When my friend Brigitte and I came to Paris, we expected to find a bustling, energetic and arrogant city. The image of a perfectly coiffed, impossibly slim and icy woman in Chanel and Hermes came to mind. The reality was as far from our expectation as you could imagine. The Paris we encountered was elegant yes, but it was also warm and personal. This pleasant surprise was brought to us by the women who are now at the helm of some of the most prestigious establishments of Paris. These women instinctively know that elegance without warmth is intimidating, and luxury without a human touch is merely showiness. These women introduced us to Paris the friend, not Paris the unattainable ideal.
Our first stop was the Hotel Plaza Athenee. Located on the Avenue Montaigne, the Plaza Athenee is on the 'golden triangle,' which is completed by the Champs Elysee and the Rue Georges V. Glamorous designer houses, embassies, theatres, and hotels line these avenues. Only steps from the hotel's front door are the houses of Prada, Ungaro, Dolce & Gabbana – to name a few of the closest. While the hotel is located in the most prestigious neighborhood on the Right Bank of Paris, one only has to walk a block or two and cross the Seine River to reach the more bohemian Left Bank. Established in 1911 and completely renovated in the last two years, this hotel offers a "home away from home" for a loyal international clientele. With a particular focus on fashion and the arts, the hotel has been host to celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly. Throughout the hotel sketches from well-known fashion designers decorate the walls of corridors and suites.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the elegant Isabelle Maurin, the hotel's Director of Communications. She led us into the hotel's Galerie des Gobelins, where we sat in an intimate cluster of comfortable loveseats and armchairs, tucked between the stone pillars framing this long, broad gallery area. While we were aware of other knots of twos and threes dotting the private alcoves of this gallery space, we felt very private and cozy in our personal space. Service in the Galerie des Gobelins is an all-day affair, offering light meals, afternoon tea and drinks from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m.
After she graciously offered us the opportunity to sample some of the specialties of the house, and while we waited for our lunch to arrive, Isabelle shared with us some interesting insights regarding the Plaza Athenee. Now nicknamed "the most feminine palace in Paris," the Plaza takes great pride in the fact that its management team is comprised primarily of women. Isabelle explained the rationale, "Women have something extra – they are more sensitive to detail, more refined and often better organized. They are the ones who ensure that all our guests – men and women – experience a personal touch that makes them feel at home in the Plaza Athenee." Brigitte and I could feel the truth in what Isabelle was saying. This hotel feels not only comfortable, but it gives you a sense of safety and security. The staff is both highly attentive and very discreet. Isabelle also told us that the Plaza Athenee is the only luxury hotel in Europe that has been awarded the ISO 9001 certificate – which is an internationally renowned mark of service excellence.
We had arrived during the hotel's busiest weeks of the year – the week of the "Pret a Porter" fashion shows in Paris. That explained the clusters of black-clad people, heads together, poring over programs and reviews from the shows. People meeting one another, rising up to shake hands and network, while others engaged in hushed cell phone conversations. A busy backdrop in an environment where a layer of quiet elegance and calm still prevailed.
When our lunch arrived, Isabelle left us to enjoy our meal while she attended to another one of the many groups she was hosting in various areas of the hotel.
Our waiter brought our lunch – we shared a club sandwich and a Caesar salad. The sandwich was about 4 inches high and comprised of three layers of lightly pressed toast, sliced tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, delicate slices of chicken and bacon, garnished with romaine and mayonnaise. We could not resist the homemade chips, which were paper-thin, light and crisp. The Caesar salad featured pale green romaine lettuce, impossibly thin shavings of sweet and salty parmesan cheese, virtually transparent bacon and croutons of country bread.
Minutes after we finished, Isabelle slipped back into her seat. She suggested a tour of the hotel before dessert and we readily agreed. As we made our way to see one of the small suites, Isabelle explained that the interior designer team of Bettina Mortemard and Marie-Josee Pommereau were chosen explicitly for their reputation as decorators of some of the best private apartments in Paris. Once again, the feminine touch and at-home feeling were the dominant themes. The smaller suite we saw took our breath away with its elegant beauty and warm comfort. Their goal was to make the guest feel as though they were staying in a fine apartment – and that goal was met. From the books lining the shelves to the fresh flowers distributed among the tables, the suite had been imbued with a welcoming air of hominess. The floor-to-ceiling windows dressed in silk curtains overlooked a quiet courtyard, which we were told in the summer, was also rampant with gorgeous flowers.
As we had so often remarked on the beautiful flowers we had seen throughout our tour, Isabelle offered us a true insider's view of the hotel. Next, she spirited us behind-the-scenes to meet the hotel's chief florist and his staff of three assistants. In a set of several rooms, including a cool flower storage room holding hundreds of blooms, the florist and his staff work to constantly arrange and refresh the flowers that filled every corner of the hotel. If the staff has discerned your preference, either through a direct request on your part or a comment overheard by one of their discreet service staff, you will find your favorite flowers in your room upon check-in.
As we now found ourselves in the service area of the hotel, Isabelle continued the behind-the-scenes tour. We met the youthfully impressive pastry chef who oversees a staff of 22 pastry chefs and assistants, again many of them women. We briefly toured the kitchen (a little too busy to linger) and saw the line-up of room service tables awaiting their delicious cargo before being whisked up to the various rooms.
