With his grown-out hair and trimmed beard, Andrea Calstier looks like many of the 20-somethings who come to the East Village to party. But that’s not what the 24-year-old chef and his 23-year-old wife, Elena Oliver, are here to do. Just a year after moving to New York City from France and seven months after getting married in a small ceremony, the young couple has opened an ambitious restaurant, Papilles, in a small nook on East 7th Street.
Despite his tender age, Calstier is no johnny-come-lately. He started cooking professionally at 16, and has traveled extensively enough to dub his style cuisine vagabonde, a combination of traditional French cooking with spices and flavors from around the world.“I enjoy working with products from the East, Asia or Latin America with a French approach and technical base,” says Calstier. “It often gives very interesting combinations and dishes with a nice balance.”
Before Papilles, Calstier worked at Daniel Boulud’s namesake restaurant, Daniel, and his previous experience includes stints in Michelin-starred French restaurants, from Chef Stephane Raimbault’s L’Oasis in Côte d’Azur, Chef Emmanuel Hebrard’s Abbaye de la Bussière in Burgundy, and Chef Christophe Bacquié’s namesake restaurant at the Hôtel du Castellet in Provence.
Calstier is classically trained, but he doesn’t want to be confined to classical French cuisine. “More young French chefs are breaking the codes of the classic gastronomic meal or the Parisian brasserie, and that’s what I would like to bring to the New York culinary scene— an inventive cuisine, elaborated with the best products, resulting from organic farming, sustainable fishing and animal husbandry,” says Calstier, a few days after his 24th birthday. “All this, in a pleasant and casual environment with an affordable price. High French gastronomy is no longer reserved for the elite.”
Calstier and Oliver have been working tirelessly to open Papilles since November, when they took the storefront at 127 East 7th Street with their partner and fellow French expat, 32-year-old Nicolas Thoni. While they were scouting the space, their neighbors had just finished midterms, and face student debt and a notoriously tough economy.
“The three of us come from a restaurant background and our collective experience has allowed us to operate smartly and economically,” Oliver says. “In addition to Andrea being a trained chef having studied and worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, Nicolas has an extensive experience in managing restaurants for over 10 years, and I have a background in marketing, business, and communication.” She handles the marketing aspects of the business and doubles as a waitress, delivering her husband’s creations to hungry patrons.
Thoni, meanwhile, builds his drink list to compliment Calstier’s seasonal menu, and often picks his ingredients from the kitchen. Instead of simple syrup, his cocktails are sweetened with creations like agave wine, fermented vodka and lavender bitter.
With everything so intricately planned, it’s easy to take for granted the risk these three young restaurateurs are assuming. But Oliver takes it in stride. “I feel like when you’re younger, you’re less afraid of it not working,” she says. “If I put all of my heart and my patience into it, and I find the right people around me to help me out—because you can’t do it alone—you can do it.”
“Maybe, from the outside, it feels like we’re young and we’re opening a restaurant,” Thoni says. “But, when you’ve been waiting for 10 years, knowing your dream and knowing what you wanted to do, it felt like a long time coming.”
Correction: This post was revised to correct a cocktail ingredient and to be more precise about Calstier’s cooking style and Oliver’s role.