Addicted to breaking news, New York-born Lee Yanowitch helped launch France’s 24-hour news channel as its chief editor based in Paris. Wary of burnout, she decided to sign off on her coverage five years ago for an entirely new challenge. She followed her dream of opening a bed and breakfast in Burgundy, France with her husband and former cameraman, Philippe Chamaillard. Following in tow was their reluctant teenage son, Pablo, who left the city of lights to join the new family business.
Lee Yanowitch, less than five years ago you were a television producer based in Paris chasing after breaking stories and working crazy shifts. Today, you are an owner of a bed and breakfast in the beautiful countryside of Burgundy. What happened?
I had been a journalist for more than 20 years and I loved the job. I thrived on the adrenaline rush. But when I hit 50, everything changed.
When news broke, instead of the joy and excitement I used to feel, I heard my brain screaming “No!” The stress began to feel as if someone was inflicting violence on me.
At the same time, I knew I had lived out the majority of my life and maybe had a few decades left ahead of me. And I thought: am I going to continue spending my days in a television studio where I can’t see the sky or the trees? I’d heard about too many people who died shortly after their retirement, and I thought: “Live now!”
What inspired you to renovate a 19th century farmhouse and turn it into a French bed and breakfast?
I grew up in New York City, and spent almost 25 years in Paris. So I was definitely a city girl. But I’d always had a passion for horses and dreamed of owning a country house. In 2006, we fell in love with this old farmhouse on a hill with three acres of land and a view of the hills and pastures. I started growing herbs and a few vegetables. We had a dog and horse. And soon, it became the focus of our lives. And whenever I had to return to Paris for work, something tore inside of me. I needed the sky, the garden, the animals. I’d been playing with the idea of offering culinary vacations to foreigners for several years and I thought – why not try and realize my dream?
How much sweat did you and your husband, Philippe Chamaillard, put into building Auberge de la Tuilerie?
When we bought the house, it was livable, but it was pretty ugly inside. It had been remodeled in the 60s and 70s and there was wallpaper everywhere, lots of small rooms and imitation wood paint on the beautiful oak beams. So, at the beginning, that meant stripping everything bare to reveal the Burgundy stone, the brick above the fireplaces, the rows of wooden beams. When I left my job and we decided to create a B&B, that’s when the real work started: remodeling the bedrooms completely, putting in bathrooms, building a swimming pool, etc… Philippe did most of the restoration work himself. And I took care of the business side of things. And, believe me, the French don’t make it easy to start a company: the piles of paper work, the social charges you’re required to pay before you’ve even earned a penny…
But it was a learning experience. And of course the first year was riddled with catastrophes. The builder who was to help Philippe take down a standing wall and turn his rough and tumble atelier into a dining room for guests showed up three months late, which set back everything else and created a mad rush at the end. We varnished the wood floors two days before we opened, and were wiring a chandelier to the ceiling as our very first guests came up the driveway. But the worst happened one week before. Torrential rains triggered a flood in the freshly renovated part of the ground floor. There was 4 cm of water in the living and dining room, and the wine cellar was filled to the roof and overflowing onto the lawn. The same day, our website was hacked. I’m a sworn atheist, but I began to feel as if someone was trying to test me. Now I look back on those events and smile, but at the time, the fear of not being ready kept us up at night.
Describe the B&B and its surroundings to us. What can we expect if we visit you?
We now have five rooms, all furnished with antiques I bought at flea markets, from antique dealers and from individuals who’d inherited furniture and had no room for it. (I’ve become addicted to a website called leboncoin.fr where people can post ads selling everything from empire furniture to motorcycles and swimming pools). It was a great way to discover Burgundy, actually! There’s a story behind every doorknob, light fixture, towel hook and night table. The curtains are all hand-made by a friend, most of them from antique linens embroidered for someone’s trousseau.
The house is secluded, surrounded by fields and woods, with wide open views. Whenever it’s warm enough, we serve the apéritif (and dinner and breakfast, if possible) in the garden so that our guests can enjoy the stunning sunsets. And then of course there’s the vegetable garden, which seems to get bigger every year, and where I mix flowers and vegetables so it’s pleasing to the eye as well as the palate. People love the pool, which is set away from the house, and completely surrounded by nature. But I get the most pleasure from cooking for guests using my own produce and meats and cheeses from nearby farms.
