Merci Paul Bocuse

We write this to you from a two-hour train speeding toward Paris from Lyon, with the countryside rolling by. It’s fast. Really, really fast and awfully thrilling when another train passes us heading in the other direction. Zoom!

 Greetings! Salutations! Hello! What’s with the relentless cheer? December 28th! Oh my. Oh. My. Oh my, my, my. Now I’m not gonna be a pants on fire; when Josh and I planned this ridiculous holiday excursion, we were so excited to get to travel to Switzerland and France with Martin, but let me tell you, the pot was sweetened when we heard where we’d be dining with our best friend if we decided to come. It was the single thing that sealed the deal for us, and last night, we did it. Paul Bocuse, a recipient of three Michelin stars since 1965, a father of nouvelle cuisine and that chef that Ratatouille the rat tricked into hiring at his fancy joint has a restaurant in Lyon, and we got to eat there.  Reservations were made months in advance by Martin’s stepmother and the six of us experienced one of the BEST MEALS OF OUR ENTIRE LIVES that night.

 What’s so great about this Paul Bocuse guy? Well, if you like food at all, and especially French food, he’s someone that everyone who cooks today is basically riffing on, paying homage to and trying to emulate. He introduced the concept of using fresh ingredients of the highest quality, cooked vegetables so that they were still firm to the tooth, not a revelation by today’s standards, but if mushy boiled carrots and potatoes aren’t your bag it’s because somehow his cooking has influenced your taste. He was the first to plate French cuisine with sauce under the featured food rather than laden with cream on top to render it completely unrecognizable. He is the namesake of the famous Bocuse d’Or, essentially the unofficial world championships that chefs train for years to even qualify for. He’s the head of the Institute of Paul Bocuse Worldwide Alliance where top students from nine universities around the globe engage in a four-month learning intensive. And he has maintained those three Michelin stars and a standard of excellence for well over forty years (because listen, they can come and take those stars away if things start to slide. But they haven’t. He hasn’t. )Yes, he’s now 85 years old and he’s still at his restaurant. I know because WE SAW HIM IN OUR OWN EYES.

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A twenty-minute cab ride from the center of Lyon and our accommodation at Le Royal Hotel (Europe’s first hotel school, managed by The Institut Paul Bocuse since 2003) brought us to a humble/hilarious little building painted red and green, a throw back to decades past. The doorman received us and as we removed our coats, we realized that Mr. Bocuse himself was standing right there. Why wouldn’t this happen during our dream dining experience? Because he’s only there 4 weeks out of a year. Stunned, we were then sat in the brightly lit, comfortable dining room surrounded by black and white photos of Bocuse days past, cheerful paintings and warm beauty. Blah blah blah, let’s get to the food.

Ignoring any other available options, the team decided that the Menu Grande Traditione was the best way to proceed. Martin’s father took charge of the wine list, and as we sipped a perfect champagne, the amuse bouche arrived- a sort of pureed carrot soup with a parmesan bun/yorkshire pudding/friand. The soup was mild and unassuming, the cheese bun bossy and chewy and a perfect compliment. Though the dish wasn’t electric, I don’t think that was the point as my bouche was indeed amused.

Next up, scallop of fois gras, topped with a perfect potato chip and beautiful verjus sauce. Holy god. It was perfect. The end.

A white wine was opened to accompany what was arguably his piece de resistance: his famous truffle soup, first created in 1975 for the President of France. A beautiful pastry laden bowl was presented to each of us, which upon breaking through, revealed a consommé of diced carrot, beef, potato and filled with fois and AN EMBARRASSMENT OF BLACK TRUFFLES. If it was good enough for the president well… goodlorditwasamazing! A quick trip to the ladies room took me past the kitchen where tall men calmly executed crazy skill and Mr. Bocuse himself poked his finger into pots, tasting and commenting. I have to wonder if they find it challenging having him there.

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Next, a fillet of sole over noodles- we literally sopped up the plate with any bread we could get our hands on so I guess we liked the dish alright. And that might have been the beginning of the end. See, on most menus of this sort that we’ve eaten from, the portion sizes are modest. Not here. Every plate was the size of what a regular person should probably have for dinner. But we ate three of them, plus the amuse, the cheese course and of course dessert.

