10/07/2018 15:33 BST | Updated 24/07/2018 10:48 BST

Why I Opened A French Restaurant In Colombia

Mickael Ferro's story is the stuff foodie dreams are made of...

La Table Des Vins

When it comes to life goals, living abroad - in a lush country with beautiful people and amazing new experiences around every corner - tops our list every time. Scroll down the list a bit further and you’ll find another thing we love to dream about: opening our own restaurant and bringing our love of food and drink to new people every day.

With nearly one in 10 people from the UK living abroad at some point in their lives, the idea of relocating to Asia or Argentina, San Francisco or Sydney, is something that feels more and more accessible. 

Especially with modern-day technology making it easier to stay in touch with friends and family back home, whether it’s to tell them about the exciting new local dish we sampled or, more realistically ask them to transfer some cash via an app such as Western Union so we can put that deposit down on the flat we liked.

For some people, like Mickael Ferro, the proprietor of La Table Des Vins, a French restaurant in Cali, Colombia, the dream of living an expat life in an exotic country - and opening a restaurant - became his reality. 

Born in Troyes, a small city in northeast France known for its Gothic churches, Ferro came to Woodstock, Oxfordshire in 2008, with plans to bring his champagne import business to England. While the business side of things fell through, Ferro stayed in Oxfordshire and found a silver lining, falling for a Colombian girl who was studying in Oxford at the time. After visiting her in Colombia he realised two things: he was in love with the girl. And he was in love with the country. 

‘It’s the culture, the fact that people are relatively relaxed and have a positive attitude compared to Europe, even when things are going wrong,’ Ferro says of what drew him to Colombia.

‘But most of all, it’s the weather. The sun is shining almost everyday here. That’s a pretty good thing which makes your life different and more enjoyable.’

La Table Des Vins

While Ferro was tempted to settle in Cali after his first visit in 2009, he knew that in order to run a successful business, he’d need some proper training - you see, he’d never managed a restaurant before.

So he went back to the UK (with his future wife in tow) and started learning everything he could about the field of hospitality, waiting tables and becoming a general manager for Mitchells & Butlers pubs, Café Rouge and Côte Brasserie in London. He also earned a qualification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) on Bermondsey Street.

In 2016, Ferro and his missus packed up their place in St Albans and headed back to vibrant Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city that’s known for its infectious salsa culture.

‘Opening my restaurant in Cali was both a dream and a personal accomplishment of mine,’ explains Ferro.

‘Cali is completely different to Bogotá and much more family-friendly. We had my wife’s family there for support and a poor selection of French restaurants on offer so I decided to go for it even though I’d never run a restaurant before. In France, I was a legal consultant working in something equivalent to the BMI so my first hospitality experience came from the UK, where I managed two restaurants.’

While managing a restaurant may be the same no matter what language you’re speaking, Ferro had a big challenge ahead: cultural differences between how the French and the Colombians do mealtimes. Not to mention eating very different foods!

‘The first time that my wife came to France for a family lunch, she was amazed to see that lunch lasted four to five hours! For a French guy, that’s something pretty classic. We love food and wine. What we love more than anything else is sharing our time, our food and our wines,’ says Ferro.

‘This notion is completely misunderstood here in Colombia. Food is there to feed you and the culinary culture is just starting here. There are a few famous chefs on the rise and people are beginning to be proud of their national products. So without even touching on the diversity of the offerings and cooking techniques, the main difference between the French and Colombian dining experience is in the mentality and the culture.’

La Table Des Vins

Ferro’s restaurant, La Table Des Vins, brings a brasserie-style atmosphere serving up all of the French classics, from croque monsieur to côte de boeuf, paired with a comprehensive wine list with wines from Argentina, Chile, Italy, Spain, Australia, the U.S. and - of course - France. Ferro tries to get fresh local fare where possible, working with suppliers in Bogotá and sourcing European products like Dijon mustard and Spanish olive oil from PriceSmart superstore.

One of the challenges for Ferro is that e-retail as we know it doesn’t exist on the same level in Colombia, with online shopping still in its infant stages.

‘People don’t really trust the internet and online purchases and only 30% of businesses bother getting a website here. That’s amazing to see in 2018. So it makes it a challenge to source suppliers and products. Everything works on the field here: contacts, connections and word of mouth are the most reliable ways of securing suppliers here,’ Ferro explains.

It is not surprising then that for a lot of his business transactions abroad, Mickael relies on services such as Western Union’s Cash Pickup locations, of which there are many in Cali.

Getting the top wines for his restaurant also takes some negotiating as there isn’t much of a diverse local offering, a combination of super-high taxes on wines, which have increased significantly over the past couple of years, and the market just getting interested in the product.

La Table Des Vins

Despite the stresses that come with running a local business and sometimes feeling lost in translation, Ferro thoroughly recommends the expat experience.

‘After having studied in Italy, lived in UK and living now in Colombia, I love it. That’s a unique experience in your life. You can travel all around the world, but nothing will compare to that experience of living abroad,’ says Ferro.

‘You feel part of the culture, country and people. A part of you belongs here. After 10 years in the UK, I miss it and feel a part of me is British. I am starting to get this feeling growing inside me about Colombia. Today, I speak four languages without having particularly studied them at school, but just by living in the countries.’

Ferro also maintains a great connection to friends and family that are 5,000+ miles away.

‘The internet has changed many ways of living nowadays. Working from home, smartphones, social media - it’s never been as easy to communicate as it is today,’ says Ferro.

‘When it comes to friends, it’s difficult because you miss them and nothing can replace the pub or a few glasses of wine around the table on the weekend. That’s the price to pay when you choose to live as an expatriate.’

‘But honestly, I speak more often to my parents now than when I was living in Paris!’

 

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