“Can we have the music off?” Jeff Luneau queries rhetorically, in an accent reeking of both French and English.
The music in the cafeteria — soft House melody —vaporizes immediately, replaced by the sound of cutlery against ceramic and of our own voices bartering sentences. On his side of the table —separating us—are the remnants of Luneau’s breakfast: a teacup now empty of coffee so strong that its smell still hangs thick in the air, a plate housing half-eaten French country bread and a silver knife, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, and writing implements.
Accompanying the early sun rays today are slight showers of rain, and they find us at La Brasserie, a restaurant owned by our tanned, gray-bearded European friend. Located under a summer hut on the premises of Alliance Française in Accra, it’s only been in operation for months but already radiates what I draw in as a kind, cliquey, cosmopolitan air.
It’s an easy morning, and over at the bar are La Brasserie staff: a waiter and an accountant with their heads buried in preparatory tasks for the day, and Ekua—in charge of PR and Marketing—typing away at a purple HP laptop. Behind them is a signage, inscribed boldly in white chalk, declaring “Welcome to La Brasserie.”
A menu is outlined beneath. There are wines on a shelf above a fridge, as well as breakfast and food-making appliances. Around us, too, are a dozen shiny-top tables also carrying salt and pepper shakers, napkins, glasses, and cutlery.
A classy upscale bistro, La Brasserie serves assorted salads, soups, tarts, stews and roasts, sides, and desserts. It’s one of the outfits under The Food Corner—the others being pizza spot La Piazza, and ice-cream and smoothie house Pinocchio, that operate from East Legon and Osu respectively, both in Accra.
Back to the tanned, gray-bearded European with the mixed accent, though. Aged not quite 50, Luneau—covered in a sea-blue button-down shirt, blue denims and white trainers—is half-Greek, half-French, and has practiced the culinary art for over half his life across three continents: Europe, North America, and now Africa. Oh, and did I mention that a wrinkle forms around his eye when he smiles?
Luneau started off in showbiz, working as a singer and dancer, but entered the food business in his early twenties, working for restaurants in Paris.
Why the switch, though?
Another cup of coffee is ordered, but my answer arrives first.
Short version: well, food—the psychology of it, the many layers of its identity and, ultimately, what it represents to various people. Luneau discovered, once he got into the vocation, a striking relationship with what previously occupied him: the involvement of creative thinking.
“Once you’ve rehearsed a song, you have to perform it often on stage,” he says. “It’s a bit of the same thing in the kitchen: you practice a meal, exploring the best way to make it. Once it’s done, you have to do it again and again.”
Secondly, both bring joy to people, catering to the recipients in a precisely emotional way. Whenever we interact with art—a voice, a play, or a picture — it often triggers something within us. It’s the same with food, observes Luneau: “you’re gonna be touched by a dish that takes you back to your youth.”
His coffee now joins in, but he does not engage it just yet. He’s enjoying the chat, obviously. Expression over espresso, if you like.
Food, like music for instance, is personal — something that people are going to ingest into themselves. Something they feel in their gut, and Luneau acknowledges that the weight of this duty is hardly lost on him.
“It’s a big responsibility because you find that people relate to your food by always comparing it with what their taste buds are familiar with—and that will always take you back to your mum.”
He discovered this attribute about food to invoke memory on the job, adding: “after a few years in the industry, you understand.”
To buttress his hypothesis, Luneau recounts an episode during an opening for a Jewish restaurant in Paris. He used to do the chop-chicken liver specialty, which is a favourite among Eastern European Jews. “They were quite difficult, as a Ghanaian would be with his fufu, banku or waakye.”
Smiling, he recalls his retort to the clients: “your mum is not in the kitchen; this would be different.”
He sighs and finally lifts the coffee to his lips, sipping carefully.
Luneau clarifies that his last statement was borne more out of amusement at a meal’s potency to trigger memories rather than, say, out of frustration. In other words, he’s saying: “you’re gonna take something, and it’s gonna take you back to something—a memory.”
Memory, to Luneau, is not only stored in a person’s head. Else, why is it that you could hear a sound, or merely someone’s speech pattern and immediately get irritated? Many people, he finds, have ended up in careers linked to specific moments in their youth that filled them with joy. Indeed, some of his singer friends divulge to him that they trace their gift to a time in their childhood when, through their singing, they first properly noticed delight on the face of a relative.
Luneau’s ardent address on memory leads me to another question: is memory something he sets out to achieve with La Brasserie?
“Oui,” he confirms, “albeit only partially.”
Luneau hastens to issue a disclaimer, though: as he’s not African, he’s in no way inclined to be “more African” than indigenous chefs. After all, these parts sprawl with outstanding Ghanaian chefs, known or unknown, strutting their stuff in big establishments, ‘chop bars’, and various households. These, as Luneau is keen to point out, are the ones that possess the aptitude to really capture the African identity in the taste of their delicacies.
Well, he could try to do same but, then again, “which Ghanaian would trust a fufu-making white man?”
Luneau’s goal, then, is simple and well-defined: “not to be what I’m not, but to use what I am and where I am.”
That objective of incorporating the influences he has encountered in his menu. This is reflected in La Brasserie’s flagship cuisines which fuse western traditional recipes with kontomire, cocoyam, and cocoa butter — a pot-pourri that culminates in something truly original.