The next course, following the Beaujolais and Cassis Sorbet served as a palate cleanser, was chicken cooked in a bladder. Yup. The presentation was awesome- what looked like two giant pterodactyl eggs arrived at our table. Between four servers, the exterior bladder was deflated to reveal a perfectly cooked chicken inside, carved table side and served with sautéed vegetables and rice cooked in chicken stock. Sound reasonable (except for the bladder part?)  This is France.  Now ladle the thickest, creamiest sauce filled (and I mean FILLED) with fist sized Morel mushrooms.  It was a perfect french comfort food dish, the only problem being that we were all becoming uncomfortable due to the mass amounts of food we were consuming. We ate as much as we physically could, then settled back to breathe for a moment, and enjoy the delicious red that Mr. Gero Sr. had selected for us.

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Then all of the cheeses in France were brought to the table and we were asked to pick what we wanted. “All of them?” would have been my regular response, but I limited my choices to five- served straight up, without imported or local honey or figs or nuts or fruit or even bread. Just cheese. Yum.

-Josh here.  I made a fatal error that I imagine I’ll repeat throughout our journey.  I ordered something I didn’t understand.  I did this BECAUSE I didn’t understand it, that’s where you can find some fun new foods, but in this case what I ordered was the “extremely fresh cow’s cheese served with cream.”  I thought, “fresh cow’s cheese,” that will be mild and since I had just broken into a meat sweat during the previous dish, that will be nice.  This was VERY young, as in sour cream.  So imagine taking a full size container of sour cream, upending it into a goopy mess on your plate, then pouring semi whipped cream on it.  Sound horrifying?  It kinda was.  I think on another night it might have been a fun adventure but at this stage in the game, hurf.  They served it with sugar too, which I poured on in order to gamely have a go.  Well, can’t win em all.

And last but not least, we were offered “delicacies and temptations, fantasies and chocolates.” Sound silly? YOU’RE SILLY. Burn! Three silver trollies were pulled up to the table laden with baking and sweets of every kind which, like the cheese, we were to select. “All of it?” Nope. Of the infinite options, for me, simply: tarte tatin, fresh raspberries and vanilla ice cream, for Josh: baba au rum and vanilla ice cream- but because he’s hilarious, asked the waiter if there was any creme chantilly. No whipped cream? No problem! Ten minutes later, the waiter appeared with a generous pitcher filled with it and a plate of strawberries. A chef had just spent the last ten minutes hand whipping cream because Josh made a joke. The joke was then on Josh, as he felt he’d better eat as much of it as possible. 

Le sigh! What a meal! All sorts of things fell into alignment to make it a special evening, but at the end of the day, the food itself was delicious. No, nothing’s been reinvented here, because it started here. The menu doesn’t have to shift with fads because this is the food that the fads are based on. It was a delicious history lesson, one that we won’t soon forget and will likely spend a lifetime trying to learn from. YUMology, my favorite class.

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We’re On Top Of A Mountain!!!

The view from Mont Blanc

An hour and a half from Geneva is Mont Blanc, the White Mountain, the highest mountain in the Alps and ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. It rises 4,800 meters, that’s nearly a staggering 16,000 feet above sea level. So don’t make fun of me for getting a l’il ol’ touch of AMS. You know, what we in the know know as altitude mountain sickness. BooYA! Ugh.

Family, friends. Mont Blanc was SPECTACULAR. At the base is a cable car that ascends to a halfway point, by way of some swaying and swinging that makes the passengers gasp and yip in terror/delight. You unload, marvel at the great heights you’ve reached, take a million pictures, and then get on a second cable car to take you up the rest of the way. There you unload once more- among the tourists just there for the photo ops with fancy cameras and the hipstamatic app on their iPhones (us! and a bunch of other folks), are actual skiers, snowboarders and hikers clad in just the fanciest cold weather gear, ready to hit the powder. Apparently there hasn’t been much snow so far this season in Switzerland, but the mountain didn’t look like it was suffering and the skiers certainly didn’t seem disappointed. And as far up as we got, there’s still further to go to reach the summit, and you need for real gear to get up there.

He's on top of the WORLD!

We disembarked for more photo ops and my lord, did we get them. The air was so crystal clear, the sky perfectly blue and cloudless, and the weather was cold and crisp without any breeze at all. Paradise. We climbed steps and steps and more steps to reach higher platforms, turned corners and saw views never in my life did I expect to see. A glider way up there circled us, around and around! The Matterhorn! We saw the real actual Matterhorn! And! In an instant, the staggering beauty gave way to a deep and intimate nausea within me. My legs turned into spaghetti and holy heck, without Josh to literally hold me up, I would have passed out onto my derrier (that’s bum, a la francais. See! I’m learning!) I pride myself on my iron constitution but I’ve learned now that sometimes you get the mountain and sometimes the mountain gets you guys. Sometimes the mountain gets you. Nope. Not really a metaphor. Ahem. The intention was to have lunch at the top of Switzerland, but my gracious travel companions assured me that it wasn’t my lameosity that prompted our return to the base, but a three hour wait to get a table. They were juuuuuuuust being nice to me, weren’t they? Clearly, I travel with a  swell bunch. Well, Josh basically carried me down the platforms and stairs, bodily supported me down two cable cars and wouldn’t you know it, once I got to the bottom and ate all the Carbonara that ever there was, well, I felt as right as pluie (that’s rain guys, rain, a la francais… which I just now learned from the internet…).

