet and tangy sauce. Nowhere, though, is their “French touch,” as they call it, more evident than in the dessert, a caramel pain perdu made with a brioche so buttery that it nearly disintegrates on my spoon.
Although M’bae shies away from the idea that there’s anything explicitly political in what he and Florella are doing, he is enthusiastic about the cultural aspect of their project. “You can travel just by going to a restaurant that’s completely different,” he says, explaining that their goal is to offer an entry point to experiencing soul food and Black culture for people who might not have been to Harlem, or New Orleans, but who, like them, grew up bombarded with Black American references.
And so, the place is a paean to their childhood nostalgia. “We aren’t African American, but since we were young we have been influenced by this music, this aesthetic, this lifestyle,” says Brice Naranassamy, who joined the Mama Jackson crew after spending two years living in New York, where he worked as a server at Mojo, a now-closed Harlem soul food restaurant. Despite being “enamored” as a kid with the facets of Black American culture now on display inside his restaurant, it wasn’t until he moved to New York in his early 20s that he had any experience with soul food.
Naranassamy’s own lack of exposure points to soul food’s broader challenge in finding an audience outside of the U.S. “Every other aspect of Black American culture has gone global, but our food has not,” Miller says, in part because “Black cultural tastemakers don’t talk about it that much.” For Miller, the idea of chefs abroad dipping into the traditions of soul food represents an interesting addition to the “clap back” trend of African American chefs “exploring diasporic cooking.”
Naranassamy’s remark is a poignant illustration of something else, too. American politics are unnervingly global; George Floyd’s name has been graffitied everywhere from Lisbon to Lyon. But the irony of “America First” — at least when viewed from abroad — is that even as confidence in the United States has plummeted, there’s a sense that a significant amount of the soft power that it still disposes is tied up with its Blackness. Hip-hop in particular is a language that holds sway on a global scale, similar to the way that jazz enthralled Paris in the 1920s.
This is evident at Mama Jackson. “We’re affirming our culture,” says Naranassamy. “Not where we’re from, but what we grew up on.”
Just streets away from Gumbo Yaya, New Soul Food-Le Maquis looks directly out at the Canal Saint Martin and a fire station that shares half of its red-brick warehouse with a hipster nightclub. “I originally wanted to call it ‘Nu Soul Food’ like the music, because that’s the music of my generation,” Rudy Lainé says. But the French word “nu,” which means “naked,” is pronounced differently from the English word “new,” and so the multilevel wordplay got muddled for francophones.
Lainé, who is in his 30s, grew up outside of Paris. Though he and his brother Joël had been cooking out of a food truck (L’Afro Truck) since 2016, he opened this fixed location (Le Maquis) last year. At both the truck and restaurant, he has taken a vastly different approach to what he hopes can become, in his words, a “new soul food,” a cuisine that can accompany an “Afropean” identity by bridging the gap between the traditions of his mother, from Cameroon, and his father, from Guadeloupe (a French department, in the same way that Hawai‘i is a full state), with the styles that he learned as a pastry chef in upscale Parisian restaurants like Georges V and Fauchon.
I am immediately intrigued by Lainé’s use of “Afropean,” a term that has been deployed by various writers, artists, and academics, but most notably popularized by the British journalist Johny Pitts, who contrasts it with African Americanness in his 2019 memoir, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. In the book, he catalogues his five months of travel through various European cities, attempting to identify a common thread in what it means to be Black in Europe.
As the son of a pacifist white Presbyterian minister and a pacifist Black Legal Aid attorney, “What does it mean to be Black?” is a question I have asked myself. In the United States, I am immediately read as such; in Chad, where I lived for 10 months while working for an NGO, I was inescapably foreign and white. France, on the other hand, has never demanded that I check a box, only that I say “bonjour” before ordering a coffee or asking for directions. Would my experience be different if my accent and passport were West African, rather than North American? Most likely. But within that disparity is also a revelation: Skin color and race have not been the same indelible, structuring force to life in France as they have in the United States.
