Alexandra Marschan-Claude has joined the Institut finlandais team for the creation of Café Maa (“earth”), the institute’s new café that opened to the public on 26 April 2022. Finnish and of slav origin, Alexandra has been living in Paris for thirty years and revisits traditional Finnish recipes, rich from her encounters and travels.
Located in the heart of Paris, Café Maa is a modern meeting place and the ideal spot to discover Finnish and Nordic gastronomy. The name Maa means earth in Finnish. It symbolises the importance of nature as well as our close and humble relationship to the earth. Alexandra Marshan-Claude’s cuisine embodies this philosophy up to the creation of recipes and the choice of local and seasonal products.
We took a moment to chat with Alexandra about her background, her inspirations and her motivations for the new café.
Can you tell us about your background? You started your career in perfumery, how did you transition to gastronomy?
I am Finnish and started studying in Finland at a business school where I majored in marketing and English. I arrived in France in 1991 to work for Van Cleef and Arpels perfumes as an Export Manager for nine countries including Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland and the Nordic countries. I worked in perfumery for ten years during which I had my two children.
After ten years, I stopped working to take care of my family. But after a few years, I wanted to go back to work and do something for myself. I got back to my roots: my family comes from St Petersburg and we used to have a charcuterie factory in Finland when I was growing up. My mother was a cooking instructor, my dad developed food-processing companies and my husband already had a catering company when I met him, and works for a restaurant group. Cooking and the restaurant industry are thus a family business.
In 2010, I decided to apply to Ferrandi Paris, the French School of Culinary Arts. It was a wonderful year, we were twelve people coming from all over the world: a Brazilian doctor with whom I am still in contact and who is now one of the best chefs in his country, a young Colombian, a Haitian, a former US Army pilot… We were a really mixed group and that enriched my experience.
After graduating with a CAP (Certificate of Professional Competence), I worked for different chefs including Thierry Marx and the restaurant La Grande Cascade. I also worked for a chocolate factory, and soon after I started working for the Standard Athletic Club, where I ran the kitchen for eight years and catered events. It was a great experience, and I quickly managed big events and simultaneously set up a home catering business.
I was first in contact with the Embassy of Finland in 2017, after an important seminar in Rouen for the centenary of Finland’s independence. Thanks to this contact, I started catering for the events of Finnish companies as well as the embassies of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and about two years ago, I was appointed chef at the Embassy of Finland.
I met Johanna Råman, the director of Institut finlandais, for the first time in April 2021 when she contacted me about the future café of the Institut finlandais. After talking with her for two hours, I told her that I thought I was describing my dream job. Being able to work with a beautiful team and cook Finnish food in Paris… I don’t think it gets any better than this!
I believe it is important to do the things that we want to do when it is financially possible. Little by little, I have moved towards my goal of having my own café or restaurant, and now it is happening at Institut finlandais with carte blanche for the café’s menu and a lovely team. I cannot express how happy I am.
Your experiences have been deeply intercultural. How do they influence your cuisine?
They are expressed in my cuisine everyday. I love mixing flavours and working with seasonal products. I am influenced by my Russian grandmother, with dishes such as blinis, pelmenis, piroshkis or borsch. It is all part of my everyday cuisine and I love fusing the traditional food of my childhood with French products. I learnt how to cook on the phone with my mother and my mother-in-law who were excellent cooks.
Two mothers who taught me to be curious with the magnificent choice of ingredients that we have here in France. It is exceptional: we have Asian, Indian, Baltic, Slav neighbourhoods… I also have a very good Iranian friend who introduced me to the Iranian shops in the 15th arrondissement. Finnish food is my heritage, but my grandmother on my mother’s side came from an Austrian-Danish family and many dishes and pastries from these cultures were also part of my childhood. I love mixing all the different influences in my cuisine.
I come from the swedish-speaking minority and we have our own culinary traditions that are much closer to Swedish cuisine. I love mixing Finnish recipes with French spices. For instance, preparing stuffed cabbage with vine leaves instead of cabbage becomes a dish that could come from Romania. In France, we do have the possibility to create incredible combinations.
If I had to describe my cuisine, I would say that there are always a lot of vegetables, herbs, and spices. I try to stay true to tradition, with a little twist. I love colours and creating colourful plates.
Do you have a favourite recipe to cook or to eat?
There is a dish I love, one of the first recipes my stepmother taught me when I came to France: saffron burbot with tomato sauce and fresh pasta. It is something I cook when I really want to make someone happy. The recipe is quite long and requires quality ingredients. Apart from that, I love marinating herring, it is something I do often. For dessert, I love pavlova: a good meringue with whipped cream and a lot of fresh fruit, it is my favourite dessert.
How do you come up with new recipes, what are your sources of inspiration? How do you choose your ingredients?
It is very hard for me to follow a recipe. When I go to the market, I let inspiration come from the products I find that day and combine them with ingredients I already have at home. When I make a menu, it is very important to me that there is food for everyone: something gluten-free, an interesting vegetarian dish, fish because I love it. I need good Finnish spices such as juniper berries, dill, or chives. Both in pastries and in dishes, we use a lot of dairy products in Finland: fromage blanc, yoghurt, skyr… sauces are usually made with cream. Olive oil is a trendy phenomenon, but we use rapeseed oil a lot more, which I find tasty and prefer to cook with.
You are joining the Institut finlandais team for the creation of the new café. What does this project mean to you? What is your vision for the new café, what are you looking forward to the most?
I want to showcase Finnish food in Paris. We have the ideal location to do so, it is a space with a beautiful soul. I think that my smile and my cuisine will fit in here perfectly. Sharing is very important to me, so if someone in the team wants to cook with me, I will welcome them with open arms and share my recipes and my savoir-faire. That’s what really matters.
Café Maa has opened on 26 April 2022.