The Soul Food of Lyons
I first came to Lyons in 2011 to watch the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious cooking competition. Held every two years, the Bocuse is an extraordinary spectacle—a kind of gastronomic Super Bowl. It takes place in a cavernous auditorium on the eastern edge of the city amid a frenzy of flag-waving, drum-beating spectators. In front of them, 24 chefs, competing for their nations, strive to produce two courses of impeccable food for a panel of judges that includes some of the greatest culinary figures in the world.
Everything about the event is over the top. Each course—one of meat, one of fish—is presented to the judges on huge salvers. The finished food is unnaturally elaborate, a showcase for technique and ingenuity that bears the same relation to something you might actually eat as the physique of the Incredible Hulk does to a normal body shape. The year I went, the competition was disrupted by an anti–foie gras protest. Worse: first, second, and third places were all taken by teams from Scandinavia; a result that prompted inevitable jeremiads about the decline of France as a culinary superpower.
That evening, on the recommendation of a friend, I went into the city center to eat at Café Comptoir Abel, a tiny, typically Lyons restaurant known as a bouchon. A freezing January wind whipped along the Saône River as I searched for No. 25 on narrow Rue Guynemer. When I finally found it, it turned out to be four homely, wood-paneled dining rooms, hung with posters and a dessert menu written in chalk on a blackboard. I had been advised to try the pike quenelle. It arrived on a sizzling plate in creamy mushroom sauce. By an extraordinary act of alchemy, the chef had taken a bony and basically inedible pike and turned it into a soft bolster of delicately fishy consolation. It was sublime.
I asked the chef, Alain Vigneron, what it had to do with the grandiose offerings at the Bocuse d’Or. “What I do,” he said modestly, “is grandmother’s cooking.”
Walking home from Abel, I had the feeling of rediscovering something that foreign visitors have been learning in France for at least a century: the lesson that excellent food is not a contest, or a luxury, or a fashion, but something more simple and intimate—a daily act of conviviality. I felt I understood why Curnonsky, the renowned French early-20th-century food writer, had declared Lyons the capital of gastronomy. And I made a mental promise to return one day and bring my family.
Earlier this year, judging that my eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son might finally be old enough for the adventure, I rented an apartment on the top floor of a 19th-century building on the Quai St.-Antoine, in the heart of the city. My mother-in-law gamely volunteered to come and help with babysitting.
From the moment we arrived, it was clear that the life of the city centers on food. Six mornings a week, there was a huge outdoor food market on the embankment directly beneath us. The biggest market day was Sunday, when the place heaved with shoppers visiting more than a hundred bewitching stalls of fresh vegetables, fish, meat, cheese, bread, and charcuterie. On our first visit, we came away with a roast chicken, tomatoes from Provence, a sausage baked inside a brioche, a baguette, and some cheese, which we took for a picnic in the Roman amphitheater on Fourvière hill.
From here, we could look down on the city and see every phase of Lyons’ history represented in its architecture: the Roman stones of the amphitheater; the terra-cotta roof tiles, towers, and courtyards of the medieval old city; the grand 18th- and 19th-century buildings of Presqu’île, between the Rhône and Saône rivers; the modern city beyond.
The food of Lyons has been praised for at least 2,000 years. In the city’s Gallo-Roman Museum, we saw ancient testimonies to the quality of its pork, wine, and chicken. Its culinary excellence is in part an accident of geography; the city sits right at the intersection of several of France’s greatest wine regions and its cooks are able to draw on an exquisite larder of nearby delicacies: great fruit and vegetables, Charolais beef, blue-legged Bresse chickens, pork, snails, game, and freshwater fish.
But the city’s modern reputation was made in the 19th century, when a cohort of young women began work as cooks there. They founded restaurants and spent their lives perfecting and serving a handful of dishes, all based around the local produce. They became known as Les Mères, the mothers. Some had a reputation for bad temper and caprice. “She’ll only let you in if she likes the look of you,” the Guide Gastronomique de la France warned its readers of the fearsome Mère Carron in 1934. But the mothers’ genius seems to have made their idiosyncrasies forgivable.
The most celebrated of all was Eugénie Brazier, born in 1895, whose life was a culinary Cinderella story. Aged 19 and unmarried, she gave birth to an illegitimate son and had to leave her village in disgrace. She found work first for a family in Lyons, then under Mère Fillioux, the most famous chef in the city, and finally opened a restaurant of her own. Relentless hard work, a commitment to the best ingredients at all costs, and rare talent saw her become in 1933 the first chef to command six Michelin stars—three for each of her two restaurants. She died in 1977. Plump and smiling in her surviving photographs, she still exudes an unmistakable steeliness and bears a striking resemblance to Kathy Bates in the film Misery.