Luneau’s pizzas, too, undergo a similar tradition. He is no more Italian than he is African and, frankly, never intended to tread that field at first. But the wooden oven La Brasserie acquired pushed him to experiment—only with the goal of producing pizza of the sort popular in Nice, south of France, where the dough is cooked with tomato and topped out of the oven without mozzarella, unlike how they make them in Italy.
Pizza made in wooden fire ovens retains a unique smoky flavour, which greatly complements taste, as compared to that which emerges from the electric oven. The choice of wood can be a determining factor to taste, he explains.
Exhibit Two: In South France, when all the grapes have been harvested from the vine at the end of the summer, the wood that remains is deemed very useful, especially for barbecues.
“The real deal is wood,” Luneau intimates, “and how the smoke interacts with the meal.”
The kitchen business isn’t all pros, though. While the industry is good, it comes with a tough con that imposes on the practitioner a life of constant travel, forcing them to live practically out of a briefcase. Cue the Alliance Française: a venue which, aside its close proximity with patrons La Brasserie targets, also provides a rare opportunity to “settle down.”
The conversation returns to the theme of fusion, specifically the eatery’s cosmopolitan feel. Because of Luneau’s own ancestry, La Brasserie is very much an extension of himself. His skin tone, duller than the average European’s, gives him out as a Lebanese in Ghana or an Arab in France, etc.
He proudly wears his “mixed influence” as a badge of honour, emphasizing that everyone has something to bring to the table. Furthermore, opening up to multiple influences is key for empathy.
Throughout the world—especially now—people are being astonishingly obnoxious, uber-certain of their beliefs and rejecting very fast, divergent opinions. It can be seen in the rise of extremism in general, for instance.
“People proclaim, shout and scream Christianity but sometimes lack the faith’s basic lessons, just because they are absolutely certain of where they stand,” Luneau claims. And there’s no way, he continues to lament, “that you can tell them any different, or suggest that they re-read that chapter in the Bible.”
“Allow for some water in your wine,” goes a French saying that may/may not have Biblical undertones.
Luneau advises: “Yes, you have the right to your beliefs, but you need also to accommodate and put your feet in the other person’s shoes.”
To a first-time La Brasserie patron like me, Luneau suggests that I try the delicacies that “take time” — like his homemade ham, which he holds, is also historic. It takes weeks to properly make and “our restaurant—to my knowledge—is the only one preparing our own ham and pâtés,” he boasts.
“I don’t see a restaurant doing its own charcuteries or corned beef.”
Not that Luneau’s La Brasserie does their own corned beef (a fixture in every Ghanaian cupboard)—at least not yet. Along with other household products as sardines and beans, though, it’s just a matter of time before that happens.
Harnessing as much local produce as possible, Luneau submits, has always been central to his overall business module: to oversee a self-sustaining, environmentally respectful establishment. This means cutting back on imports and “doing as much as we can ourselves.”
At La Brasserie, the actual commodity on sale isn’t Chocolate Cake, Mango Compote & Crumble, Orange Zest Pancakes & Butterscotch, or Chickpea & Coconut Curry.
“I don’t sell food,” Luneau clarifies. “I sell time.”
That’s the real luxury here, isn’t it?
There are no air conditioners at La Brasserie, neither are there large flat screens nor other examples of sophisticated technology. Just time—rich and peaceful.
“My luxury is time,” Luneau reiterates, “and trying to get as real as possible” in the midst of all the fakeness, be it in the news, milk or fish.
By the way he speaks about the environment and our attitude toward taking care of it, he exudes a deep-rooted obligation to Mother Earth, leading me to suspect that it is tied to his decision to venture into food to start with. However wide the discourse wanders, he guides it back via this subject.
“It doesn’t make sense!” Luneau spits in one such rant, referring to how fish is caught in the Atlantic, sent to China for chemical enhancement, and then shipped off to Europe and other parts of the world.
“It might be cheaper, but it doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it!” he exclaims again, his voice assuming an extra pitch of concern.
“I’d rather buy a local pork leg, de-bone it, and prepare my ham, rather than buying it already sliced from the supermarket full of chemicals and bearing copious carbon footprints.”
He references the current polar storm in the US which has left temperatures at minus 50 °C, and an Australian heatwave with temperatures soaring a 100 times higher.
“Where are we going? What are we doing?” he inquires, and then answers his own himself: “We’re not being responsible.”
In the end, Luneau concedes that it’s not the responsibility of one man.
“I can only do what I can,” he sighs.
A final question lingers on my mind during this sitting: what specific need does La Brasserie seek to meet in Ghana’s restaurant scene?
The answer, when Luneau offers one, is simple: “bringing Ghanaians something real” — true homemade intercontinental delicacies to relish. It takes an awful lot of time to achieve, but it is not impossible.
He takes a moment to gather his thoughts, and leaves me with two parting statements: one short, the other long. The first is a cliché but, because of the seriousness that backs it, does feel fresh: “You are what you eat.”
The second is a revision of an original thought he has echoed throughout this past hour.
“Sometimes, the real luxury is not what is shiny,” Luneau concludes. “At the end of the day, the real and only luxury is time. We all get to a point in our lives where we wish we had more of it.”
And that, folks, is La Brasserie’s ultimate treat!
Find more about the restaurant here.