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!