Situated directly beneath the périphérique highway that surrounds Paris, in an abandoned car-park, it is immediately clear that this is not a conventional venue for a restaurant. But then again, this is not a conventional restaurant in any sense. It is one whose staff are self-appointed, which relies entirely on unsellable food, and whose existence is technically illegal, because they have no official license to use the building. All this considered, you would be forgiven for thinking that it all sounds like one big recipe for disaster… Except it isn’t! Every weekend, from Friday to Monday, three courses of high quality, healthy food are turned out, for up to 90 happy customers. Following the meal, the clients can choose to contribute however much they can or are willing to pay: quite the contrast from the exorbitant restaurant prices that Parisians have become so used to paying.
It may be argued that the idea of waste is already beginning to catch on in France, and it’s true that it recently became the first country in the world to impose a law preventing supermarkets from throwing away food just before it expires. The idea was first introduced by the former food industry minister, Guillaume Garot, and is one that is indisputably excellent (if only more countries would catch on). While the issue is beginning to be tackled on a large scale, what is still missing is an awareness of each individual’s role in preventing food waste. For a nation of people who are taught to demonstrate a somewhat enviable level of restraint when it comes to eating, the French and most Western countries seem to find no problem with throwing away half of their unfinished meal.
This is something Freegan Pony is trying to change. Aladdin, the founder and one of the brains behind the operation has, quite remarkably, no previous experience in the restaurant industry. What he does have, however, is a strong desire to spread this message of the enormous issue of waste, which is one that quite frankly is easy to brush under the carpet by most of us on an individual level. This forms the whole basis for his decision to start up the restaurant. He told us that he felt that the best way to transmit this message, would be to create a space where individuals could actually experience how food deemed as ‘unsellable’ could be used to create delectable meals, with the aim of ultimately changing the way people view ‘waste.’ In doing so, perhaps people would think twice about the food that they are so used to scraping into the trash.
Aladdin refers to himself as a Freegan and has been responsible for creating popular parties in abandoned buildings around the city since his arrival to Paris, eight years ago. For those who do not know; ‘Freeganism,’ above all, is the rejection of consumerism and waste. It’s an ideology that originally came into being in the US but is now practiced across the globe. People who live as Freegans seek to find alternative means of living. Many of them do not work for money and find food that would have otherwise been discarded. The ideas of community, sharing and caring for the environment are central to their beliefs. Unsurprisingly, they are strongly opposed to capitalism.
It is upon these principals that the Freegan Pony has been created. All of their food is sourced from what can no longer be sold at the Marché de Rungis, which is one of the largest wholesale markets in the world, spanning an enormous 232 hectares and supplying fresh food to restaurants and supermarkets throughout the Île de France. Aside from Freegan Pony, there is a large focus on ensuring that the hundreds of kilos of food that go unsold during the nightly markets are donated to charities or put to other uses.
Based on what has been obtained, the rotating team of chefs at Freegan Pony spontaneously and quite masterfully put together a vegetarian menu for the evening. At the time of our visit, the chef was Moroccan and had assembled a Moroccan-inspired soup and tagine for the evening that was bursting with flavor. The menu varies, depending on the ingredients available and the chef on duty, but it is always vegetarian, healthy and entirely freely sourced.
It is not only the food that has been donated, however. The vast and formerly abandoned, industrial space has been expertly transformed by an eclectic mix of mismatched furniture and decorations, which have all been donated by local thrift shop, Emmaüs. An incredible mix of wooden tables, floral chairs, enormous patterned rugs of varying shapes and sizes, which combined with the tea-lights and lamps that are dotted about the place, fill up the space, giving it a down to earth, relaxed feel, bursting with homely character. This couldn’t contrast more with Paris’ otherwise formal dining scene. The choice in furnishings highlights even further the anti-consumerist message of Freeganism and the Freegan Pony. Today, almost all of us are culprits of succumbing to the complete fixation with always having the ‘latest’ everything, and finding fault with what we own in order to justify a new buy. Here, we see how furniture that was deemed unwanted, can be put to good use elsewhere.
A certain nervousness seems to emanate from everyone who comes into the big, echoing building; perhaps because people are unsure of the etiquette, with it not being a ‘normal’ restaurant. But in fact, this nervousness visibly disappears within minutes of arriving, as the spirit and enthusiasm of the volunteers is infectious. It seems that each of them are excited to be there, and keen for you to share their excitement. Everyone greets each other like friends and the tables are communal so the likelihood of sitting next to someone you do not know is high. Interesting conversation over a verre is guaranteed.
All this considered, the Freegan Pony is offering something unique and exciting to the city. Week by week, word is being farther spread about the mysterious ‘restaurant under the périphérique.’
All that remains to say is that we could all probably learn an awful lot from the message that Freegan Pony is promoting. While it may be seen as a novelty idea, to eat in a ‘squat’ restaurant (and yes it is really fun), it is important that at the same time we remember why it is there. Of course, we are not all going to become Freegans tomorrow and nor is that what Freegan Pony is asking of us. What the restaurant seeks to do is highlight the many ways in which we, both as individuals and collectively, waste. Hopefully, in drawing attention to how food, furniture and space can be meaningfully repurposed, people will begin to question their own habits. If this idea continues to catch on amongst Parisians, we may see prolific changes in the years to come.