While “being Black here does mean something,” because of the variedness of “African or Black personas and Black cultures,” it’s not necessarily analogous to being Black in the United States, with its specific shared history and cultural identity, says Monique Wells. An African-American woman, Wells moved to Paris in 1992 (she’s nostalgic for Chez Haynes), and runs a tour company, Entrée to Black Paris, focused on the city’s role in African diasporic history, American and otherwise.
Indeed, France’s relationship with multiple identities has been varied. The nation’s philosophical approach to citizenship and belonging is grounded in universalism; in its ideal, the state (and society at large) is supposed to relate to its citizens without distinction, offering them all equal rights and inclusion as individuals rather than as members of different communities. As an ideal, it has been imperfectly achieved, and recurrently challenged. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the son of a French noble and a freed slave, became a high-ranking general during the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt; his son, the celebrated writer, was strikingly portrayed by beaux-arts painters yet viciously caricatured in the popular press; the Dreyfus affair cleaved the nation in two by pitting universalism against anti-Semitism; a few decades later, during the 1930s, Léon Blum, a Jew, served twice as prime minister of the Third Republic. More recently, universalism has become a dividing line of its own that cleaves through traditional conceptions of political “left” and “right.”
But despite its imperfections and contradictions, this particular concept of individualism and equality meant that metropolitan France historically offered Black Americans an openness that was denied to them in the United States, even while maintaining a colonial empire at its periphery. Paris was where W.E.B. Du Bois and Blaise Diagne — a Black, French-Senegalese member of France’s parliament — hosted the first ever Pan-African Congress in 1919 over the objections of the U.S. government. It was where Josephine Baker could step onstage and sing. Where a Black American expat like Richard Wright could debate with Sartre and Camus, become a French citizen, and say that his adopted country and city were “a land of refuge” from racial tensions and conflict. And where Leroy Haynes, the soldier and restaurateur, could marry whom he pleased.
This history is perhaps one reason why Paris, alone among continental European cities, has persistently harbored soul food restaurants. It is resonant on Lainé’s menu, which features a variety of “Afro-” plates, each attempting to reflect a cuisine that has fairly direct connections to West African traditions, but was forced to adapt when, as Lainé says, “our parents got here … and couldn’t find half the ingredients.” There is the Afrocaribéenne (chicken braised in Antillean coconut curry, and herbed sweet potatoes with a touch of vanilla), the Afrosubsaharienne (chicken grilled with Penja pepper, and served with basmati rice, plantains, and a spiced peanut sauce), and the Afrovégane (corn and okra alongside attiéké and plantains).
But after everything Lainé has told me about wanting to create an Afropean soul food, I have to play along, and so I order the Afropéenne: chicken, but braised instead of fried, and smothered in a “yassa” sauce that’s been “Frenchified” by adding copious amounts of grain mustard to the traditional lime and onions, and served with Lainé’s Afropean attiéké, a couscous-like grain made from manioc that’s been mixed with confit tomatoes and herbs de Provence. I also go for the Afropéenne drink, a combination of hibiscus, raspberry, and rose, that reminds me of a lighter, less sweet version of the deep red jus d’oséille (bissap, or hibiscus) that I drank frequently in southern Chad.
Everything about this “new soul food” is far more subtle than the bigger, fattier portions at Gumbo Yaya and Mama Jackson, which, even though I didn’t finish them, left me satiated to the point of sleepiness. “Today in France, if we’re going to produce a cuisine that’s going to last we have all these new food codes to align with — organic, natural stuff, cooked to order,” says Lainé, who doesn’t let his friendly relationship with the crews at Gumbo Yaya and Mama Jackson stop him from clearly setting himself apart. “It can’t be about chicken and waffles.”
When I asked Chauvel-Maga if he felt any sense of connection between soul food’s politicization in the past and Lainé’s search for Afropeanness today, he cautiously demurred. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “But we’re making soul food à la française, so that necessarily represents a kind of universalism, and besides, soul food is at the intersection of many different cultures, like cornbread coming from the Native American tradition.”
