“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have lived here in a million years. Marseille is a completely different city.” Entrepreneur Julia Mitton is rhapsodizing about France’s “moving and shaking” second city, a faded-denim-and-shades scene of artists, designers and gastronomic talent transplanted from Paris.
Herself transplanted from Halifax, Mitton now lives by the Mediterranean, teaches yoga and runs the acclaimed bistro La Mercerie in a sun-bleached courtyard steps from Marseille’s old port. It’s a (newly) idyllic part of the world, where the cuisine is smartening up, looking beyond tradition and attracting international crowds – no small thanks to Mitton and her partners, Montrealer sommelier Laura Vidal and British chef Harry Cummins.
The South of France seems just the right place at this moment for a woman known, at the very least, for her impeccable timing and by a certain tranche of critic as a food-scene revolutionary.
Mitton, Vidal and Cummins set up their first permanent restaurant in 2016 in Arles, the honey-coloured Provençal market town made great by the Romans and, 1,900 years later, Vincent Van Gogh. Called Le Chardon, it distinguished itself among straight-jacketed fine-dining stalwarts with its roster of young, ballsy cooks who took turns playing Picasso with produce on months-long residencies. The newsmaking “featured chef” approach established them not only as trendsetters but talent scouts. And it helped kick-start somewhat of a Rhônaissance.
The scrappy city down the coast was their obvious next move. La Mercerie began in 2018 as a pop-up in a former haberdasher emulating Le Chardon’s proven formula. It started bagging honours from L’Express and the World Restaurant Awards before its second chef was even done showcasing his chops, so the team moved in permanently, adding elegant lighting and seating but not much else.
Last summer they plucked a young sous-chef called Valentin Raffali to head their next endeavour, Livingston, a French-style izakaya (a sort-of Japanese gastropub) with a list of orange wines that are creeping onto trendy menus everywhere. Then this spring, their new sandwicherie called Pétrin Couchette sprung up next door to La Mercerie.
At a temperamental time, in the most temperamental business, things couldn’t have worked out better if Mitton had planned them. And by her account, she didn’t. Though she grew up dreaming of “being French” (“I used to draw myself in a striped shirt and beret”), Marseille would hardly have crossed her mind. She left Acadia University, at the age of 20, on a language exchange to Nancy 700 kilometres away. When the school year ended, she put off coming home.
With a couple of scribbled contacts and a free-spirited attitude, she parlayed her summer vacation into a three-year odyssey – including a year on the French island Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.
By 2007, she’d arrived in Paris with the intention to stay. She landed a job at the Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC) a day after a plucky group of mixologists opened its doors in the Marais. “They were my first friends,” she says. “I lived on their couch and we became the face of the cocktail scene in Paris.” As soon as her visa was approved, Mitton became their “right-hand person,” expanding ECC into New York, London and Ibiza. “I learned everything on the fly,” she says. “Hygiene, human resources, French …”
She built a reputation as a woman constantly on the move, with le monde in her wake. And she hasn’t exactly been easy to keep up with. Once the Cocktail Club found its way onto my radar, Mitton had decamped to Frenchie, a Paris wine bar with stellar word-of-mouth. That’s where she met Vidal and Cummins.” Those were the golden days of the Paris food scene,” Mitton says. “Cocktails, natural wines … everything happened at the same time. Everyone was one big family.”
Finding a table at Frenchie was – is – notoriously hard. I bagged one several years back, by which time Vidal and Cummins had founded a roving supper club, garnered a fashionable following and hired Mitton to join them on the road. Le Paris Pop-up toured Barcelona, Tangier and Montreal before occupying the Nord-Pinus hotel in Arles, a favourite of Picasso and Jean Cocteau in their day. Mitton found an apartment and, after months at Nord-Pinus, rented the space that would become Le Chardon.
I had no idea I’d been unwittingly pursuing Mitton around France until I wandered into La Mercerie in its infancy for the most memorable lunch of my trip – three courses of Provençal veal, seasonal asparagus, beef tongue carpaccio and homemade crusty bread for what amounted to $35. I remember patrons in Gucci pantsuits, face-eating sunglasses and red lipstick to match the Bandol-grown tomatoes. When Vidal delivered my organic rosé speaking a familiar accent, I learned about the Canadian connection and met the gang.
But like I said: Mitton is hard to keep up with.
During the pandemic, when I called to discuss her success with Mercerie, she was already deep into planning the opening party for that new izakaya Livingston, on the restaurant’s graffiti-covered terrace. Four months later Livingston would win Best Bar à Délices by Le Fooding, a Michelin-backed ranking system that covers more affordable “bistronomy”.
With the opening of Pétrin Couchette this past April, she hasn’t slowed down but rather laid down roots. “I’ve just bought an apartment in the Vauban neighbourhood,” she tells me. She recommends swimming off Malmousque beach in the Anse de la Fausse Monnaie, near the quintessential seaside promenade along Corniche Kennedy. And she says it with an enthusiasm that suggests she’d be crazy to leave.
Julia’s local address book:
- I love surfing, so when the wind swell picks up, there’s the great Massalia Surf Shop, which also stocks retro-design T-shirts by the local surf brand Jonsen Island.
- My favourite outings are with Jimmy Granger, who leads Mediterranean sailing experiences in his gorgeous boat through Les Croisières du Foxy. His partner, chef Zuri Camille de Souza, serves delicious Indian food. She starts soon as chef-in-residence at Chardon.
- The eccentric artist Emmanuelle Luciani curates Southway Studio, a frescoed 19th-century villa 20 minutes from the centre, with fantastical art and her own deeply mystical work. It has a beautiful bedroom you can Airbnb.
- Around the corner from La Mercerie is La Maison des Nines, a cool restaurant and boutique run by three women who sell well-made products they love – vintage fashion, perfume from La Compagnie Marseillaise, ceramics from Céramisterie.
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