Fast & French 25th Anniversary Party
Sun. May 3
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
34 Prioleau St. Downtown
What would the pig say to the chicken? Well, that's one big question Gwylene Gallimard and her partner Jean-Marie Mauclet will be asking at their upcoming 25th anniversary celebration. The co-owners of Fast & French café have planned a party that will be unlike any other you've ever been to. So often, parties like these include a little music, a little food, and some friendly toasting. This event will have those things, but there will also be litanies, a living timeline project, ongoing caption contests, and other random oddities that have a tendency to follow Gallimard (G) & Mauclet (M) around. You see, G & M are artists. They like nothing more than to challenge and question. To that end, they've been planning a party that will last seven hours, that will include as many former employees as they can find, and that will have live music and visual art. Oh, yes, and there will be a giant pig and chicken that you can ride and have your picture taken with.
The timeline is four feet long and will include artifacts, menus, coasters, advertisements, and pictures. The duo has been accumulating items at the café and even more will be added by old employees, each of whom has a "café name" made from the first two letters of their first and last names. In the case of Gallimard and Mauclet, their names are Gwga and Jema.
The history begins with the artists' Fast & French manifesto, written before they had ever worked in a restaurant.
"We didn't want to teach or be gallery artists. Didn't want to produce a lot of the same work. So we worked on a café project — simplified food," says Mauclet. "For nine months we wrote a full book of operations with everything — pricing and recipes and procedures — although we had never worked in a restaurant before. We came up with a product designed by artists. From the start it was a very well-organized but rather artistic thing."
"From the start it was to try to mix philosophy and fast food and one of culinary French food," says Gallimard. "It was the efficiency of procedure to see how it could work. We established the principles of sitting [communally] at bars, the kitchen being very close to front, the restaurant being in a small space. No chef, per se, but people who could be trained. All of that will be on the timeline."
Also on the map will be Hurricane Hugo, an event that cemented Fast & French's position in Charleston. That's when they became part of the history of the city. "We were open two days after," says Mauclet. "No water, but our phone was working. We had bought generators. We started cooking everything in the freezer like crazy. People would bring supplies from out of town."
Just as the health inspector was about to shut them down because they didn't have electricity and hot water, the power came back on. "People would flock here. People still remember today and still talk about it," says Mauclet.
Next came Places with a Past, the artists' controversial return to art. Since starting the café in 1984 and a second location in Cary, N.C. in 1987, the two had been working, with no time for art or much of anything else. In 1991, they were introduced to curator Mary Jane Jacob who was brought in by Spoleto Festival USA to produce a citywide installation that ended up blowing the doors off Charleston — it was too avant-garde, too challenging, and almost ended up causing the executive director at the time, composer and Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti, to stomp off to Italy in a huff. In a review, The New York Times said it "may be the most moving and original exhibition of contemporary art in the United States this season."
Gallimard and Mauclet's installation in a public park off Meeting Street was a rather sacrilegious take on Charleston, called "The Holy City." It featured litanies spoken in French, English, and Gullah. It had pictures of all 460 churches in Charleston — and not just the pretty ones downtown. "We had a kiosk with a screen and video of facades of churches," says Gallimard. They also had a big rubber book in the middle of the park that included church ads and, most pointedly, 460 audible questions about faith and religion.
"Our image changed, and we kept doing art," says Mauclet. "One or two little shows. Started to be more and more involved. It was also good publicity for the café." Which they needed. During the '90s, that block of Broad Street was nothing more than a construction site as the County built its massive courthouse.
Despite having to jump over big puddles and dodge workmen to reach the café, the locals kept coming and business grew. Their clientele passed down from first generation to second and third, as kids grew up and continued to come in for their favorite fondue on Thursday night. Those devoted locals rallied to the café's cause in 2005, when the county tried to sell the building that houses Fast & French. A legal skirmish ensued, as the café had a first right of refusal, and at a County Council meeting, supporters showed up in force to ask the council to honor the restaurant's bid and let them buy their building. They prevailed, and today, they are much more secure in their future.
Eventually, the two will retire and pass their café and its manifesto on to the next generation, but until then, they will ponder the chicken and the pig and figure out who will take their place. In the old fable, to make bacon and eggs, the pig says to the chicken that while he must make the ultimate sacrifice, the chicken only needs to make a contribution. It's a commentary on commitment to the cause.
But for the purposes of this story, the pig says something else to the chicken. Something like: "Why did you cross the road?" And the haughty chicken replies, "To get to the saucisson and cold cucumber soup, dummy."