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Provence In The Valley

Two ardent Francophiles throw a very French party at their very French home

July 02, 2006|Barbara Thornburg | Barbara Thornburg is a senior editor for West and the author of the book "L.A. Lofts," which was released last month.

La vie est belle en Californie.

Seven years ago, Gilena and Gary Simons honeymooned for a month in a charming cottage in the tiny village of St. Antonin du Var, 30 minutes north of St. Tropez. Surrounded by pine woods and vineyards set amid low rolling hills and the chirping of cigales, they fell in love again--this time with the languorous rhythms of Provence.

"Our days were very lazy," recalled Gilena, 36. "We'd wake up, go to the farmers market, buy some olives, cheese, a bottle of wine, maybe a roast chicken, and then return home for lunch. We'd nap, then wake up and begin again, preparing dinner together, sitting outside under the stars. We had a lot of plans but we kept putting them off."

That is, save for one--the biggest plan of them all.

When Gilena and Gary returned to Southern California, they made up their minds to construct a French mas, or farmhouse, just like those they had seen abroad. Far from Provence in miles, but not in spirit, their 10,000-square-foot home in Hidden Hills--Maison du Paix--feels deeply rooted in the land. Unlike many traditional homes built from scratch, it gives off not a whiff of faux Disney.

"We wanted to build something solid," said Gary, 46, a commercial real estate developer, "as if it had been here a long time."

With Bastille Day approaching, eight French natives living in the L.A. area--a director, a pilot, a model, an architect, an artist, an actor's personal assistant and a pair of designers--joined Gilena and Gary at Maison du Paix for a dinner alfresco.

The evening started with a roasted tomato and olive flatbread with P'tit Basque, a flavorful sheep's milk cheese, served on the side. "Think deconstructed pizza," explained Craig Pincus, the private chef the Simonses often use for parties. Aged goat cheese souffles with baby arugula and dried strawberry salad made a nice appetizer before the main course arrived: roasted capon marinated with Provencal herbs, ratatouille- stuffed artichokes, fingerling potatoes topped with chives and the ultimate, musky French root--black truffles.

As befitting a group from France, the conversation between bites quickly turned to a favorite topic: the food in front of them, as well as what else they could be eating.

"For me the best thing about L.A. is the variety of food," said "Catwoman" director Jan Kristof Komar, who goes by the name Pitof. "Mexican, Moroccan, Indian, Japanese--you can find everything here. I love all kinds of food. That's my really French part talking now," he added with a laugh. "While we're eating, we talk about what we're eating, and then what we would like to eat next."

"It's true," said Parisian artist Elizabeth Colomba, who recently had her first one-woman show at See Line Gallery in Santa Monica. "Eating and talking, that's what we French do."

"We have really excellent food in France," professional pilot Florent Renucci chimed in. Hailing from Roanne, home of the three-star restaurant Trois- gros, he should know. "But people are more set in their ways about food. When they opened a Chinese restaurant, my grandfather refused to go because they didn't serve bread."

"Yes, bread is the centerpiece of our food--essential to the French diet," Pitof said. "We have so many kinds--pain de campagne, pain noir, pain aux amandes, pain aux herbs."

"Don't forget pain a la tapenade," said Melanie Plassart, who designs linens for infants. "There are olives in every slice."

"You see, we're all getting excited about food," said Pitof, looking around the table. "By the way, where is the bread?"

The group bantered amid a setting that is tres magnifique. An array of simple materials keeps the Simonses' San Fernando Valley home feeling authentic. Designed in an H-shape configuration, it boasts front and rear courtyards, a hand-cut Santa Barbara stone exterior and terra-cotta roof tiles. Natural light floods the interior spaces, illuminating cool plaster walls the color of butter on a hot summer day. "The walnut plank floor in the main living quarters is much like an old farmhouse might have," said West Hollywood interior designer Mark Cutler, who collaborated with architect John Reed and the Simonses on the design of the home.

Beyond getting the right look for the house, Cutler said, it was important to evoke the "feel of France--the crunch of gravel underfoot as you approach the house, the fragrance of rosemary and lavender in the air, allees of spruce and crape myrtle, ivy climbing the stone walls."

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