Monsieur Paul

We were in Lyon last weekend when news came that Paul Bocuse had died.

It was somehow appropriate. Monsieur Paul, as he was affectionately known to all who knew him professionally, was not just the pope of French gastronomy but an icon of Lyon.

People would say ‘Bocuse’ the same way they would say ‘Versailles’ or ‘Deneuve’. Meaning the ultimate in fine food, glittering interiors or female beauty (although personally I could never see what all the fuss was about la grande Deneuve, even in her heyday.)

The grand chef was just another reason for us to move to Lyon. “It’s only a hour from the Alps,” or even “It’s France’s second largest city,” were nothing next to: “It’s the capital of French cuisine — Paul Bocuse has his famous restaurant there.”

Right. Like we would ever be able to afford to eat there.

Where we could afford to eat was in Lyon’s popular restaurants known as ‘bouchons’, where pots clattered and the staff were known for their efficient service and lively repartee.

Such memories we have of Café des Fédérations, which we frequented in every sense of the word. Like most of its fellow bouchons, literally holes in the wall, it didn’t look like much. Red-checkered napkins and hard wooden chairs, pigs on every wall and white-coated sausages hanging over the bar. But the ambiance! A steady stream of mostly faux but highly entertaining insults ran between the man behind the bar and his mouthy waitress. And the food! Simple and rich, in all the splendour of the Lyonnais tradition; that is, simple fare, served perfectly. Poule de Bresse, pig in every way possible, lentils and salads for greenery. Crème brulée for dessert. All washed downs with multiple ‘pots’ lyonnais. Wine by the pot, that’s for me!

And just what, you ask, does this have to do with the eminent Monsieur Paul? Everything, in fact. Bocuse trained with the renowned ‘Mères lyonnaises’, those women who took simple home cookery to the art form: La Mère Fillioux, la Mère Brazier and Mère Bourgeois. (Read here about Eugénie Brazier.)

And although he attained heights of fame and influence to which none of those women would have aspired despite their Michelin-starred status, he kept a love of simplicity in his cuisine that owes a lot to its origins in Lyon.

In my former life as a translator, I once adapted the texts for a CD-ROM about Paul Bocuse and his famous restaurant in the Monts d’Or, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonge.

It was back in the day when multimedia presentations were all the rage. I remember it had little icons of the chef in his tall toque as a graphic element throughout. It told the story of his humble beginnings and rise to the Legion of Honour. It was fun to translate and was one of the rare pieces I was actually proud to have worked on.

I still have never eaten chez Bocuse. Perhaps we’ll go one day, although I’m not a huge fan of la haute gastronomie. Life is full of surprises. Like that tattoo lurking on a famous chef’s shoulder.

Bon appétit, Monsieur Paul!

23 thoughts on “Monsieur Paul

    1. Glad you liked it! Yes, the brasseries are fun and point in all directions around Lyon: L’ouest, L’est, le Sud and Le Nord. A good way to get a taste of Bocuse without the astronomical bill!

  1. Thank you for this story about “les mères lyonnaises” I didn’t know (I’m from the other gastronomic capital of France, le sud-ouest) . I fully understand the attraction you feel for these friendly “bouchons” .
    RIP Monsieur Bocuse, but you have another 3 stars legend not far,,”la Maison Troisgros” with its predestinate name in Roanne, 90 kms west from Lyon . I have one 30 kms from my house, Michel Guérard .
    My father used to say that high gastronomy was only found in poultry breedings areas . The south-West is full or hens, geese, turkeys and ducks and near Lyon there are the famous poulets de Bresse (I know a very funny joke about les poulets de Bresse but it is maybe too “gaulois” for your prudish Anglo ears). Plus of course the top wines, Burgundy for Lyon and Bordeaux for us .
    PS I admire Deneuve but I always prefered her sister, Françoise Dorléac, unfortunately killed at 25 in a car crash . See her in “L’homme de Rio” with the young Belmondo, an epic funny adventure movie, to have an idea of this delicious girl . But don’t be too hard on Deneuve ; my mind changed after I watched “Le Sauvage” with Montand, because in this Venezuelian adventure she is as “mignonne” and “delicieusement impudente” as her sister .

    1. I am flattered that anything I share here is news to you, Monsieur Phil, although hurt that you would think these ears prudish (although perhaps safer for other readers of this blog…! :-)) It is reassuring to know there is a solid legacy of new stars nearby so French gastronomy will not die out with Bocuse. As for the Deneuve’s sister, I did not know of her so will check out the film with Belmondo.

      1. Troisgros and Guérard are not “new” stars, you know, and Troisgros is not that far from you, an affordable place for an Helvetico-Canadian plutocracy couple 😜 .
        If you never watched “Le Sauvage” I invite you to see it, it might change the impression people have about Deneuve … and French cinema as Americans think of it .

  2. In an interview several years ago, Bocuse said one of his biggest mistakes was debt, that he didn’t get good financing. Can you imagine any of the Mères lyonnaises getting financing in postwar France? Women couldn’t have their own bank accounts until the ’60s.
    As for Deneuve, there are better actresses, but I think she is utterly gorgeous, even today. Who is as beautiful? Maybe Monica Bellucci (who isn’t French)?

    1. Good point about the financing — not only would les mères not have been able to get it but I doubt they would even have aspired to empire building. Apparently Brazier turned down Michelin stars as she didn’t want the weight of them. As for Deneuve, it goes to show how subjective the appreciation of beauty really is. Actually, I have heard it described as perfect symmetry and balance but that is the whole thing I find bland about her, although it may also be her austerity and lack of expression.

    1. What irked me was the French media did not report on the cause of death — as if age were sufficient reason! Granted he was 91, but that is not fatal in itself. I finally discovered he suffered from Parkinson’s — merci to the BBC!

    1. I think the Bocuse brasseries are always a reliable option for good eats in Lyon. Perhaps not the cheapest, but of a high and consistent standard. I heard that his son is also a chef and quite the businessman so his legacy is in good hands. Hopefully you can make a return trip one day!

  3. What fun to learn of a chef I didn’t know about (being a non-foodie American) and yet your tales of his cooking and rise to stardom make me wish I HAD known about him. But like you, I prefer fun little pubs/bars than stuffy ‘fine’ establishments. 🙂

    1. It’s hard to live in France and not know of Bocuse, but I can imagine that stateside it would be a different story. Glad you enjoyed my small tribute to Monsieur Paul — you and I seem to be on the same page for preferred eateries!

    1. Merci Madame! I’m afraid there are too many years between those experiences and my memories of them to come up with an example of their banter. Back then, I probably only caught about half of the words anyway but the tone and humour were clear. I believe the original owner has since passed on so no idea if the ambiance continues. One of these days we’ll go back to see but I doubt it will live up to our memories!

  4. I’ve just watched a piece on the Bocuse funeral on the French news and it was so lovely to see so many young people saying what an inspiration to them he remains. Never ate chez Bocuse either but I remember the lovely bistro on the Croix Rousse which was just as you say – simple, delicious, friendly, the sort of place you just want to drop into every evening.

    1. Oh dear, I must’ve missed it with my nose to the grindstone this week! Funerals always happen so quickly in France as there is no embalming… There are so many wonderful places to eat in Lyon that I am less and less inclined to go for the blow-out meals and happily settle for the local bistro.

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