And in an instant, things took a turn for the blech

At the base of the mountain is a gorgeous town, Chamonix (also the site of the first Winter Olympics). It’s exactly what you might imagine a Swiss mountain town to be- though technically, it’s actually in France. Skinny roads lined with beautiful historic buildings that now house bistros, cafes with chocolate chaud and vin chaud and clothing boutiques. Vacationers tromp around in either Uggs or ski boots, toting beautifully dressed children tossing snow balls to and fro and dogs! Dogs everywhere! We perused a few restaurants before settling on a pretty Frenchish bistro, made complete with a fresh seafood stand outside the window to keep us distracted while we waited to eat. Escargot was ordered, and frog legs and roast chicken and Tartiflette (a potato, bacon and cheese casserole) and… all I wanted was a bunch of noodles in me. Pasta tossed with onions, garlic, bacon and parmesan cheese, then topped with a  fresh egg yolk and mixed to form a glorious sauce… oh my heavens, it was a revelation and exactly the thing I needed. Sated, our travel team departed the restaurant and found a patisserie for hot chocolate to warm us for our walk back to the car.

Josh + hot chocolate = two things i love in the winter

me + carbonara = aaaaaaall better

I’ve been told that AMS affects people different ways at different times and even if it isn’t true, I want to cling to that possibility. The possibility that I can return and kick that mountain’s derrier. Or at the very least, return for some Carbonara.

Boxing Day!

I, the guest blogger Josh Dean, would like to welcome guest blogger Josh Dean to thedeanteam.  Josh?

Thanks so much for having me!  I’m a long time reader and a first time writer.  So since the lovely Celina is still downstairs drinking Sauterne out of teeny crystal glasses with our incredible hosts I figured I’d hop on the ol’ compute and bring you up to speed.  I’ll cover Boxing Day quick like a bunny because there’s still more to cover after that, and then tomorrow we eat (and stay at) Paul Bocuse.  Yes.  He.  The titular Paul Bocuse of the Bocuse D’or.  I’m getting ahead of ourself.

How to celebrate boxing day in Geneva.  First, an espresso.  Then a beautiful spread in the dining room including fresh squeezed apple juice from just up the way, fresh baked baguette, croissant and pain au chocolat from the gas station up the way (that isn’t a joke, it’s always fresh and delicious, meanwhile we’ve got Tim Horton’s donuts that have travelled for three weeks from Mississauga in our gas stations), a variety of egg dishes including one with leeks, an underused aromatic in my opinion (I don’t even know if it qualifies as an aromatic… googling now… yup!  Okay, I didn’t google it, too lazy) and a fresh fruit salad.  This being Europe and an extremely civilized portion thereof we also had a delicious spread of cured meats and four cheeses, one of which would inspire our adventure for the day.

Gruyere, Switzerland is about an hour and half drive, or an hour and half snooze if Martin’s dad is driving, east of Geneva.  En route we passed through Lausanne, home of the Olympics museum, and by Montreux, home of the famous jazz festival.  Eventually the already mountainous regions surrounding Lake Geneva stop playing coy and just commit fully to being even more mountainous, dramatic, crisp and beautiful.  It is as we enter the higher altitudes that we pass our first stop, Broc, home of Le Maison Cailler, the Swiss equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  It’s actually the Cailler/Nestle chocolate factory and, not being eedjits, we hopped out and bought a ticket.  Inside there are walls of perfectly wrapped chocolate bars in every color of the rainbow, nestled in their shiny foil and soft paper.  The advantage to being on a continent where grown ups eat chocolate is evident when you see that chocolate bars can look elegant.  They don’t need garish purple wrappers and cartoon alligators on them.  I think a well appointed bar of chocolate sets the tasting experience up so much better.  It says “Enjoy me, don’t just eat me.”  North American chocolate bars just say “Eat me” and that’s rude.  Except for Skor.  That shit is classy yo.