Isabelle brought us back to the Galerie des Gobelins, where she invited us to resume our seats and enjoy the famous dessert concocted by the young pastry chef – the "religieuse." And a religious experience it was! A light pastry eclair was filled with rich caramel cream, both sweet and salty. Tiny filets of gold leaf sat atop the dessert, giving it the air of decadence and richness that it fully deserved! Steaming hot coffee complemented this wonderful dessert experience.
As we finished our dessert and continued to experience this wonderful hotel, I looked down to see a beautiful tile mosaic, swirls of orange and green, under our feet. I expected that the tile floor was part of the original structure and then I saw that the carpets, which had been custom-made as part of the recent renovation, echoed the patterns and colors of the original mosaic. It struck me at that moment that the passion for perfection that we had seen so far reached to every corner of the hotel and every aspect of its offering. Guest's preferences are logged in the computer as part of a personal profile – do you like white tulips and champagne upon arrival? Or perhaps you prefer red roses and coffee... Using modern technology to provide classic service is a trademark of this hotel.
The service at the Hotel Plaza Athenee is a wonderfully baffling paradox. How can it be so efficient, yet provide such a warm sense of comfort? How can the staff be presciently attentive, and yet so incredibly unobtrusive? Where do they learn to be one hundred percent professional, while making each individual feel they are the personal guest of a generous host? We concluded that only the world's best hospitality professionals, such as those who comprise the team at the Plaza Athenee, manage to achieve this elusive combination.
The Feminine Touch Again – in a French Perfume Shop
Our next stop was to visit one of the many shops of the famous French perfumer, Annick Goutal. We had arranged in advance to visit the store on the Rue des Rosiers in the newly fashionable and incredibly historic district, Le Marais. Winding our way through the cobblestone streets, we found the tiny shop and entered a world of fragrance. We were greeted by a young woman named Magali Quenet, and we learned that Magali was the Director of Training for the company. Confident and passionate about her work, Magali gave us a history of the company interspersed with aromatic samples of its products.
We learned that the founder of the company, Annick Goutal, was born in 1945 into a confectioner's family, and spent most of her life training to become a concert pianist. At 20 she went to England where she was discovered by the famous fashion photographer David Bailey. He helped to make Annick Goutal one of the leading fashion models of the day. A few years later, back in Paris, she was drawn to the world of cosmetics and fragrance. Annick Goutal discovered a world where she could blend her music, fashion and even confectionary into a new world of the senses – fragrance. She started to 'compose' fragrances with an innate understanding of the variation in 'notes' and the 'harmony' of various blends. Even today, when her fragrances are displayed, they are displayed in a musical scale ranging from the deepest to the lightest 'notes.' Their wide range of perfumes makes it possible for anyone to find the right scent, which for many French women becomes an integral part of their signature. Often one's ideal scent changes through the years, and the Goutal line offers important changes in intensity and depth. As Annick Goutal said, "A woman's life is full of important passages. When she is sixteen, she dreams. When she is twenty, she shimmers. When she is thirty, she is on fire."
Annick Goutal's fragrances are known for their natural ingredients of the very highest quality. For people who cannot tolerate many of the stronger, chemically-based perfumes that are so popular today, Annick Goutal's more subtle line offers a perfect solution. The product is made and wrapped in its gold and cream packaging by hand.
We watched Magali greet customers who came to the tiny shop and we were struck by her love of the craft. She particularly enjoyed the challenge of finding the perfect match between a woman and her ideal scent. "Tell me about your special friend," she encouraged a young man who wanted a gift for his girl friend. "Is she brunette? Blond? Active or quiet? Would you say she is cool? What kind of music does she like?" Magali continued with the questions, and then, after a few minutes of quiet reflection, she declared, "Eau du Ciel!" Based on her knowledge of perfume and people, she selected the perfect match and declared the name of her perfume selection with enormous enthusiasm. She confided in us later that she loved to find the perfect perfume for each woman, or man. Annick Goutal even makes delicate, alcohol-free scents for children under 3 years of age! Magali rubbed a little bit of the baby scent into the corn-silk soft hair of a baby who came in with his young mother – the mother a university student seeking to do a project on the renowned Annick Goutal.
We were saddened to learn of the death in 1999 of Annick Goutal, at age 54. Her daughter Camille is carrying on the creative end of the business. The enterprise is run by Madame Brigitte Taittinger, of the champagne family, who now own Annick Goutal as part of their portfolio of luxury products, which also includes Baccarat crystal.
When we left the shop, a couple of hours later, we agreed that we had spent one of the most extraordinary days in Paris. The hours around lunch we were enveloped in the luxury of one of the most beautiful hotels in Paris, and the rest of the afternoon we were ensconced in an exquisite jewel box of a French perfume shop.
Yet, the most memorable aspect of our visit is not the fashion or the luxury or the elegance. When we think back to our trip, we remember the women who redefined Paris for us. Their Paris is not an unattainable ideal of beauty or haute couture. Their Paris is elegant but also warm, luxurious but also caring. By reaching out, one person and one customer at a time, these women and their colleagues are making Paris more accessible and more comfortable than it has ever been.