Lainé’s forcefully Antillean and West African menu is well outside the bounds that Miller would place on soul food, but Lainé is also not attempting to sell his cuisine as such. Though he draws inspiration from the soul food tradition, he’s seeking more to play with its codes — the primacy given to chicken, the “red” drink — while applying the cultural and political role it’s played in African-American history to his own gastro-semiotic project: using food not just as a reflection of identity and memory, but as a vehicle for constructing both in the future.
If there’s one way in which Rudy Lainé is connected with the African-American tradition of soul food, though, it’s precisely through his engagement in this cultural-political, and not just culinary, project. The “homage to a specific community of people,” present in the American soul food tradition, the “movement that’s anchored in the cuisine,” he tells me, is something that speaks to him. “I’m proud to be French and European,” he says, “but calling myself ‘Afropean’ makes more sense than saying I’m either just African or French. To the French, we’re noirs, and when I go to Africa, I’m français, so we’re somewhere in the middle and Afropean really captures that.”
Anthropologists of food sometimes speak of a “grammatical meal”: for example, the expected syntax of a plate for most North Americans is a protein, a grain, and a vegetable. But perhaps there’s another sense in which meals are grammatical, in which food as language is a whisper in our ear, a caress of our emotions. In that syntax, perhaps soul food is partly an answer to the tragic refrain of the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It’s the comfort food of a cultural tradition that is cohesive because the diversity of traditions that preceded it was erased. “African American” is not, and never can be, a hyphenated identity.
As a result, “Americans in general see Black,” Wells says. “I have had many people tell me that they had to move to the United States to learn that they were ‘Black.’ So that already tells you something.” Europe’s many various Black identities, on the other hand, are for the most part traceable ones — often fairly directly, as they are for the chefs of these new soul food restaurants, to places like the Antilles, Benin, and Cameroon. The thread doesn’t disappear, as it does for my own family, somewhere in the Emancipation-era records of a Missouri county archive. Does that make soul food not fully replicable outside of the Black American experience?
After a summer in which the Black Lives Matter movement has forced the U.S. to grapple, in messy and uncomfortable ways, with the legacies and current embodiments of the racism knotted into its origins, Paris’s soul food restaurants offer a reflection on the U.S.: that in its struggle to achieve its own ideals, it still has the ability to captivate, inspiring solidarity as well as dismay. But the thing that is difficult to replicate — which might perhaps instead be found in the hole-in-the-wall, solidly West African restaurants near the Gare de l’Est — is the idea of “community.” Eating amid a group of people who might not all be close acquaintances, but who share recurring, nontransactional relationships, and thus, memories.
The soul food served in Paris today is not immigrant cuisine. It’s closer to tourist cuisine — discovered on trips to the United States and often served to American travelers, or Americans living here — but served with a certain amount of nostalgia and admiration, rather than appropriation. While the term “soul food” can sometimes be nothing more than marketing (there are a smattering of places that use the reference but actually just serve burgers), at these three restaurants, there is a clearer desire to produce food that means something.
It’s much easier to make note of the attempt than to delineate a conclusion. As a partially politically unified continent, it’s taken decades for Europe to foment a growing, if slippery, sense of its own European identity. “If you took me up blindfolded in a balloon and put me down in any European city, I would know it was Europe,” a German poet remarked nearly 20 years ago. This is kind of how I feel eating Rudy Lainé’s Afropéenne plate. There might not be enough reference points — yet? — for it to scream Afropean! (or if there are, I lack them), but there is something obviously more European, and more African, about it than the plates at Gumbo Yaya or Mama Jackson.
“Soul food à la francaise has a future,” Lainé says. “If soul food came to Paris, it was to eventually be françisée and get sent back. We can create something that can be exported. I want to finish by ending up in New York.” If he does, maybe he’d find himself, like Baldwin, at home in his new city, but every now and then missing Paris Sunday mornings, and his brothers and sisters, and the things they’d be eating together.
Alexander Hurst is a writer and freelance journalist based in Paris. His work has appeared in The Guardian Long Read, The New Republic, The American Prospect, Hazlitt, and other publications.
Eileen W. Cho is a Korean American photographer and journalist who resides primarily in Paris.
Fact-checked by Sarah Stodder