Jeanne Damas likes to remind us: Rouje is about women. Paths intertwined, inspiring encounters, ideas that linger. Throughout these portraits, she gives a voice to some feminine figures whose stories resonate with her. Today she met with Coralie: together, they spoke about self acceptance, sound systems and fries.
Thank you for taking the time to meet. To begin, would you mind introducing yourself?
I’m of Matinican and Senegalese descent through my mother. I’ve lived in the West Indies in Marie-Galante. I studied for a little bit but I developed other interests after experiencing the Parisian lifestyle and ended up following a less traditional path. I started modeling, my hair was a subject of fascination in the fashion world! It allowed me to question my vision of beauty and to regain confidence after some tough times in middle school. My mother was black and I was the only red head which made me feel like an alien. Today it’s a strength. And voilà, it looks like my answer is very linked to my physical appearance (laughs).
Yes but in the end it is intrinsically linked to how you see yourself and evolve as a person. Did you meet your boyfriend in Paris?
Yes, in a nightclub, the Gibus! It was a classic hip hop night and then we bumped into each other in the street. Today, it’s been 10 years that I’m sharing my life with this extraordinary person. We really have each other’s back: it’s always easier to take the plunge when you’re two. Before Jah Jah, he was working in fashion, making jewelry. He immediately allowed me to believe in my dreams.
Did you both want to work in the restaurant industry?
Yes it was a growing passion of mine, we’re all crazy about food in my family, especially my mother, my aunts. We can eat everything but always very diverse, homemade and with TLC. In the West Indies, this culture is all around us: a lot of people have a vegetable garden, we trade veggies throughout the seasons. My travels made me want to gravitate towards healthier recipes, different from what I was used to. It’s when I started to be a vegetarian.
When did you open your restaurant Jah-Jah?
We opened in 2017, it was our second restaurant. The first is le Tricycle, rue de Paradis… We started on a tiny bike, hence the name! It was veggie hot dogs at first.
There were only a few food trucks then and we wanted to do something more sustainable. We were a bit of trendsetters by chance. There weren’t a lot of veggie options in Paris compared to other major cities like LA.
It’s true, Paris didn’t seem to be known for its vegetarian restaurants…
It’s changing! But it wasn’t the case when we first started with le Tricycle in 2013 and the full-on restaurant in 2015, and then Jah Jah in 2017. The bicycle worked from day one and thankfully: we didn’t have a back up plan… But we had a lot of support and luck because we started out with almost nothing. Paris was ready for more veggie and vegan options, which are still hard to find in smaller cities.
We’re emerging from challenging times especially for restaurant owners. How did you face the lockdowns?
During the first lockdown we had to obviously shut down entirely. We spent a lot of time at home, together as a family with our daughter. It was a unique experience for us, everything went so fast: a baby, a ton of work… So I welcomed this with serenity: we were all in this together. It allowed me to make peace, to take a step back and look at what we had achieved. A lot of positive energy!
Precisely, it’s a family business. You said it was motivating but that balancing work/life is hard. How do you manage it?
The line is very blurry indeed! I would say it’s important to find your rhythm and even some rules to structure your time. I need at least one day in the week that’s 100% dedicated to my family. Before the lockdowns, we were open all the time, now I take more care of my physical and mental health. Less time running and more time and enjoying the present moment. The city life teaches you to always be in a hurry, never to settle down. I don’t want to pay the price later on!
I believe you gave out meals during lockdown?
Yes with the support of Salomon! We cooked for people in need: the homeless but also some students and families. We took the tricycles out again to give out meals with the team or some young volunteers. It was super important for us to help each other. We didn’t want to share it on social at first but eventually it allowed us to set an example.
By the way, Jah-Jah is more than a restaurant right?
Yes, it’s a part of us. It’s a super personal project that highlights the veggie dimension of the Afro Caribbean cuisine but it’s also a place where people can meet, rediscover cultures and reclaim products. There’s the food, the philosophy behind it, the music, with a real sound system just like in Jamaica. We gather, speak to each other and ask questions.
It’s what we missed so much during these months of lockdown. Did you think about leaving Paris? It seems that after this period and especially with kids, people were longing for nature, even if it’s not always possible.
It’s something we obviously relate to, but we need to be at the restaurant! But we’re thinking about it: I grew up on an Island so nature was always part of my upbringing. So it’s a part of me and one day I’ll go back to it, I’m sure. But today the restaurant is what we love, how we express ourselves and how we earn a living. So we’re here and it’s for the best!
I was thinking, what’s your guilty pleasure as a veggie?
Junk food! I love fries!
That makes two of us! I’m obsessed with fries, even more so since giving birth.
So delicious, thanks to whoever invented them! However I don’t have a sweet tooth, if you give me a piece of cake I’ll have a hard time finishing it.
I wish I could say that. To wrap up, what’s your take on the Parisienne?
Just like you, I believe there is not one Parisienne but Parisiennes: women of all backgrounds, with ambitions, who want to create things and have dreams. They reinvent themselves and are a bridge across communities. The diversity of Paris is a blessing. A mix of cultures and beauty.