A taste of France in the heart of Madison

A taste of France in the heart of Madison

As morning breaks over North Frances Street, the kitchen of the French House gets filled with the clattering of pans and dishes, quickly drowning the words of Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn” playing in the background. It’s the start of another bustling day for chef Karen Ladell and her team as they prepare for the final public meal of the semester.

For Ladell, who has been the chef at the French House for nine years, her work days begin as early as 7:30, with her meticulously planning the day’s menu. “I come in and take a look around at what I need to do for lunch and the salad bar and plan my day,” she says. 

Founded in 1918, the French House has been a cultural hub for Francophiles and language enthusiasts since its inception. Operated by UW–Madison’s Department of French & Italian, it serves as both a residence and learning center for students and the broader Madison community.

Over the past century, the French House has evolved into a vibrant environment where residents and visitors gather twice a week during the academic year, on Wednesday evenings and Friday afternoons, to speak French, enjoy delicious meals and forge connections.

“The French House is more than just meals,” says Alain Peyrot, a frequent diner originally from France who met his wife, Jill, at the French House over 60 years ago. “We gather here to speak French and connect with Francophones. But, of course, also for the delicious food; there has always been an exceptional cook here.”

For the director of the French House, Anne Theobald, the public meals are an outreach to the broader Madison community.

The French House on Frances St. Photo by Mafe Pavenello.

“Our goal is to create a space where people can come together to speak French and enjoy good food,” she says. “It’s about creating opportunities for language learning and cultural exchange.”

Drawing from her background in bakery jobs, Ladell tries to infuse elements of French cuisine into each public meal, which makes for a diverse experience for diners every time. “We just try to do a rotation,” Ladell says. “So there would be beef, pork, fish, chicken. And chicken seems to be the most agreeable, because, for some religious reasons, some people can't have pork or beef.”

The public meals at the French House are more than just a culinary experience. Marie-Noëlle Douard-Pietri, a French House resident from Avignon, in the south of France, emphasizes the importance of these meals in fostering connections and language learning.

“I still benefit a lot from the interactions and the people I meet there,” Douard-Pietri says. “It is a very interesting cultural exchange during each conversation between people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds.”

For nonnative speakers, diving into a French conversation may initially be daunting. However, Douard-Pietri reassures guests that the experience is tailored to their needs, providing a supportive environment for language practice. “Past that first apprehension, being immersed in a French conversation is the best way to learn actual and useful French,” she says. “We certainly don’t speak like textbooks in real life!”

The public meals not only serve as a platform for language practice but also as a celebration of other Francophone cultures around the world. During each semester, diners can try everything from traditional Moroccan couscous and other West African recipes to New Orleans-inspired dishes during the week of Mardi Gras, adding a multicultural touch to the experience.

“It's not just about the food,” Ladell says. “It's about creating an experience for our guests, where they can immerse themselves in French culture and language while enjoying a delicious meal.”

Each public dinner is carefully planned to cater to the guests’ diverse tastes. The buffet-style meals consist of a rice, potato or pasta dish — with vegetarian options always available — a fresh salad bar and dessert. Excellent French bread and coffee or tea are the final touch, as Ladell ensures that every guest leaves satisfied and eager for their next visit.

These meals also serve as a platform where diners from all walks of life come together to share stories and laughter. “I particularly like having conversations with older guests who always have a ton of anecdotes and stories to share,” Douard-Pietri says. “It’s like a breath of fresh air!"

Douard-Pietri believes that the French House embodies the Madison spirit of community and connection. “I consider these encounters very important,” she says. “Comparing languages and especially teaching idiomatic expressions to the guests always leads to very amusing reflections and conversations.”

With prices ranging from $10 to $16 per person, the all-inclusive dining experience is a draw for returning guests each week. Students, however, can enjoy even lower prices; for them, Wednesday meals cost $10, and Friday meals are $8. 

“The price is kept low to ensure accessibility for students, but the experience is invaluable,” Theobald says.

As the French House looks to the future, there is a sense of optimism and excitement. The continued collaboration with organizations like the French Consulate in Chicago and other initiatives further enrich the experience for residents and visiting diners. Through events such as public lectures and conversation groups, the French House keeps expanding the reach of the French language and culture in the Madison community.

French House diners enjoying fine cuisine and conversation. Photo by Mafe Pavenello.

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