There’s a place in Paris that’s been causing a stir for 40 years. Dinner is served every Sunday, reservations are required, it attracts an international crowd as well as locals, is standing room only, and it’s not the food people come for.
On Sunday nights this is one of the most popular places to eat in Paris. “Tonight it’s just lasagne and salad and tiramisu. You can get that at any good restaurant in Paris,” our host tells us.
But this isn’t a restaurant. It’s the home of Jim Haynes…a boy from the Bayou, Jim was born in Louisiana, raised in Venezuela, and has lived in Paris for the last 40 years, hosting weekly dinners since he arrived.
Jim explains how it all began, “They started in a totally accidental fashion. A woman arrived in Paris, a dancer from LA. She didn’t know anyone. She sat in a restaurant next to a friend of mine…she said her hobby was cooking and the rest is hysteria.”
And, Jim says not much has changed, except the size of the guest list: “I think there were 25 at the first dinner but it went up very quickly. I think it was as high as 130, but for everybody’s sake I try to keep the numbers down. We’re about 70 tonight, which is really too many for the winter but then people pop in and say, ‘my cousin just arrived from Buenos Aires’ and what can you say? You welcome them.”
Every Sunday night Jim welcomes both locals and tourists with a different guest chef each week. People book online and are asked to contribute 25 euros. In the summertime, and on a recent mild autumn night, guests spilled out into the garden. His flat isn’t large, or even grand. And the food? You don’t come for the cuisine. You come for the company.
“When you’re cooking for 75 people, fine wines and fine cuisine goes out the window. You just do the best you can and it’s mainly the people and out of it comes hundreds of marriages and love affairs and babies and that’s the point. I’m not that interested in food and wine. I’m more interested in people. I want people to have a good time.”
And they do. Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsburg, Germaine Greer and Chloe Sevigny are also among Jim’s staggering number of guests. Some call him the city’s unofficial mayor. Over the years over 130,000 people have come to his Sunday dinners.
I ask if there’s any downside. “I guess the cleaning up, but I have someone who comes in every Monday morning and by one o’clock, suddenly it’s like there was never any party at all.”
Jim Haynes’ dinners aren’t just for out-of-towners. He’s got a huge local following. Pierre has been coming for 25 years. I ask him if Jim’s dinners can be considered part of the Parisienne salon culture. “No, it’s very different. The French soirees are more cosmopolitan, but also with more protocols, and the food is better. And closed, very closed.”
Which do you prefer, I ask, Il est tres diplomatique. “Both. I like different culture,” Pierre says.
Dispensing with protocol is exactly the way Jim wants his dinners, and it could help explain why they’re so popular.
I ask Jim about the current state of the salon culture in Paris. “The salon classic culture was very aristocratic and very undemocratic and very limited to 15-20 people maximum. One of the most famous, of course, was Gertrude Stein’s. You were terribly privileged to be invited. I take whoever comes, literally the first person who calls, and so we get the world.”
On this evening, it includes Marcus from Hamburg. “We know it from the internet and it was a little bit of adventure. You can meet many people if you’re not too shy, like me, but it’s fantastic I think.”
But even the shy ones have a chance. In case it wasn’t obvious, Jim loves people, and knows how to work a room. He says, “I love the fact that people come who don’t know each other, that many people come who are totally terrified and leave very happy and ask if they can come again. I like it when people enjoy themselves and if they meet someone else who they later see as a friend or lover, that’s nice, too.”
Sometimes they wind up more than friends and lovers. Jim’s had a few success stories. “My classic story is a French woman sitting on the couch, shy, alone and didn’t know anybody and I introduced her to a guy who was also shy and alone and now they’re married, they have three kids, they’re not shy anymore and they speak three languages. So I say these dinners manufacture Europeans.”
Jim’s left a few legacies in his time. I only have time to ask him one more question. What would you like it to say on your tombstone? “He came, he saw, he entertained.”