Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
When I meet the co-founder of Almost Essential she’s a vision of Paris chic in a Gucci leather jacket, patterned Zara trousers and high-heeled Prada shoes with peep toes. Art lovers, all of them groomed and glossy, are trooping up the stairs of her elegant Chelsea house for a London Art Studies lecture on Matisse.
A mother of two (Fabien, 20 and Maximilien, 17), Caroline Frankel grew up in Paris but has lived in London since 1988. Together with her Belgian business partner, Michelle de Biolley, she recently launched Almost Essential, a website that provides its members with a cherry-picked list of service providers, all of which the pair have tried and tested themselves. These range from the aspirational and ritzy, such as cosmetic doctors, private chefs and personal trainers, to the basic and practical, such as handymen and plumbers.
I catch up with Caroline just before the start of Ben Street’s lecture on Matisse.
What do you miss most about France?
The croissants. But I do know the best place in London for croissants. It’s a tiny café on Thackeray Street. Oh my God! Their croissants are delicious! (Montparnasse Café, 22 Thackeray Street, W8).
I miss the way men look at you in Paris. In London they only look at you if you’re super tall and blonde. But in Paris men look at every woman – and it’s not in a laddish, sexual way, it’s more appreciative.
What’s the beauty staple you can’t live without?
Guerlain 4 Seasons Terracotta. I use it all year round. The great thing about it is you can change the colour depending on how pale or tanned you are.
Where do you go for French food in London?
I rarely go out for French food as I find London restaurants not casual enough. But my kids love l’Entrecôte in Marylebone (see previous blog entry for a full review). I don’t eat fries but there’s nothing nicer than steak and a good salad.
And when you’re in Paris?
I love Le Cherche Midi. It’s a simple, very intimate Italian bistro with paper tablecloths and tightly-packed tables. It does the best pasta. (Le Cherche Midi, 22 rue du Cherche Midi, Paris 75006, tel: 00 33 1 45 48 27 44).
What’s your quick dinner party dish?
Salmon en papillote with basmati rice and steamed courgettes. I bake the salmon in foil or parchment paper with spring onions, lime, olive oil, soy and plenty of salt and pepper. If I’ve got some coriander or basil I throw them in too.
What lingerie brand do you wear most?
Lise Charmel – it’s very pretty and luxurious. La Perla is also amazing.
Does your lingerie always match?
Yes, always. I was taught by my mother that matching lingerie was important. You never know what’s going to happen. I mean, what if you had an accident and were rushed to hospital and your lingerie wasn’t matching?
Any guilty pleasures?
I’m completely crazy about liquorice.
How do you keep the weight off?
I work out four times a week and do a mix of cardio, pilates and yoga. I also try not to eat in the evening if I’m at home. If I get hungry I might have a vegetable soup which I make myself.
Is there anything you like about English food?
Oh yes! I love a Sunday roast, especially if it’s in an amazing pub. I love the whole thing – roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mint sauce, redcurrant jelly.
What’s your top shopping tip on Paris?
Galeries Lafayette has great costume jewellery and it isn’t expensive.
So what exactly is Almost Essential?
Caroline and Michelle’s website is a pooling of both their well-stuffed address books (rather than a concierge service) that reads like a dream team of London fixers. There is a Japanese chef called Keiko, a mobile Italian greengrocer called Vincenzo, a painter of Chinese-style murals and even a dry cleaner who arrives at your door with your freshly-laundered clothes wrapped in white tissue tied with turquoise ribbon.
But Almost Essential isn’t just about luxury services for the super-rich. Also on their books is Tom, a TV and satellite ‘genius’, Sam, an ‘efficient’ plumber and Alastair, a computer expert. The service providers aren’t necessarily the cheapest in town, but they do, Caroline insists, provide value for money. ‘I’m a perfectionist but before I started Almost Essential I felt I was being ripped off all the time,’ she says. ‘We thought others might benefit from our experience.’
Caroline and Michelle also sell dozens of products on the site. These range from a radiation filter for your mobile phone (£69) to a brilliant-sounding sounding French stain remover (£10). There are also very useful beauty products that include a roots cover up powder (£28.50), a non-greasy self-tanning lotion from Green People (£17.95) and an eyelash extender (£67.50). Kitchen products range from tomato peelers from the excellent Zyliss brand (£8.50) to Heston Blumenthal’s state-of-the-art juicer (£134.99).
The current bestseller, according to Caroline, is a silver-coated ice cream tub cover (£38, as shown). ‘I’m a nightmare,’ she says, slipping a pot of Häagen-Dazs inside the silver tub (it fits perfectly). ‘But doesn’t it look great?’