“Food is such a good medium to share culture,” says Nicolas Caulliez as he reflects on his foray into the restaurant business, “and I know there is no point to doing this unless we do it authentically.”
Nicolas Caulliez and Colleen Wagner-Caulliez. co-owners of Léa French Street Food on Marion Street engaged their entrepreneurial spirit and jumped into the restaurant business just over a year ago. The architects turned restaurateurs have settled in to peddling healthy, authentic, and responsibly sourced French street food in a modern, casual and cozy setting.
“So often French food is seen as fancy,” says Wagner-Caulliez, “but in reality regular, everyday, French fare isn’t fancy at all.”
And the Caulliez duo knows their way around French fare.
Before settling in Oak Park four years ago, the couple moved to France to care for extended family.They spent eight years navigating The City of Lights bite-by-bite and discovered they share a deep love for everyday French fare; a typical meal does not include escargot and coq au vin, but embraces simple salads, thoughtfully crafted sandwiches, crepes, and open-faced tartines. Many of these items are served on the street and enjoyed on-the-go.
“Nic is from France and has always loved to cook at home;” says Wagner-Caulliez ” over time he developed a vision for a restaurant celebrating simple, honest French street food made from locally sourced ingredients.”
In that moment Léa French Street Food was born.
Operating on Marion Street since May of 2017, today the restaurant serves up variations on the many of the sandwiches they enjoyed in France. The Caulliezes worry there is an assumption in the community they don’t make their own bread, but all the sandwiches, toasts, and pastries served at Léa French Street Food are made fresh daily in-house. In true Parisian fashion all the sandwiches are served on baguette.
Caulliez’s interest in baking piqued after attending a bread class associated with a French flour mill on the outskirts of Paris and taking an internship at a bakery in Paris where he learned about bulk bread and pastry production. He also completed a baking program at Kendall College and now churns out 50-100 fresh baguettes per day. In addition to selling his breads in the restaurant, Léa baguettes can be found at Carnivore and Sugar Beet Food Co-Op.
“Many of our loyal customers get the Parisian sandwich everyday,” says Wagner-Caulliez of the classic ham, butter and cheese combo, “but the chicken, bacon, avocado baguette has proven to be our best-seller.”
Léa French Street Food also peddles tartines; a humble yet flavorful open-faced sandwich featuring assorted toppings. Caulliez opts to use his house-made country bread as a base for his tartines. A custom flour blend featuring a little rye flour gives the dish a hearty base and serves as the perfect springboard for a bevy of creative toppings. Look for Caulliez to introduce a fresh grape, prosciutto, and honey ricotta tartine in the coming months.
Bread makes a sandwich, but the Caulliezes know the importance of using quality ingredients throughout their menu. In fact, the couple considered importing everything from France for Léa’s menu, but after a transformative mid-west road trip, discovered an array of artisans producing meats, cheeses and vegetables made in the European style. Sourcing quality ingredients allows Caulliez to keep his menu simple because there is “nothing to hide.”
Léa French Street Food has capitalized on the advancement of year-round growing techniques to ensure fresh produce adorns their house-made baguettes and tartines. Metropolitan Farms provides the locally grown greens, year-round tomatoes come from Mighty Vine, while Gunthorpe farm provides chicken and bacon to the restaurant. The Caulliez duo can also be found sourcing their ingredients (especially mushrooms from River Valley Ranch) from the Oak Park Farmers Market on a weekly basis.
While the French-food-focused couple feels well-supported by their Oak Park community and appreciate their regular customers, they do acknowledge they’ve been working hard to over come some growing pains. Over the past year they’ve been dedicated to helping folks navigate their kiosk-based ordering system and admit they’ve struggled with operations during the first year they’ve been in business. The couple feels, however, they’ve worked out a lot of kinks recently and streamlined their menu to ensure success.
“We’ve been on a very high learning curve,” says Wagner-Caulliez of her first restaurant venture, “and we appreciate being part of a community that lets us grow into ourselves.”
And that growth includes daily dinner service.
Dinner at Léa brings at different vibe to the well-appointed space. While sandwiches are still on the menu in the evening, the kiosks give way to white tablecloths and the storefront transforms into a full-service restaurant. The seasonally-driven menu contains everything from steamed mussels to seared salmon with mustard sauce. Léa French Street Food also offers diners a thoughtful list of vineyard-focused French wines.
“Our hope is to bring French authenticity to Oak Park;” says Caulliez confidently.
“Yes,”chimes in Wagner-Caulliez, “we’d like to be the place people come with family and friends for tea and toast, appetizers and a glass of wine, or a full French dinner.
106 North Marion Street
Oak Park, IL 60301