When Stuart Boltershone met his business partner of six years Dorothee Henry, she was a guest staying at the B&B he still runs with his partner, Paul – named Ty Rosa – while visiting Wales over 10 years ago.
But had he not mistaken the day for a Saturday, instead of Friday, serving breakfast to his guests late, he may never have met his best friend and started up a cafe – Cafe Du Chat Noir – that has been deemed to have the best French food outside of France.
Telling us how the two met, Stuart says: “It was [early in the] morning and I said to my husband, about 7am, we’ve got to get up and cook breakfast for the guests! He said, ‘It’s Saturday. We don’t cook breakfast til 8:30!’ I went, ‘I’m sure it’s Friday’. He said ‘No, it’s Saturday’.
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“And so I got up and I was making tea and coffee in the kitchen in my pyjamas, and I could hear people in the hallway, outside the breakfast room. So I stuck my head through the door and I said to Dorothee and an American lady, ‘I’m sorry. We don’t start breakfast till 8:30 on a Saturday’. And Dorothee said ‘Yes, but it’s Friday’.”
Stuart laughs and continues: “So I said, ‘Hold that thought. I’m just gonna go murder my husband. When I’ve murdered him, I’ll come back and I’ll cook you breakfast. And that’s how we met. We started chatting about different things over breakfast and the next day.” After suggesting to Dorothee, who is a doctor of Literature, that she visit Hay On Wye, Stuart, who comes from Cardiff, took the liberty to take her there himself.
Familiar with ‘the book town’ having lived there for some time running a hotel on behalf of a friend, he said: “I’ve got loads of friends in Hay-on-Wye so we went off for the day and I said, ‘Well, you can go off and look round [the town], I can see all my friends and we will catch up at the end the day’. And we chatted so much, she ended up meeting all my friends and we’ve just been friends ever since… We do everything together.”
Dorothee, who hails from the Loire Valley in France, was a teacher at the time of meeting Stuart and although soon after that, she returned to France, she found there was a lack of work opportunities where she lived so came back to Wales. She and Stuart – who had to stop working in the B&B regularly due to his Fibromyalgia – decided to then put their shared love of the arts, literature and food together and made a plan to open what evolved into Cafe Du Chat Noir – although, a restaurant isn’t quite what they initially set out to do.
“We decided to open up a cafe-art gallery-bookshop-reading room – like a mini Chapter [Arts Centre]. It was close to Chapter and we wanted to do that kind of thing again, but smaller. We were gonna have open mic nights and other fun stuff. We had it all planned out and we were called Cafe des Artes, which is the arts cafe… and we had the venue [in Canton] and we’d bought everything ready to go into it. And about two weeks before we signed the lease, the owner said, ‘Oh, no, you’re not. You can’t have it.'”
After six months of searching for a new location for ‘The Arts Cafe’, Dorothee and Stuart were shown what is now their cafe within Wellfield Court in Roath. “It was a greasy old spoon,” Stuart tells us, detailing the fact that, when they looked at the premises, it was in dire need of some TLC. However, having been a food stop previously, Stuart thought they’d sweep in, “tidy up a bit” and reopen within a matter of weeks. In reality, it took three months and required stripping it back to its bones. But it was well worth the wait.
Once ready, however, they opened as a coffee shop, serving delicious cakes and strong coffee to the people of Cardiff and were welcomed into the Wellfield road arcade community with open arms. It was only when customers found out Dorothee was French, that they transitioned into the French cafe after request for delicacies like croque monsieur and quiche came flooding in – a challenge Wales-born Stuart, who studied catering, took in his stride.
“The next thing we knew, after about three or four years, we were a restaurant. And we just sat there one day and looked at each other and went: ‘How are we running a restaurant?’ We didn’t open a restaurant!” he smiles. “We opened an art gallery and somehow it’s turned into a French restaurant!” Dorothee chimes in: “It’s cause you’re cooking is too good, I told you.”
With a strong friendship lasting a decade, it’s clear to see that the pair work as a complete dream team. Dorothee is a warm and welcoming front of house and, as an early riser, she gets up each morning and goes to the markets to buy their produce fresh with which Stuart (who deems himself a night owl) cooks up a storm in their small but mighty kitchen.
Together with Dorothee’s kind and bright nature and Stuart’s infectious joie de vivre, which shines through the entire cafe during their opening hours of 11:30am-3:30pm, it’s no wonder they have so many regular customers returning week in and week out to indulge in the delicious food on offer.
Cooking traditional French food is their USP and something Stuart takes pride in, with no fancy takes or twists on the dishes most-loved throughout France.
“I like things to be really authentic or as authentic as we can possibly make them,” Stuart smiles, reminiscing: “When I got engaged to my partner, we went to Paris and, before I even met Dorothee, and we had a French onion soup in this one restaurant. It was so wonderful. I really loved it, and so the next day we went and had French onion soup again and the third day.” Coming home, Stuart explains how he spent the next three years looking at chefs’ French onion soup recipes – Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Keith Floyd, for example – and none of them compared to the soup he had in France.
“So then I changed a bit of this, changed a bit of that… researched and changed and changed until we got the onion soup that we have now and I’ve been making the same onion soup since we opened here – and we sell litres and litres and litres of it.” One of their most popular dishes, he tells us it is a hit with customers of all ages – even babies. Open between Thursday and Sunday, even their roast dinner pays homage to Dorothee’s homeland.
