A taste of Les Soupes de Belleville

This improvised soup kitchen serves some 200 bowls “for free to one and all” every day

Under the murals of the place Fréhel, at the corner of the rue de Belleville and the rue Julien Lacroix, the eclectic terrasse of the Culture Rapide Cabaret Populaire has been transformed, since late November, into a soup kitchen for all. 

Every day until at least Christmas, the newly-founded association Les Soupes de Belleville sets up camp in this jumble of wooden structures decorated with multicolored ribbons and fabrics. Rap music blaring, volunteers carry equipment from their base at Culture Rapide onto the place and install an improvised outdoor kitchen on the bar’s temporary expanded terrasse.

The operation was launched in November by Pilote Le Hot, owner of Culture Rapide, a slam poet and founder of the Grand Poetry Slam festival. France’s second lockdown dashed his hopes of holding a Christmas market on the terrasse. “I said to myself that since there was no way to do business, we were going to do free,” says Pilote, who has lived in the 20th for some 28 years and purchased Culture Rapide some 13 years ago to host slam and poetry events.

Working with two others at first, Pilote created the association Les Soupes de Belleville, with the goal of distributing 300 bowls of free homemade soup every day for six weeks, until Christmas. He launched a call for donations and volunteers. And Pilote wrote 12 principles to explain the association’s values of giving, sharing and inclusiveness.

Volunteers sign up on the association’s website for six-person shifts from either 10:30 a.m. to 3 pm or from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Romain has volunteered twice since discovering the initiative on Facebook. Partial unemployment due to Covid has given him the free time to volunteer. “It’s a really good initiative that comes from the heart, from people who want to give their time, who want to give joy during the holidays and the cold,” Romain says, adding that he enjoys sharing a smile, a laugh, or a short chat with guests.

From noon to 6 p.m., guests form a socially distanced line under one of the temporary shelters and wait to order cups of coffee or tea, pastries, slices of bread and bowls of hot soup, maybe with a sprinkle of shredded cheese. Today, they have a choice of vegetable soup with broccoli, or miso soup that was donated by the Asahi Japanese restaurant across the street.

While some volunteers welcome and serve the guests, others wash and cut vegetables for the next day’s soups. Ingredients are collected here and there, and recipes are improvised accord what’s available. “There is neighborhood participation, a collective synergy that is exciting,” says Pilote, who has also invested his own money in equipment, decorations and food. Today, he bought from a market vendor several kilos of carrots at a discount. This will supplement a crate of unsold kale leaves and broccoli from the neighboring Biocoop, and a large sack of day-old baguettes from a bakery. Pilote entrusts the bread to Monique, a volunteer, to make a pudding. 

A retired legal consultant who lives in the 20th, Monique has been volunteering for two weeks and plans to continue “until the end.” “Every day, I come down with my shopping trolley, and I bring clothes for the free wardrobe. People can drop off clothes, and those in need help themselves,” she says, pointing to a rack of coats and sweaters. Today, she has set aside a coat for a young man. “He’s always in a t-shirt. He says he isn’t cold, but still,” she says, adding that she is happy to do “concrete things” during her retirement.

Ezequiel, an Argentinian circus performer who works at Culture Rapide, is also happy to participate in the initiative, which now serves some 200 bowls of soup a day. But Ezequiel admits he’s shocked by the number of people in need. “It makes me want to continue. I like helping people. It also helps me,” he says, adding “I didn’t know much about volunteering. And I didn’t even know how to make soup! It’s a nice experience for my life.”

Ezequiel and Pilote say the initiative is picking up steam. “If the volunteers are motivated, we could continue,” Pilote says, adding he is ready to carry on even once bars are allowed to reopen. “It would be nice to continue at lunchtime, for example,” he says. “The more volunteers we have, the more fluid we are going to be, the more we could work on the decoration, on the logistics to make it even more beautiful, to make it even funkier for our guests,” he says.

Les Soupes de Belleville
place Fréhel
Métro Belleville or Pyrénées
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