How the French envoy and his wife build a home inspired by culture and travel
Home to French ambassadors, the Embassade de France in Makati is a modern residence with elements of history and culture.
The architecture bears some elements of the plantation style such as the pitched roof, defined entry, archways, mason walls, a lanai with grillwork, shuttered windows, French doors and open spaces for the breeze to come in.
Originally the home of the late socialite and TV host Elvira Manahan, it was acquired by the French government in the late ’80s and has undergone renovations.
In 2008, tasked to spruce up the place was Mari-Christine Dorner, designer and interior architect who decorates the ambassadorial residences worldwide for the French Ministère des Affaires Etrangères. She chose a strong earth palette of browns and taupes with purple and red accents. For furnishings, she used modern pieces from designer Budji Layug. Silk Cocoon produced the abaca scrims and lighting shades
When Ambassador Gilles Garachon and his wife Isabelle moved in last February, they brought their collection of Southeast Asian arts and crafts to create a look reflective of their travels—mementos from previous postings.
The etageres present carved boxes from Cambodia, Indonesia and brass betel-nut box from Mindanao. Knowing of the ambassador’s love of history, businessman Louis Paul Heussaf chose as a gift a 17th-century cannonball found in a shipwreck.
In the public area, the French Limoges are placed alongside the Oriental celadon bowls.
In the lanai, the Asian corner has Filipino chairs with cane weaving combined with colonial furniture from Burma and India, woven upholstery, Indian brass pots that were used to carry water from the Ganges and a carved silver bracelet that was turned into an ashtray.
In the second-floor private area, a ladder and basket from Cordillera share the space with finds from Burma, such as a carving of Buddha, pages from its scriptures, a chest box, wood carvings and Thai tapestry.
The workroom displays a xylophone and puppets from Indonesia.
“This means that we have taken interest in the local culture,” says Garachon. “The French touch is a mixed touch. It’s not pure. Just a few pieces come from France. To have something warm and convivial is the French way—having places to sit cozily and have a good conversation and drink, spend a good time together. This is the ultimate purpose of design.”
This was their way of combining their passion for art with their new diplomatic role.
Garachon studied at the National Institute for Oriental Studies and Civilization and took up his doctorate in Indian civilization, hoping to be an archaeologist. He speaks fluent Burmese and Hindi, even for business, and Sanskrit as well.
In his youth, he wrote a Burmese-French dictionary on Burmese architecture. When archaeological research lost its appeal to him, he studied for the foreign service.
In the past 27 years, he has been working for the various French embassies in Asia. Among his early postings was as first secretary in India.
Meanwhile, dancer and model Madame Isabelle studied at University of Nanterre in Paris, major in law and economics. She followed the wishes of her father.
After college, she pursued her passion for the arts, and worked as an intermittent du spectacle, a French term for a freelance entertainment worker. She toured with many French companies and performed with Folies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge.
During his Hong Kong posting as deputy consul, Garachon had to attend the premiere of a French show in Macau where his future wife was performing. After the show, they were seated together at a dinner and discovered that their families lived three kilometers apart from each other. It was ironic that they had to meet halfway around the globe.
They were married in 1996 in a private beach wedding in Seychelles. A church wedding with friends and relatives was then held in Paris.
The Garachons’ eldest son, Valentin, was a month-old when the family was posted in Thailand where Garachon worked as the embassy’s political counselor.
In Bangkok, Madame Isabelle gave birth to their second son, Arthur.
When they moved to Jakarta, Garachon served as the cultural counselor.
Meanwhile, Madame Isabelle stayed in shape by teaching the cancan, tap, jazz and ballet in the French school. “I started with 30 students and ended up with more than 100,” she recalls.
She even collaborated with the music teacher in musicals. “Sharing my personal experiences with the school was a pleasure,” says Madame Garachon who hopes she can teach the French cancan to Filipina dancers.
Before their Manila posting, Garachon was assigned at Ministère des Affaires Etrangères in Paris. This year, he was promoted to ambassador to the Philippines and nonresident ambassador to Palau.
Like most families moving to a new home, the Garachons spent the first few months fixing their residence and getting a Shih Tzu for their sons, Valentin, 13, and Arthur, 11, who, by the way, are fans of Manny Pacquiao, who is a neighbor. To this day, they are still hoping to get a sighting of the boxing icon. Their rooms are dominated by Pacquiao’s portraits.
“We wanted to give it a personal flavor so that the kids feel at home,” says the envoy.
Madame Garachon says her husband is very hands-on in shopping for elements for the house and in decorating. When she wants to put something in the house, it would entail “negotiation.”
Still, they have not forgotten their mission. “We want to share this place with others,” declares Madame Isabelle.
For the first time in years, Bastille Day, the French National Day, was spent in their residence and poolside. Since it was rainy in July, the Garachons asked the nuns to offer eggs to Santa Clara for good weather, following local custom.
Madame Isabelle also taught the embassy cook family recipes. “I’m half-Spanish. I want to share my mother’s recipe for gazpacho.”
The embassy serves well-known French dishes beef bourguignon (beef brandy), quiche lorraine and blanquette de veau, which is a veal ragout. For wine pairing, Madame Garachon consults with a sommelier.
When they entertain a French delegation, the Garachons serve local dishes with sweet and sour sauces and prawns.
Here recently during her husband’s visit, Madame Brigitte Ayrault, wife of the French prime minister, enjoyed the family recipe of soup with tomato, cucumber and pepperoni and Filipino grilled lapu-lapu and suman (sticky rice) with mango.
Garachon bravely offered durian to the delegation of French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. The fruit-tasting was met with mixed reactions. Every time Garachon brings up the subject of durian, his wife protests, leaving him no choice but to hold back.
“I advocate durian,” he maintains. “My feeling is that durian and French cheese are close. The taste is different from the smell. If the French love cheese which is quite strong, how come they don’t like durian?”
So when Madame Isabelle is traveling, Garachon can savor his meal of dried salted fish, rice and durian. Having spent most of his diplomatic life in Asia, he admits that he tends to be more Asian, having adopted the hospitality and gentleness of the culture. These traits are reflected in their home.
“The most important thing is that we want to entertain people in a warm way. Guests should feel it’s a pleasure to be here,” he says.