Mère Brazier’s true heir is the man responsible for Lyons’ gastronomic ascendancy in the 20th century: Paul Bocuse, the superstar chef who founded the Bocuse d’Or. Not only is the competition named after him, but its trophies are gold, silver, and bronze statuettes of the man himself. The fact that Monsieur Bocuse can pull off this kind of self-advertisement is a tribute to his suavity and the genuine esteem in which he is held. It’s hard to imagine that equivalent approval would greet the decision to make the gold Oscar statuette a diminutive model of, say, Harvey Weinstein.
Paul Bocuse began his apprenticeship under Mère Brazier in 1946, when he was discharged from the French army. He has always acknowledged a profound debt to her. Now 88, Bocuse is virtually a gastronomic deity. Lyons’ covered market was renamed in his honor in 2006. His flagship restaurant, the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, stands on the Saône, a 15-minute drive out of the center of Lyons. The evening I went, the slopes of Croix-Rousse hill were gilded in the late afternoon light. I had a sensation of vertigo as we drove upward. My wife kept asking if I was all right. I told her that I’d had job interviews that I felt less nervous about. I was intimidated by the expense—enormous—and the feeling of entering the rarefied air of a culinary Valhalla.
In other corners of Bocuse’s empire, his restaurants follow recent innovations, offering foams and the like. But here, in a strangely garish former mill that is festooned withpictures of the master, working out of an impeccable kitchen with copper cookware, Bocuse’s team serves his back catalogue: the Greatest Hits of the Chef of the Century.
Truffle Soup V.G.E., a dish invented by Bocuse in 1975 for French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, arrived under a dome of puff pastry that, when broken, breathed out a cloud of truffle-scented vapor. Huge slices of black truffle perfumed the seething-hot broth.
I babbled to my wife about the gracious service, the food as spectacle, the technique of the waiters flawlessly dissecting sea bass in a puff-pastry shell and serving it tableside to the guests next to us.
Bresse chicken cooked in a bladder à la Mère Fillioux is a dish Bocuse would have seen prepared by Mère Brazier herself. It’s a version of poularde demi-deuil, chicken in half-mourning—i.e., poached with slivers of black truffle under its skin.
The chicken arrived at our table in the pig’s bladder in which it had been poached, ballooning like a brontosaurus egg. The waiter punctured the bag, removed the bird, and carved it expertly. First we ate the legs in a sweet and woody morel mushroom sauce. Then the breasts were served on a separate plate with dressed endive.
It was one of a handful of truly extraordinary meals I’ve eaten in my life. I felt as though a comparable experience might be to step into a time machine and emerge to see Jelly Roll Morton playing the piano in New Orleans, or Elvis performing in Las Vegas. Perhaps not many young chefs dream of serving chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder, just as few young singers envisage taking to the stage in rhinestone flares and belting out “An American Trilogy.” But that doesn’t diminish its artistry or significance.
We quickly fell in love with Lyons’ big squares, its leafiness, its rational public transport system, its relaxed pace of life, its lack of crowds. Beneath and behind the visible city lay a second one of hidden courtyards and mysterious passageways. A somber stone corridor ran the length of our building to the street behind. This was a traboule—serving Lyons for centuries, they open out into a hidden dimension of medieval courtyards, bricked-up wells, and steep Renaissance staircases.
At the café by our apartment, we dipped our morning croissants in hot chocolate and watched workers grabbing espresso and men slapping two-euro coins on the zinc counter for an 8 a.m. glass of rosé.
Lyons is an odd, binary place: it has two different hills—Fourvière and Croix-Rousse, one historically a place of worship, the other a place of work—two different rivers, the slow-moving Saône and the more turbulent Rhône; it also has its two cuisines—the celebrated inheritors of the traditions of Les Mères, and the demotic food served in the city’s bouchons.
The bouchon is the platonic ideal of a certain kind of restaurant. It’s not a museum, nor the cooking vanguard of anything. It’s the bistro you dreamed of. Inside, it’s always the year 1927. There’s dark wood, red-and-white-checked tablecloths, framed prints, perhaps a big vase of blowsy roses. No one is in a hurry, but everything is done with brisk expertise. A bowl of pork rinds is placed on your table along with the wine, which is usually served in a pot, a carafe of about a pint. Its glories are simple ones: salade lyonnaise with bacon and a poached egg on top; pickled herring with potatoes; sausage. There are often no more than half a dozen main courses, with pork and tripe dishes well represented.
