Cécile, the Marseille café with model credentials
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When Cécile Food Club, a small café on the Corniche in Marseille opened earlier this year, it was quick to make a big impression. Its name was etched on the window in a jaunty sand-coloured scrawl. The faded brown-and-yellow striped awning was reminiscent of St Tropez in the 1950s and ’60s. There were benches outside, a hatch for ordering coffee, merchandise including totes and T-shirts, and a long glass counter showcasing its constantly replenished selection of sandwiches, salads and pastries.
On the Thursday afternoon I visited, the bread options ranged from jambon-beurre (with ham sourced from Basque charcuterie Maison Louis Ospital) to pan bagnat (a Niçoise-filled bap); scrambled egg and pancetta rolls; vegetable-chilli hoagies; and a pastrami toasted sandwich, padded with meat smoked and dried in-house, cheddar, coleslaw, pickles and Savora mustard, that would have been the envy of any Brooklyn deli.
Among the sweet treats, a tray of praline-rose brioches looked like dough volcanoes that had started to ooze their pinkish jammy lava.
The café is the brainchild of Texan-born supermodel Erin Wasson and her Marseille-born husband Barthelemy Tassy. They are joined as partners by two of Tassy’s childhood friends, event organiser Thibault Hillmeyer and chef Paul Langlère. Langlère trained at the legendary Plaza Athenée in Paris and relocated to Marseille in 2017 to open his restaurant Sépia, which he oversees alongside the food offering here.
More than a café, the place has become a scene in a city that is increasingly fashionable among European travellers. Some days there are lines down the block. Other days it’s “like a family playground”, says Wasson. “There’s kids and dogs. Everyone knows each other. It’s super-vibey.” On the days when staff are inundated, Wasson is known to chip in. “I’ll be on coffee duties,” she says, “and doing a lot of bussing.” Does she get recognised? The 41-year-old is, after all, “one of the most beautiful women on Earth”, as her husband puts it, and since bursting on the scene in the late ’90s has fronted numerous magazine covers and fashion and beauty campaigns for nearly every major fashion house in the business. Well, recognised or not, this is Marseille: “Everyone is low-key here,” she says.
Today, perched on the front step in white jeans, navy espadrilles and a top by Lorod, a New York label run by her friend Lauren Rodriguez, she’s fun and sassy company. “She can talk to a wall,” says Tassy of her knack for striking up conversation, a legacy of her years on the road as a model. “I’m a lizard,” she tells me of her reptilian tolerance for heat, which is intense today.
The café was, in fact, inspired by the sun-worshippers who congregate for hours each day on the craggy Malmousque coastline around the corner – a colony of bathers Wasson affectionately terms “Fraggle Rock”. In Marseille, food vendors often shut in the afternoon, if not whole days. For the “rock hounds” who patrol this street en route to the beach, Cécile (which stays opens 8am to 8.30pm seven days a week) is somewhere to get a caffeine fix, a fresh bite to eat and an aperitif.
Tassy, 40, grew up a few miles away, near the stadium in southern Marseille, at a time when the city was “a lot messier”. He remembers visiting this neighbourhood often. “Like every other kid, I came and jumped from the rocks,” he says. Cécile is named after his grandmother, who was a great host: “I could go to her house any time. The fridge was always full. There was always someone to talk to.”
In fact, Malmousque, a neighbourhood that combines newer, smarter shops with older, more rough-and-ready establishments, reminds Wasson of Abbot Kinney, California, when she first moved there in the early 2000s. “There’s an energy when you walk through the little alleys; and the water, it gives me old Venice vibes from when Venice was just a bar, a restaurant and a crackly old coffee shop.”
The story of how the couple got together is the definition of meet-cute. It was 2016 at Roosterfish on Abbot Kinney, a gay bar that doubles as “a community centre” for locals like Wasson who like to play pool. “I had been in Venice long enough that I knew all the faces,” she recalls. “And there at the bar was this European-looking man who clearly wasn’t from around there. ‘I’ve seen you walking your dog in the neighbourhood,’ he says. I’m like, ‘Cool story, bro.’ He gives me his number. I never call. Three weeks later, we run into each other outside a coffee shop. I think I recognise him. He says, ‘I’m the guy you never called.’”
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Cut to their first date. Tassy takes her to a restaurant called Dudley Market, which unbeknownst to him used to be the gallery Wasson ran with art dealer David Quadrini. It’s a good omen. Tassy, who started out in restaurants aged 16 washing dishes and worked his way up, had been on front-of-house at Venice restaurant Scopa Italian Roots, before becoming manager at its secret cocktail bar Old Lightning. “We were on our date,” he recalls, “and all of a sudden, two glasses of champagne arrive from two clients of mine [from Old Lightning]. Then a seafood crudo plate arrives from the chef who is friends with the owner of the restaurant I worked at. Erin was like, ‘Who are you?!’” After dinner they headed to a friend’s houseboat to hang out. And, well, the rest is history.
The couple married in 2018, and after a brief spell in New York relocated to Marseille in 2021. “France was always going to be part of our history,” says Tassy. “I had come to Marseille a couple of times,” says Wasson, “and something felt right. The people reminded me of Texans – really warm but don’t fuck with them. Marseille is a really honest place with this beautiful juxtaposition of city and sea. If we were going to build something, it made sense to do it here.”
They found a house round the corner from the café and about 20m from the sea. They also own a boat. Nothing fancy (it came with the house). But they can fish and go out for dips and drinks on the boat with friends. For Wasson, another perk of living in Marseille is its relative proximity to Paris, which has led to all sorts of new opportunities. “Paris is real fashion,” she says. “The projects I’ve been able to do since moving here have felt more like work I was used to back in the day. It’s not just about money, impressions or followers.”
Food was always important to Wasson. Growing up, she wanted to be a chef and nothing makes her happier than getting friends around a table and feeding them. Since she turned vegan four years ago, favourite dishes might include “big beautiful rice bowls with tons of herbs or a tahini salad with watercress and radishes. I do a mean vegan cornbread with lots of jalapeños,” she adds. “My parents are coming from Texas in September and bringing all my favourite condiments. I love knowing my pantry has everything I could ever fantasise about at my fingertips.”
To find herself living in Marseille, married to a Frenchman and working in food – well, what could be better? “Now the work begins,” she insists. “I need to learn French to be a real asset to the business.” She’s taking private lessons twice a week, which is sometimes torture, but still: “Every time I look at this place, our little place, with all these boys – Barth, Thibault, Paul – who were born and raised in Marseille, it feels like something beautiful, something different [from all my previous achievements]. More tangible. More real. Barth doesn’t let me get away with shit. He is deeply supportive and thoughtful. I feel like whatever happens, we can navigate it well together.”
What’s the French for “just getting started”?