Welcome to our newest series, A&C Profiles! We’re excited to share the inspiring stories of interesting people from our lives and travels.
Laurence is an energetic, enterprising French woman who did something that almost all of us have dreamt of but few people ever actually do. She moved her family to tropical paradise! I walked away from my conversation with Laurence feeling inspired to try new things. Like a lot of people, I’m definitely guilty of over-thinking things and rarely acting impulsively. Our decision to move to Japan was a carefully thought-out affair, full of pros and cons lists, consulting professional mentors and family members, and weighing all of our options. That’s what works best for us, but Laurence made me feel that I should take advantage of opportunities that simply feel right, without worrying so much. Hopefully she’ll encourage you to do the same!
I met Laurence on our recent trip to French Polynesia. My husband and I stopped for lunch at Lilikoi Garden Café, Laurence’s popular little restaurant nestled between a coconut grove and her beautiful home. She was welcoming and warm, and we found it easy to talk to her. She told us a little bit about herself and I simply had to have a copy of her lovely cookbook. We ate a delicious lunch and went on our way, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how interesting her story was! I sent her a message that night to see if she would let me interview her for this new blog series that Carla and I have been discussing for months. She was happy to chat, so I stopped by a few days later to learn more about her.
To see more from our trip, check out my French Polynesia travel guide and the island-specific guide to Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora.
Laurence and her Japanese-American husband met at university in France. He was there on a study abroad program and they fell in love immediately. She followed him to Austin, Texas where she spent a year babysitting and teaching French while he finished his degree. He wanted to revisit his Japanese heritage, so the couple moved to Japan. She taught cooking classes and French, with an annual stint selling crepes at a local festival (where she raised enough money to fund travels to Thailand). After a few years, they decided to move back to France for a change of scenery. They had 2 children, and she learned more about cooking and running a restaurant by working in kitchens.
Laurence and her husband had always tossed around the idea of moving to French Polynesia, and they took a vacation to see what it was like. She laughs when she tells the story, as if she can hardly believe they had such nerve:
When we arrived on Moorea, we decided to really do it. And when I want to do something, I do everything to make it happen. We printed resumes in a store, ten for each of us. My husband went on one side of the island and I went on the other. We had to meet in the middle at the Intercontinental. We said “If we find a job today, we stay.” My second hotel was a Sheraton, and they saw that I could speak Japanese, English and French and they said ‘”You have a job. You don’t have to interview, we want you because this will be so helpful for the hotel.” They could employ me instead of 3 people. So I got the job. And he did the same thing, but for a big pearl shop. So we met at the Intercontinental, we drank champagne and we said “We’re moving here!” They gave us a month to go back to France. We picked up our kids, sold everything and came back. So we didn’t think about it, we just did it. We had no time to think. We were like, “It’s the right thing to do.” We got jobs, and we had a little bit of money because we sold our car and everything. So we arrived with a little bit, and we started to work the day after we arrived.
Moving to tropical paradise wouldn’t be quite as easy for most of us, but French Polynesia offers a unique opportunity for French nationals. There are no visa requirements or stressful immigration processes because it’s an overseas collectivity of France. We heard the same story from quite a few French people on our trip. They visited, fell in love, and decided to move. It offers a different pace and quality of life than France. Laurence says, “I like the life here mostly because people are nice. There is no stress. There’s always nature. We’re outside most of the day and most of the year.”
They live on the island of Moorea, which boasts only sixteen-thousand residents. Laurence loves that everyone knows each other, and that they share and trade their resources (and keep an eye on each other’s kids). “Here we have a lot of friends, and we trade a lot. If I have a big bunch of bananas, I’ll give some to my friends. And the fisherman will give me fish or lobster.”
There are a few downsides, though: “I need to travel. The island is kind of small, and I need to travel once or twice a year. I need a city with some city life, museum and art. And I miss my family, of course, but they come and visit once a year.”
Laurence and her husband had their third child in French Polynesia. Healthcare is not exactly world-class on such a small island, so they have an interesting solution in French Polynesia. Laurence explains, “They send you to Tahiti. You have to go a month before, with your big belly. You have to find a place to stay. It was kind of nice, actually. We all moved to Tahiti and stayed at a friend’s house. We had a pool and a nice backyard, and we waited for the baby to arrive. It’s more secure that way.”
While having three children would be a roadblock for many people while considering self-employment, it actually motivated Laurence to start her own business. “I opened the café when my youngest was six months old because he needed a nanny, because I used to work selling pearls all day. All three kids needed a nanny, and I thought it was really stupid to pay for a nanny. I decided to change my job and open a café. It was a big dream for a long time.” The colorful, casual Lilikoi Garden Cafe is basically in their backyard, and is open for lunch daily and only Friday for dinner. Laurence is able to set her own hours around her family’s schedule and is a stone’s throw away in case her children need her.
She has always loved to cook, and remembers spending hours in the kitchen with her grandmother. Laurence’s grandparents owned a winery, and they used to prepare hearty meals for their employees. She started cooking at age three with her family, and has traveled the extensively to continue her culinary education. Her cooking reflects her travels and the unique cultural heritage of her family. She pairs local ingredients with techniques from all over the world, with strong emphasis on French and Japanese-inspired dishes. “My goal here is to work with local producers. I have two fishermen from the island, one baker who bakes really good bread, and two ladies for fruit. I try to do the rest myself. I took a class in Italy to learn to make ice cream and I bought a big machine. I make it just with local fruits, like mango, vanilla bean, passionfruit, banana and coconut.”
Her self-published cookbook is available online as an ebook, or you can buy a hard copy from her directly if you’re fortunate enough to visit French Polynesia! Les Recettes du Lilikoi Garden Cafe is full of inspired recipes that effortlessly combine these influences. It’s in French, but thanks to Google Translate it’s quite accessible if you’ve managed to retain any of that high-school French. Laurence agreed to share her poisson cru recipe with our A&C readers, so check out this blog post for a traditional French-Polynesian dish (think: ceviche’s South Pacific cousin). I’m personally excited to try her shrimp and pineapple salad served in a hollowed-out pineapple half (as soon as I live in a place where pineapples are reasonably priced). And her recipe for duck breast with mango sautéed in butter makes me drool.
If you find yourself in French Polynesia, I highly recommend a visit to the island of Moorea. Stop by Lilikoi Garden Café on a sunny day (outdoor seating only, so you’ll probably want to avoid it in the rain). Look for the sign on the main road, as it’s tucked back off the road in a coconut grove. You’ll enjoy some global cuisine prepared with local ingredients, meet Laurence, and enjoy an afternoon in tropical paradise. Then decide for yourself if you would ever be able to do what she did!
Lilikoi Garden Café
PK 13.5 (near the Hilton)
Papetoai Moorea, 98729
Papetoai, French Polynesia
For more information about traveling to French Polynesia, see my French Polynesia travel guide and the island-specific guide to Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora.