Dinner with 70 strangers chez Jim

Pop along to Sunday dinner at Jim Haynes’ Paris atelier. 

Sunday Dinner at Jim's Feb 1, 2009

Back when ‘social networking’ meant eye contact and conversation over a good meal, Jim Haynes reigned supreme with his Parisian Sunday dinners, open to anyone who cared to drop by his converted artist’s atelier in the 14th arrondissement. More than 30 years on, social networking has devolved into posting inane status updates about the flakes of croissant you just brushed off your lapel. But the beloved open-house institution chez Jim continues to spread via word of mouth – and you’re invited.

The Louisiana-born expat proudly estimates he has hosted more than 130,000 guests over the years, with an average of 70 people from all ages and walks of life cheerfully pressed together in his pebbly courtyard each week for a multilingual chat – Americans dominate, so it may not be the best place to improve your French. That said, you never know who you’ll meet – Haynes, a mover and shaker in the theatre world who founded a journal on sexual freedom called Suck in Amsterdam during the 1960s, knew John Lennon and Yoko Ono before they knew each other. Despite some major artistic and literary connections, his philosophy is an all-inclusive one: all you have to do is email or call him to be added to the list. You arrive around 8pm in casual dress and leave an envelope containing the amount you feel the meal and company was worth (of the suggested 30 euros a head, some of the proceeds go to charity).

Haynes is definitely a more-the-merrier kind of guy — within reason. I email him two days ahead. “We are full tonight, but what the hell, you and your friend may attend!” he responds jovially. His hyper-detailed directions instruct me to “take exit 6 and walk straight ahead ten steps…turn right into Tombe Issoire and walk about 39 steps to big green gate.” Following them to the letter, I eventually find myself down the road from my own studio face-to-face with the master of ceremonies, apron-clad and perched on a high chair in the open-plan kitchen as friends and strangers file in. At 79 he’s charming as ever, always with a twinkle in his eye, but content to let his invités do most of the talking and mingling. Unlike most dinner parties, there’s no music to distract from the conversation. But you hardly notice, because the conversation and laughter flow abundantly for more than three hours.

3-photo(c)JesperHaynes

Tonight’s feast is a summer salad of olives, fennel, melon and cinnamon-spiced mango; meatballs or vegetarian tofu option, with zucchini, pecorino and mint pasta, and a dessert of ice cream with fruit compote and orange flower blossoms. The amateur Italian chef spent two days preparing and eagerly offered me the recipes.

While we eat – some seated, some standing; some well established in Paris and others just passing through – I speak with an elderly Australian man who tries to convince me that the freckle on his hand is actually a tattoo; a young Brazilian journalism student confesses she wants to make a difference and hopes not to become too jaded; a male American ballet dancer and his French publicist recommend their favourite bar in Oberkampf; an English set designer tells me about the time she met Leonard Cohen; the chef invites me to one of his musical soirées. There is nothing cynical about ‘working the room’ here, and everyone has a story to tell, none of them boring. One suspects that Jim’s is the most fascinating story of all.

Book at www.jim-haynes.com. Photos by Jesper Haynes.

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