JAMES Henry is becoming accustomed to being offered the keys to restaurants. The Australian chef is hot property. Yet, despite growing interest from would-be backers, he couldn't be more humble.
Humble and tired. In the past week Henry has been in the kitchen for lunch and dinner services at Au Passage, a small bistro in Paris' 11th arrondissement, and last night cooked for more than 600 food enthusiasts at a dinner hosted by Le Fooding, the prominent Paris restaurant guide.
Exhausted young chefs aren't unusual, nor are Australian chefs on the rise doing a stage (an unpaid stint in a kitchen) in Paris. But hanging around and setting up your own restaurant in the capital, the birthplace of gastronomy, is, well, less common. Henry, 29, is an exception.
Henry hasn't always known what he wanted to do and has never trained as a chef. A stint at Rae's on Wategos and a couple of years at Steve Snow's Fins, both in Byron Bay, were followed by three years in Sumatra working on surf charters. He then wound up in Melbourne at Andrew McConnell's Cumulus Inc (McConnell, incidentally, was arriving last week to do some ''research'' in Paris with Henry). ''That was lucky; I was quite green going in there, especially after a few years off,'' Henry says. The next stop, Peppermint Bay in Tasmania, and then Paris, where he began work at Spring, Chicago-born chef Daniel Rose's revered restaurant, a stone's throw from the Louvre.
He has since moved to a different part of town, the newly hip 11th arrondissement, north of the Bastille. It is home to wine bars, cafes and restaurants established on tight budgets by enthusiastic young chefs and sommeliers. Au Passage is one such - a relaxed bistro decked out with mismatched chairs, vinyl banquettes and thrift-store light fittings. Since Henry arrived, the restaurant has become busier and the reviews - well, Paris loves him. Locals appreciate his honest, straightforward approach to food and his keep-it-simple ethos. Locals, and Le Chateaubriand's Inaki Aizpitarte, who celebrated his 40th birthday there recently.
''It wasn't meant to pan out like this,'' says Henry, who, although he spent his early childhood in Paris, has forgotten most of his French. Born in Canberra, he moved around with his parents, who worked for the Australian embassy, including stints in San Francisco and Saudi Arabia. His last place of residence was Melbourne.
Like his contemporaries, Henry returned to Paris to eat some good food and see what he could learn. ''I'd finished at Spring and had my plane ticket home when I met the owners of Au Passage,'' he says. ''They asked me to work for a week to show them some dishes. At the end of the week they asked me to stay for another, then a month.'' It has grown to an 11-month stint.
Lunch is a menu du jour. Today it begins with a pretty amuse bouche of black mullet sashimi with coriander jus and flowers, and a shaving of pickled rhubarb. Smoked trout with nasturtium leaves and more flowers follows. ''It's been so cold and miserable here for six months, then yesterday I went to the market and finally the first sign of spring,'' he says.
The main course of milk veal with peas, mash, chard and anchovy paste, is also offered with bonito. The cheese, St Nectaire Fermier and a Crottin de Chavignol, is presented with a raisin mustard and followed by a deconstructed cheesecake made from buffalo milk ricotta sprinkled with biscuit crumbs, pine nuts and Greek honey. Dinner is a succession of small plates that change daily: rillettes, bonito with artichoke, a charcuterie plate, zucchini with ricotta, accompanied by natural wines.
In a month he will accept a set of keys, those to his own place with business partner Florean Ciccoli, who is a part-owner of Au Passage. ''I've loved being at Au Passage, but it's been six days a week, two services a day,'' he says. ''The idea of opening my own place is to have more control over my life.'' The new project doesn't have a name yet, but Henry has some clear ideas of what he wants it to be.
''The idea is for guests to eat in a family manner,'' he says. ''Everyone is doing the same formula here - amuse bouche, entree, plat, cheese and two desserts. I want to do something different.''
Before he opens the new restaurant (slated for September) he needs some time off. ''I'll do a couple of research trips,'' he says.
Locals appreciate his straightforward, keep-it-simple ethos.
Henry's parents have settled in Brisbane. ''My mum is about to retire and she's talking about moving to Tasmania, or to Paris for a year,'' he says. Either way, she'll eat well.
Au Passage, 1B Passage Saint-Sebastien, 75011, Paris. +33 1 43 55 07 52