Words by Samantha Hillman
Lucas Tresse is steering me through the cobblestoned streets of Montmartre toward a brasserie so classic—so hyperbolically Parisian—that it could serve as a movie set of itself. Gold-rimmed tables spill into the street, red rattan chairs prop up weary bottoms, bespectacled waitstaff peer around for customers. He points to the enormous menu displayed out front, asking me to compare the number of dishes (lots, like all the classics) to the number of people in the kitchen (one).
“See? It is impossible to offer all that with no staff without relying on frozen shit.”
With the Moulin Rouge and Sacré-Coeur around the corner, many restaurants are geared to tourists, and rising labour costs mean a greater reliance on industrially prepared food. “For places like this, the food doesn't need to be good. Their job is to bring in customers who they’ll never see again. They get away with it because they look the part. Tomorrow there’ll be a new person who falls for it.”
I’m about to admit to finding a certain charm in a terrible brasserie, when a lone tartare sulks out from the ether, making its way to a table littered with cameras. It occurs to me that I’m probably the type to fall for it too.
Lucas, who is very French—and by that I mean a bit cantankerous, at least until you get to know him—opened his restaurant here at the age of 28. Despite Montmartre’s day trip appeal, a strong local community drew Lucas to this “village within a city”, and the goal was always to cater to residents. “In Paris we live our lives outside. We like to live in the streets, in the restaurants. It was always important for me to create a place that would become a part of the local community, that would be good enough for people to come back to.”
Bored at school in every subject except philosophy, Lucas finished high school and entered a two year program at culinary school, before eventually training with Yves Camdeborde—the chef credited with pioneering Paris’ “bistronomy” movement—at his restaurant Le Comptoir. He sees the irony of the naughty-kid-to-chef pipeline. “At school we were rebelling against discipline, and there’s no place more disciplined than a kitchen.”
When Covid sent Lucas back from a dream stint in New York to his childhood room in the suburbs of Paris, morale was low. It was there, anguished and bored, that he started a notebook about the kind of place he wanted to open. “I wrote down everything. I don’t think I saw it as a journal, more as a project. It had everything from what kind of wine, what kind of food, right down to what kind of glasses we’d serve the wine from.”
Like many good ideas, Le Matre was born from a series of wine-fueled 4am chats, with his now-business partner, Chloe Magel, a friend and waitress from Comptoir. The notebook came out and the two compared ideas. An open-plan kitchen was their main criteria. “I wanted to be part of the restaurant. I didn’t want Chloe to be out there alone, and I didn’t want to be downstairs in a cave.”
Working in open plan kitchens changed his way of seeing things, as well as his relationship with waitstaff. “In so many restaurants it’s the kitchen against the front of house. Everyone blames one another when something goes wrong. It’s a stupid war, because we are all on the same team. We’re all working together to give the customer a good experience. An open-plan kitchen means that everyone knows what’s going on, whatever happens it’s like, ‘I got you.’ ”
After a two year search for a space, and four months of negotiations, Le Matré—a composite of their surnames—was open for business within two weeks of them getting the keys.
“We had a lot of time to think about how we wanted it to be. By the time we had the keys, we were ready to go.”
Le Matré is a pocket-sized, 30-seat restaurant on Rue Veron. The decor is deliberately pared back: wooden tables, bench seating, and stone wall running down the left side toward an open kitchen. The only flourishes come by way of a vase of flowers and racks of wine. “The focus was always meant to be the food.” says Lucas, “It’s funny because when you read the original notebook and then look around Le Matré, it’s almost exactly as described.”
Like the brasseries nearby, there’s only one person in the kitchen—Lucas, and perhaps a kitchen hand. Unlike the surrounding brasseries, the offerings are concise. The ever-changing daily menu offers just dishes: four entrees, four mains, four desserts.
Rather than design finished dishes, Lucas works backwards, buying “a whole bunch” of produce that excites—“always by the season. That’s the only move here”—and cooking it however he feels inspired to. When something runs out, dishes adapt. Your duck ravioli might arrive floating in a garum-spiked broth one day, tucked into an assertive and allium-forward salad the next.
Lucas says he’s guided by taste and the principle of using everything. Last week an excess of apple puree was cooked down with caramel to make an ice-cream. The shells from a langoustine special became the backbone of a sauce. The jus rendered from a leg of lamb will be served with another fish dish.
He credits this dexterity to his training under Camdeborde, who challenged him to create two new menu items for Le Comptoir every day, with a goal of ensuring that nothing was wasted. “It’s not so much a cooking style that I learned from him, but more an entire philosophy about food.”
I point out that Le Matré isn’t necessarily branded as a zero-waste restaurant. “Even though it is clear to me, I’ve always struggled to describe what Le Matré was supposed to be about. What it is, is simple food, from us.”
While simple, it’s never boring. Classical French touches abound—raw cheese to finish, and a bowl of soft butter with fresh radish for dipping to start. Lucas’ season-led mentality can be seen in all the flattering things he does to vegetables: late-summer aubergine is bruleed and finished with za'atar, feta, aged balsamic, and breadcrumbs. Fennel is fermented and served alongside wild cockles with lemon. A risotto sits cloudlike beneath a flurry of summer truffles. One particularly memorable dish: warm pork carpaccio over homemade ricotta, capers, mustard seeds and parmesan crumble. (The whey leftover from the leftover ricotta became ice-cream, too.)
As for his present-day inspiration, Lucas is hesitant to name a single source. “You never really stop learning. You never stop being inspired. Sometimes you go to a friend’s house and they’ll be using a spice you forgot about and the next week it will end up on the menu.”
An evolving menu is a straightforward way to keep customers coming back. When asked what makes a restaurant part of a community, Lucas references small things, like picking up a cake from a patisserie when catering a local’s birthday dinner. as well as crediting Chloe’s warm and outgoing rapport (“she’s fantastic with customers. Better than me.”)
There’s undeniable camaraderie in the establishments nearby. Lucas doesn’t see competition with neighbouring restaurants doing similar things. If anything, it’s where they’ve found the most support. One nearby restaurant, Ose, sent customers their way from the beginning. “You can’t eat at the same restaurant every night. What’s good for one restaurant is good for all of us.”
When asked if there’s any customer he’d be intimidated to cook for, he says no. I reword the question to: “is there anyone who could walk through the door, who you’d especially keen to dazzle?”
“Of course, it is my chef [Camdeborde]. But famous people? I don’t give a fuck.”
His advice to chefs who want to open their own place?
Le Matre, 42 rue Veron, 75018 Paris