The gutsy, affordable, unfussy bouchon food—grandmother’s cooking—is a democratic cuisine. These are the dishes of a proud and assertive urban working class. The leisurely bouchon meal is a pointed riposte to the commercial logic that drives harried workers to gobble sandwiches at their desks. After all, what does it profit a man if he gain the entire world, and lose his lunch hour?
This being France, there is an appellation contrôlée system that awards a label of authenticity to certain bouchons. There are currently 22 that meet the criteria: a combination of authentic ambience, a commitment to traditional Lyons dishes, and high culinary standards. We had to give up any hope of eating at all of them. There’s only so much tablier de sapeur—a thin square of tripe breaded and fried like a schnitzel—and coq au vin that you can eat in a single day. Then there are Lyons’ newer maestros, playing variations on its traditions of excellence: Patrick Henriroux at Bocuse’s other alma mater, La Pyramide, in nearby Vienne; the changing roster of chefs at Arsenic, on Rue Pierre Corneille; the Japanese-inflected dishes of Arai Tsuyoshi at Au 14 Février, on Rue Mourguet in the old city; Mathieu Viannay at Mère Brazier’s old establishment at 12 Rue Royale.
We did manage to take the children to La Meunière, a lovely bouchon on Rue Neuve, one lunchtime. I was nervous about the culture clash between French gastronomic hauteur and wriggly, 21st-century children, but the whole thing went without a hitch. It was a success in part because of the kindness of the maître d’, in part because of the patience of the two young Frenchwomen who, in bouchon style, shared our table, but mainly because I let my son play on my smartphone for the entire meal. The kids tried the grattons, loved the bread, sampled our plates of saucisson and the confit of lamb shoulder. At the end, relieved we’d all survived, I had a glass of marc de bourgogne so venerable and delicious it was like being locked in an old cedar wardrobe full of soft coats, and we exchanged friendly au revoirs with our accidental companions.
On one of our last evenings, I returned with my wife to Café Comptoir Abel. There was a warm breeze as we dawdled along the river, admiring the view of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière on the other side, and passed the old synagogue on Quai Tilsit, full of gray-haired worshippers. I had a salad of crayfish and slippery green beans, and the quenelles, and we shared chestnut sorbet with chocolate sauce. It was even better than I remembered. A dozen Lyons work colleagues had booked the table on one side of the room. On the other side, a lone young male diner was savoring his wine with a look of rapt enjoyment.
In a world where food has become mixed up with aspiration, snobbery, and utopianism, Lyons felt like it represented an achievable ideal: a place still connected to a culinary tradition that combines thrift and pride and excellence and sustainability. The lesson of the city is that food is a daily pleasure to be shared. It isn’t only the chicken in the pig’s bladder that I’ll remember: just as memorable were the Nutella crêpes my children devoured most afternoons; the snail pâté we all sampled in the market; the strawberries up by the amphitheater that I trimmed with my Opinel pocketknife; the carafe of Morgon I split with my mother-in-law at a bouchon one lunchtime; the hot chocolate that my son drank at breakfast and wore on his T-shirt all day; the fricassee of asparagus and shellfish I prepared and ate with five French strangers at a cooking lesson that I signed up for on a whim. Between now and our next visit, these will be the meals that linger in the memory; this was the food that fed our souls.
The T+L Guide to Lyons
Connecting flights to Lyons are available from a number of European cities, or take the two-hour TGV train from Paris’s Gare de Lyon, which departs every 30 to 60 minutes.
Arsenic 132 Rue Pierre Corneille. $$
Auberge du Pont de Collonges 40 Quai de la Plage, Collonges au Mont d’Or. $$$$
Au 14 Février 6 Rue Mourguet. $$$$
Café Comptoir Abel 25 Rue Guynemer. $$$
Café Comptoir Chez Sylvie A classic bouchon by owner Sylvie Pacallet. 30 Rue Tupin. $$
La Mère Brazier 12 Rue Royal. $$$$
La Meunière 11 Rue Neuve; 33-4/78-28-62-91. $$$
La Pyramide 14 Blvd. Fernand Point, Vienne. $$$$
Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière 17 Rue Cléberg.
Marché St.-Antoine A local outdoor market for fresh produce. Quai St.-Antoine.
Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150