"'So you moved to France to learn how to cook?'" Australian chef and Paris resident James Henry chuckles, repeating a question he was often asked following his move to the French capital. "As if I couldn't have possibly learnt how to cook in Australia, or known what good food is!"
Henry has, for the time being, silenced any doubt with the opening of his restaurant and wine bar, Bones, down a quiet side-street in the city's 11th arrondissement. Garnering accolades in the birthplace of haute gastronomy, the home-grown cuisinier is part of a new wave of young chefs taking Paris by storm with their inventive cuisine.
The lights are low and the music is booming at Bones, which is fronted by a bar serving natural wines and small plates such as sea bass carpaccio, squid escabeche and sandwiches stuffed with cochon de lait (suckling pig), coleslaw and home-made mayonnaise. Beside the barman, a chef shucks oysters and slices raw fish to order, working silently but swiftly to feed the crowd. With exposed stone walls, a spiral metal staircase and bare concrete banquette, the decor is devoid of any hint of the bar-restaurant's past life as a shabby pub. "We were saying, 'It's pretty hideous' … I wasn't sure how it would turn out," Henry says. "[But] the more we tore away, the more we inherited a good structure and good bones."
An elevated dining area accommodates 26, where a constantly changing menu is on offer. "We don't change the menu for the sake of changing … It's an evolution of the seasons, of our cooking, of many things," Henry explains. The 30-year-old chef is particularly proud of his artisanal bread, butter, fresh cheese and charcuterie; a way to stand out in a city, he says, where "all the top restaurants tend to work with the same baker and butcher".
The evening's no-choice carte begins with a sea urchin, beetroot and horseradish entree followed by hake, cabbage and turnip-rooted parsley. For the main event, there's pigeon with salsify and mustard, the lot rounded off with an optional cheese course and, finally, dessert.
And what about Aussie influences? "I have Coopers beer!" he says with a wide smile. "I feel like everything for me has an Australian twist because that's where I learnt to cook … it's where my training and passion for food came from so it's only natural. "But I won't go as far as putting on a kangaroo pie!"
Henry's rise in Parisian gastronomy circles could be described as meteoric. One of many up-and-coming chefs "looking to boost traditional French cuisine", according to Peggy Frey from Madame Figaro (the magazine supplement to French daily Le Figaro), Henry "takes risks with unlikely products and the results are good".
But before he charmed Paris's food critics, it was home in Australia, where Henry "slowly moved from washing dishes to the kitchen", that he honed his craft under the tutelage of Melbourne's culinary master Andrew McConnell. Henry reflects on this period as a solid learning experience and a "pivotal moment" in his fledgling career. "His combination of humble ambition and raw talent really sets him apart," McConnell says of his former pupil.
So how did the boy from Oz, who lived in Paris, Riyadh and San Francisco, end up back in France? "I had a French girlfriend," he says. "I wanted to move to the south-west of France for the surf; she wanted to live in Paris."
Henry's first French culinary steps landed him a gig at Spring, followed by a successful stint at neo-bistro Au Passage. There he embraced the small-plates dining trend with an often daring take on French staples, winning praise for his simple compositions centred on few products, and cementing his place on foodie it-lists in the process.
"He was only supposed to help out for a week or two, to get the kitchen up and running," Florent Ciccoli, managing partner at Au Passage, says. "But he enjoyed what he was doing - we enjoyed what he was doing - so he stayed on.
"James is a perfectionist and his dishes reflect that," Ciccoli says. "No detail is overlooked - even if he's making grilled almonds they're great … Each element is treated separately and despite his young age he has a great sense of accuracy. His cooking is always spot-on."
After Au Passage, the pressure was on once people got wind of Bones . "It's good to know that people are really excited," Henry says, "but it also means I have to hit the ground running. I think when you're doing this you're never really content with what you're doing - you're always pushing to make things better."
As for what he loves about his adopted home, he says eating well is more affordable in the City of Light. "There's good food at a more accessible price range. In Sydney and Melbourne, and even in Brisbane, it's going the other way - everyone's trying to get a bit too stuffy and it costs you an arm and a leg to eat out," he says.
There are no kangaroo pies in sight; nevertheless Henry has brought an Australian influence to the local culinary landscape. And the rave reviews are pouring in. "I couldn't have planned this, it just fell into place. I feel very lucky," he says.
James Henry will be in Sydney in October for the Omnivore World Tour, as part of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Month. See goodfoodmonth.com