It wasn’t so long ago that serious coffee drinkers would lament a trip to Paris, knowing they would spend the duration of their stay having to endure the bitter, watery coffee for which the city was infamous. Fortunately, relief has come in the past few years, in the form of a cohort of foreign coffee savants. Included in the bunch is Australian Tom Clark who, in collaboration with Frenchman Antoine Nétien, founded the cafe and roastery Coutume in 2011. Discreetly situated within a leisurely stroll of Le Bon Marché in the seventh arrondissement, Coutume has become the saving grace for discerning French espresso sippers and coffee-deprived expats who call Paris home.
Tom Clark’s love affair with France began when he found himself resident in the northern French village of Péronne, whilst on a Rotary exchange during high school. As he had shown little knack for the language at school, he hoped that by immersing himself in the language and culture, it might at least sink in by osmosis. While it might be debatable as to how well his French skills improved during that time, what did sink into Tom’s subconscious was a deep passion for the country’s culture and, in particular, its cuisine.
Originally from Canberra, after high school Tom made the move north to Brisbane to study arts/law at the University of Queensland. As part of his degree, he found himself back in France – this time in Paris – where he spent another study year abroad. When he again returned to Australia, Tom found himself at a loss as to what path to take in life. He no longer felt an affinity with his dream of prosecuting war criminals as an international lawyer, and it soon became clear that the world of law wasn’t for him at all. “I realised I was more of an entrepreneurial person and wanted to forge my own route,” he recalls. “And I knew that I had to do it straight away, because if I got into the system then I was going to be put into a box and my level of risk taking would disappear.”
It also happened that Tom had been captured by the wiles of a young French woman (now his wife) whilst studying in Paris. So when he decided to pack his bags and pursue a life where he was free to take risks, his destination was clear. He returned to Paris in 2008 to find whatever destiny lay in wait for him.
It was while he was finding his feet and working myriad jobs that he began to fathom how dire the coffee situation was in the French capital. “It was very clear to me that they drank a lot of coffee but had no idea what they were doing, nor seemed to care,” he says, laughing. “Australians are very much coffee travellers and we’ll do our research on where to find the best coffee in each city. We’re used to good coffee and we won’t tolerate anything else. And the French really need to work on their image internationally when it comes to coffee and not assume that, just because it’s French, it’s going to sell.”
Seeing an almost untapped opportunity to grow a passionate, discerning coffee culture in Paris, Tom’s path became obvious. “I thought it was about time we attacked them from all fronts. And not just with a great product, but with aesthetics, design and the laid-back but professional Australian vibe.”
He immersed himself in intensive study to learn all of the intricacies of the art of coffee. To test the market in Paris, he initially began a small business distributing coffee on behalf of a Czech roastery called La Boheme Cafe. “That was really my learning phase,” Tom says. “ I saw why the specialty coffee market hadn’t been developed and all the challenges that it faced.”
Asked why France, having mastered virtually every other aspect of gastronomy, had missed the mark when it came to coffee, Tom says there are a variety of factors. Aside from the country’s monopolistic approach to wholesale, there was also a general lack of care when it came to roasting, making and serving the coffee. “When I first arrived, I thought perhaps the coffee didn’t taste good because I was coming from a different culture with a different palate, but then I realised that it was because they really just had no idea what they were doing,” he laughs. “They were literally doing the opposite of everything you’re meant to do and so the result was obviously going to be terrible.”
During his time exploring the quirks of the distribution industry, Tom met his future business partner, Antoine Nétien. A Frenchman, Antoine had coincidentally spent five years living in Melbourne. He initially moved there for a film project but, after becoming enamoured by the city’s coffee scene, had taken up life as a coffee roaster. He, too, had grand plans to inject Paris’ staid coffee culture with a sense of the unique specialty coffee scene he had experienced in Australia. It was hard to deny the serendipity of their encounter, and the duo soon combined their skills and started their plans for a cafe known as Coutume.
“We knew that the only way to make a big impression and to crack the market open was to have our own cafe where we were the masters of our own domain and could roast our own coffee, but also create an atmosphere where the French could feel comfortable,” Tom explains. “And as a Frenchman, Antoine’s very proud to be developing a uniquely French movement. We don’t define ourselves as Australian coffee culture, but rather we are developing a speciality coffee culture unique to Paris. It was really important for us to come in being culturally sensitive and intelligent and to include the French culture. You look at Starbucks and it still seems like a very American brand, whereas with Coutume, you wouldn’t necessarily know that it’s partly Australian.”
Tom and Antoine found the perfect location to bring their dream to life on rue de Babylone in the seventh arrondissement. The space itself was in a sorry state, with its most recent incarnations being a kebab shop and a cheap Chinese restaurant. But as the boys stripped back the layers, they soon discovered ornate moulded cornices high above the false ceiling, elegant floor-to-ceiling columns and beautifully textured walls. The resulting aesthetic of the cafe expanse is a harmonious fusion of old and new, including naked Plumen bulbs hanging from the ceiling, a coffee plant potted in a stainless-steel sink, and a bean roaster whirring happily.
The greatest challenge has been staying persistent, particularly when negotiating the tangled web that is French bureaucracy. But Tom’s inherently stubborn nature never allowed him to give in. “I knew that if I got the product to the table and to the French customer, it would work,” he enthuses. “Their palate was quite refined, they understood the whole notion of terroir and they were so passionate about food and wine – so they couldn’t be satisfied by finishing an amazing dessert only to follow it with the worst coffee they’ve ever had. There had to be that final link.”
The 29-year-old says he finds inspiration in seeing others doing what they love and being independent. “I love seeing people fulfil themselves through their own passions and not by just being put through a system. People who are courageous enough to be happy and do what they love doing. There are so many great things to get out of life, so if you don’t like what you’re doing, get out of your box and challenge yourself – change your job, your city, your country. Most of us have got about 80 years, so stop complaining and use them well. Follow your dreams.”