Why did you choose Burgundy as your new home? What is unique about this French region for visitors?
First, it’s an easy two-hour drive from Paris. The countryside is beautiful and unspoiled, and there’s an extremely rich historical and architectural heritage (the Vézelay basilica, Guédélon, chateaux and medieval towns galore and, of course, the wine).
What aspect did you enjoy most in setting up your own B&B?
Hunting down the antiques and decorating the rooms.
What part of the business was the hardest for you to deal with?
Your website offers a “unique French experience.” Tempt us to visit by sharing some of the French touches you have added to your business.
This is really deep France, with its pros and cons. People here don’t waste anything and they’re ingenuous about using every bit of a pig or everything that grows in their gardens. We have a few lambs and a pig slaughtered for us each year, and the meat is so delicious, I can no longer buy meat from a supermarket. There’s a butcher who comes by every Wednesday in a rickety truck and brings beef and veal from farms in the area. I get my guinea fowl and chèvre from a farm 10 minutes away. We introduce guests to the great cheeses of Burgundy, like Epoisses, which is a regional, if not national treasure. And as I only drink organic or natural wines (little or no sulfites), I won’t serve anything else to my customers. The absence of chemicals allows the flavor of the fruit to shine through, and besides, they don’t give you a headache.
Running a bed and breakfast has the same long, demanding hours as managing television news. It’s practically 24/7 and probably feels even more during high season. Just how idyllic is that?
We wake up pretty early to prepare breakfast. When the house is full, breakfast isn’t usually over and cleaned up until 11 am or noon, by which time I’ve been to the garden to harvest fruit and vegetables for dinner and have begun cooking. And there are always lots of sheets and towels to wash, reservations coming in, bills to write up for people leaving. We take a brief nap in the early afternoon – it’s traditional in the countryside, and now I see why — before new customers arrive, get them settled in, and continue preparing dinner, feed the animals, bring in wood for the fireplace. When the weather is nice and we serve dinner outdoors, people tend to linger, so we get to bed quite late.
It’s true that the days are long, and it’s hard work and some drudgery. But I love the cooking and gardening, and we meet so many interesting people that we’re not deprived of intellectual stimulation. Many customers have become friends and return year after year.
Do you miss Paris, its beauty, buzz and great places to visit and eat?
Places to eat, no. Because the ingredients in the countryside are much better. And now that I’m cooking professionally, I’m harder to satisfy. We miss it in the winter, when it’s grey and wet here and we can’t be outside as much. Each year we say we’re going to spend more time in Paris in the winter, but we always get caught up in painting and repairs, and don’t go as often as planned. And, we find it noisy, polluted and the people stressed and aggressive. But we still have many friends in Paris, and it’s them that we miss.
When you took the plunge to leave Paris and permanently move to Burgundy your son Pablo was already a teenager. How was the transition for him?
We moved here just before his last year in high school, which he did in the nearby town of Clamecy. He didn’t want to come, because leaving behind your friends at that age is tough. But it enabled us to be a real family again. Philippe drove him to school every day, I picked him up. And, we shared moments of awe at the glories of nature during those drives: watching the early sun spread its golden glow over the trees, seeing the mist rise above a swamp, or watching deer skitter away from the road. The three of us had dinner together each evening. In Paris, I was working all the time and he was cutting school and hanging out with friends. The move ended up bringing us closer. And, in fact, Pablo, who was a sworn city-dweller, now plans his life in the country — which he used to hate – and is moving towards a profession that will enable him to work with wild animals.
Your husband, Philippe, was a video cameraman for many years. How has he adjusted to being a handyman and businessman?
Philippe has always been good with his hands, but building and fixing things on a daily basis brings him peace of mind and a sense of satisfaction. When you look at this place, the amount of work he’s done is mind-boggling! He’s not much of a businessman — leave that to me — but he’s a great host. He serves the apéritif and chats with customers, breaking the ice and bringing together strangers with a gusto I didn’t know he possessed.
What qualities does it help to have in order to make changes in your life?
Organization, tenacity and the total belief in your project. It must never occur to you that you can fail.
What makes Lee Yanowitch happiest today?
Seeing my garden grow. Watching my Arabian gallop across a field. Hearing hearty laughter among guests at the dinner table.