“When we roast the beef, we do it in the French style of cooking. So it’s done with vegetables and there’s herbs, garlic, wine, spices and things and then it’s kind of steamed as well as cooked at the same time so it is all sealed. So that’s called pot au feu – and I’ve learnt all about this. I’d never cooked French food [before the cafe].”
But that’s not to say he doesn’t know a thing or two about Mediterranean cooking. Stuart has lived in Spain and Greece as well as the UK and also studied catering – in medieval cooking, to be exact. And it seems French dishes, he says, aren’t too dissimilar to the feasts once cooked up in Medieval Wales.
He explains: “Normandy took over Wales. All the castles were Norman. Now, we look up to pop stars and the Queen, say, it’s like we want our food to imitate theirs. So, of course, the Welsh people would have wanted to imitate the rich people at the time, which would have been the Normans, so medieval Welsh cooking is more true to French food than British food!” And with an intrigue in history, Stuart researches each and every dish he lovingly makes.
“We like to know about what we’re cooking. We want to know: why are we cooking this? What is it? It’s been amazing, learning the history about each dish as well.”
For example, the croque monsieur, Dorothee explains, came after cardplayers wanted something fast and hot to eat – “like a hot sandwich”. They made this and the waiter came out and said: ‘Oh, this is your croque, monsieur’. Croque means bite.” Simple, but so effective it stuck.
And it’s not just British people who are fans of this continental bistro – it has had the seal of approval from the French themselves. “It’s nice when you get all the French people come and they say: ‘We love it. This is so authentic’. It’s also really nice because some of the French people come and go: ‘This is better than the French food you get in France!’ It’s nice because obviously, I’m not French, but when you train as a chef, you don’t train in any kind of recipes, you train in the theory of cooking.”
And it seems his training has paid off. With five stars across the board on TripAdvisor, the cafe is one of Cardiff’s best-loved bistros with a plethora of glowing reviews.
One said: “Stuart, Dorothee and the team are alway welcoming. You feel like your in a cosy quaint French Cafe in Paris.” Meanwhile, another reviewers wrote: “Why did nobody tell us what an absolute gem this small but perfectly formed French café is, just off Wellfield Road in a little arcade? Onion soup with a crouton the size of Wales was delicious.”
Keeping in theme with the cafe’s origins, The Cafe Du Chat Noir also hosts cabaret nights twice a month with a drag act, which have seen the likes of Miss Kitty Dubois and Leighton Rafferty pass through its doors.
The story behind the cafe’s name
The story of the cafe’s name is just as intriguing as how the pair met. Having got the keys to the cafe, their original idea of calling this new venture the arts cafe was put on hold.
But when they started work on redecorating, Stuart tells us the name of this Cardiff Cafe Du Chat Noir is spookily parallel to that of Paris’ original establishment Le Chat Noir – whose famous print, the Tournée du Chat Noir,Stuart and Dorothee’s own emblem is based on – a painting of which (created by a friend of Stuart’s) they have propped up in the cafe for all to see.
“There’s a little black and white cat that lives just in the arcade, he’s semi feral,” he says of the cafe name’s inspiration. “There’s a woman who looks after him who’s got a little cat kennel outside her house – he won’t come into the house and he’s scratchy and doesn’t particularly like much of attention. If you pet him too much, he’ll swipe at you.”
He added: “But when we were coming to do the building, we would see the cat every day – he’s a beautiful little cat – and I said to Dorothee: ‘Have you heard of this painting [the Tournée du Chat Noir]?’ I showed it to her and said what about calling it ‘The Cafe Du Chat Noir’?” And the name has stuck ever since.
Now, the cat, named Boizie, comes every couple of days to see Stuart and Dorothee, who treat him to some chicken and ham.
The story behind the original Chat Noir’s name, Stuart eagerly explains, is almost mirrored. Workmen who were building the famous nightclub would see little black cat every day, petting it and giving it food. And so, they decided to name the club after it’s most regular feline friend. “It’s exactly the same story! So many customers are intrigued by it. We actually wrote it and put it in [a frame] so people could read it.”
The cafe is open between 11:30am and 2:30pm on a Thursday and 11:30-3:30pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
What’s the food really like?
After speaking with Dorothee and Stuart about their gorgeously quaint French cafe, I was so excited to try their most popular dishes – the croque monsieur and onion soup. Paired with an ice cold lemon San Pellegrino and the sun shining through the windows, I felt like I could have been on the banks of the River Seine – not Roath. The food arrived within 20 or so minutes and upon first bite, I was in cheesey, salty, creamy heaven. The croque monsieur was perfectly grilled on top, which made for a stringy but satisfying first bite. A ham and cheese toasty, it had been upgraded entirely by a generous smothering of said cheese. The salad, which included grapes, tomatoes, watercress and lettuce, delivers a welcome freshness from the heavy ‘Croque’.
The soup is just as good as I had hoped for. Appearing with a slice of baguette doused in melted cheese on the side, the soup is thick wihout being blended and salty. With each slurp, you get a plump slice of onion, which complements the herbs, spices and saltiness of the soup. Dunking in my cheesey bread, it is comfort food at its finest and, even on a hot day, was the perfect lunch-time treat to transport me to Toulouse.
For more information on how to book a table or cabaret nights, visit their website
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