“Sauvage” means “wild” or “natural” in French. South Boston’s Anaïs Lambert, 28, harnesses that spirit at her freshly opened Café Sauvage in the Back Bay: jungle-palm wallpaper, mellow atmosphere, and a menu that challenges frontiers, from crepes made with the Ethiopian flatbread injera to banh mi with curry Dijon. She runs the restaurant with her husband, Antoine, whom she met as a teenager in Paris.
What’s Café Sauvage’s philosophy?
Sauvage is a real French café-restaurant where you can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The idea behind it is to follow our customer for every time of their day; they can find us.
We have this international connection. My husband is white. I’m Black. I have African roots that I wanted to be represented in the courses that we’re serving. Sauvage [was named] because one of our favorite restaurants in France, in Paris, is Maison Sauvage. And we love to have plants everywhere, to have this wild decor. It’s also about being not basic, and different.
Our cuisine has the same [high] standards, but in a cool and relaxed environment. We don’t have tablecloths on the table. We’re aiming to have that cool vibe that French people have in Paris, to just chill at the terrace, or just chill at a little café. And we feel like this kind of vibe has not been represented around Boston yet. That’s why we opened our own café, to try to share that with the Boston area.
How did you get into the food business?
I used to work as a digital marketing manager for French companies. That’s what brought me to Boston in the first place. And then Antoine, my husband, started in the French restaurant industry. He started at Frenchie, and then he worked at Colette, so all the experiences built to have his own place. And I was there with him all the way around, and having that digital marketing background, we were like, “Why don’t we just combine our expertise and do something nice?”
What were the challenges of opening during COVID? I’m guessing that it takes a lot to find the space and to pay for it — how did you manage to pull it off?
Honestly? We got lucky. We took a lot of risk to open our place in the middle of the pandemic. We were so eager to do something. Also, there was fear. Sometimes we were wondering, “Will it work or not?” We didn’t know, but we were like, “We know that our concept could work here.” We knew that things would come up nicely at the end, so we took all those risks.
We went from place to place to check if we could have it. We are young; we’re still under our thirties. So some landlords were like, “Oh, you’re too young. Oh, I don’t know if your concept will work.” But we never stopped, and thanks to that, we’re here. We put everything on the table because we didn’t take any investments as well, so all the investment that we put on that restaurant is our savings. But we were believing in that project, believing that Bostonians would love it, and that it was missing from the restaurant scene. So that’s what we did.
Was this always your dream?
My mom was, how do we say, an only mom? She just raised me. She was a single mom. My dad wasn’t there. And I knew that I wanted to have this. I had dreams back then. First of all, my mom always told me that the most powerful tool for me will be an education, so she invested everything in me. She put me in the best school that she could, she pushed me to have a master’s degree as well, so I have a master’s degree in digital marketing. So after my master’s degree, I really wanted to be bilingual.
When I was 18, I met Antoine — back then, he was just my boyfriend. And I was 19 years old, almost 20, and he proposed to me. And I was like, “Yeah, why not?” In the end, I just wanted the ring, because I wasn’t the type to be married right away. And so from that proposition, I was still wanting to be bilingual. So I told him, “One day I will leave everything: My family, my friends, my hometown, and I will go abroad. And I really want to go to America because I want to be bilingual.” That was my main goal.
From there, I found this job opportunity as a digital marketing assistant. Antoine followed me, so we got married. For him to come to America, we needed to be married. But, also, I just wanted to be with him, so it wasn’t even a choice. When he arrived here, he had to restart again, because I had a job, and he didn’t. Frenchie restaurant, five years ago, just announced that it would start to be open soon, so he applied there. He fell in love with the food industry. And, him being so happy, he moved to the top. How do we say it? He found his calling.
After two years of working at Frenchie, we decided to go back to France, because Boston wasn’t always our first choice compared with Paris. So we went back to Paris for one year, and, at some point, we were like, “OK, something is missing.” We knew that in Boston, there were opportunities. We knew that in Boston, there was still some stuff that needed to be created, that the city has so much to offer, and there’s still a European vibe that we like.
What’s been your experience in Boston as a Black woman — the challenges and the opportunities?
OK. I won’t lie. Boston is not the most diverse city. And, at the beginning, when I moved here, I was really shocked: “Oh my God, there are no Black people around.” It took me a while to understand that there is still some cleavage, I will say, between people.
I have lived in Brighton, Fenway, now in South Boston, and even my actual neighborhood, South Boston, is not the most diverse place — but I feel like Boston is making an effort. And I’m really happy to see that, at our café, there are all those types of people: Black, white, Chinese, everything. And it was also a thing that I really wanted to promote: diversity. I mean, we are a mixed couple, so of course I want to promote diversity.
What do you think of the food scene here?
That’s a tricky question. I think that there is a lot of stuff, but I feel like there is still some stuff that they are missing. I feel like there is a place for creation in Boston, and there is still some space. Not everything has been done.
Where do you go when you’re not working? Any restaurants that you like?
I like Barcelona Wine Bar. I love Colette. I love Frenchie, obviously; we worked there. I love Saltie Girl. Their lobster roll is terrific. So, yeah.
Who has the best French pastries in the area?
Café Madeleine, no hesitation, in the South End. But there are a lot of competitors now.
I love chocolate croissants.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu at Café Sauvage?
My favorite thing is my roast chicken, because it’s part of my heritage. I shared my mom’s recipe with the chef, so it’s sentimental. I have a bond with that plate.
Roast chicken is such a standard dish that you can find on a lot of menus, but there are good versions, and there are plain versions. What makes yours special?
Oh, the spices that we’re using; you won’t find them in any other restaurant. They’re African spices. I don’t want to reveal my secret, but there it is. There’s this side sauce: a crispy garlic sauce that I love. And that recipe’s from my mom, and the chicken comes with plantains. So it’s really something that you won’t find anywhere in Boston, that’s for sure.
Favorite TV show or movie? Binge-watch?
Honestly, I don’t have the time to watch TV, but the last thing that I watched was “Squid Game,” because everybody talked about it. I also checked out “Emily in Paris,” for sure, because I was like, “What’s this thing about?” And when I started, I was like, “OK, there is still work to do on what Paris looks like!”