Too much chocolate. Just too much chocolate.

Oddly the tour wasn’t of the factory itself, rather it was like It’s a Small World, only a little more refined?  It took itself pretty seriously and mentioned the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl a few more times than was necessary.  Hint, necessary amount of times: one.  There was animatronic busts of Monsieur Cailler and shifting set pieces and a multimedia room with animated cows. But, and here’s the rad thing, at the end we were let into a beautiful wood paneled tasting room which was exactly the thing you want to see at the end of a chocolate factory tour.  It was the dream.  It was silver platters of perfectly organized little chocolates on a large rectangular counter that ran the length of the room, turned the corner and came back the other way.  Behind the silver platter was a large version of the chocolate bar or box of chocolates you were sampling.  And you just got to eat.  Like as much as you wanted.  But here’s how they getcha, they start with the basics, you’re eating little miniature versions of their basic bars, milk chocolate, dark, milk hazelnut, dark with honey and nougat, etc, then you round the bend, white chocolate, raisins, truffles, then on to the homestretch and THAT’s where the variety boxes are.  So from sampling one chocolate per tray suddenly you’ve got seven PER tray.  I’m ashamed to admit but I just gave up.  Celina and Martin’s step sister Chantelle figured out halfway round that if they shared each variety they could have them all.  They did not share this information with me and I will resent it forever.

Then we wandered through the chocolate shop and lemme tell ya, they could have charged fifty francs for a glass of milk and we’d have paid it.  Holy crow.  Just rich, sugar shock, diabetes blood coursing through our veins.  They have a chocolate themed playground on the way out which is genius because you need those kids to burn some energy off before packing them into the car.  I was too disappointed to play because I didn’t see one Oompa Loompa and apparently the best chocolate is not stirred by waterfall but rather than a guy named Fritz in a lab coat and a hair net.

We chugged up the mountain a little further, past picturesque green fields, old Swiss buildings and beautiful vistas to the actual town of Gruyeres.  One more factory tour, but this time of the Gruyere cheese factory.  Gruyere is one of my favorite cheeses in the world.  It’s sharp and creamy and deep and melts well and goes with lots of things.  This tour was much shorter and they gave us our samples of cheese beforehand so we could eat it on the way home (we didn’t, foreshadowing!)  I now know that it takes like a billion gallons of milk to make an amount of cheese, and that the process involves more guys named Fritz wearing basically the same thing only with the snazzy addition of white rubber Stormtrooper boots.  There’s milk, rennet, stirring, hoses, pressure, filtering, then this super cool robot turns the giant rounds of cheese to cure them, then I eat it.  That’s that.  I was still pretty high from the chocolate.

We climbed up the hill further to the medieval walled town itself.  Built in the 1100’s, also known as the eleventy’s, it looks like Harry Potter land at Universal Studios Florida, only I’m going to say thirty times more authentic.  There were turrets and crenellations and ramparts and all the cool castle stuff you learn about when building lego.  It’s now a respectfully developed tourist town with three thousand fondue restaurants and little churches and gift shops and the like.  Prior to entering the castle though there is one of the strangest non-sequitur’s I’ve encountered.  This is a castle village built on top of a mountain in the eleventy’s.  Yet, suddenly there is a cafe/bar with giant alien vertebrae framed windows, shelves filled with teeny baby heads, giant Alien skeleton tables and chairs.  Turns out H.R. Giger is from here.  The guy who created the Aliens artwork.  There’s an extremely lascivious sci-fi alien humpy hump museum right next to a lovely church.  Sure.  Why not?

After walking around the walls of the castle we felt we’d somehow earned a meal so we chose a fondue restaurant at random (when in Rome, eat Swiss cheese as they say) and sat down with Martin’s father as our interpreter/guide.  Sitting in the dining room along the window, looking out over the ancient town, the stunning mountains, and a steep grassy hill which slowly became entirely populated with deer that were likely hired by the Swiss Tourism Board, we ordered two fondues (each is for two) and two raclettes (same) and one plate of cured meats.  The fondue comes in one pot, a giant, fragrant bubbling pale golden gooey mess.  Accompanying it is a basket of bread which never runs empty.  You tear pieces of the bread, use your fondue fork to stab it, and then you give it a twist in the cheese.  It’s not thin or soupy like I somehow expected, it is completely melted but instead of coating the bread it completely obscures or envelops it.  It’s almost like a non sticky marshmallow, but the same consistency.  Curiously when it cools on your plate it doesn’t stick to it.  We also learned never to drink cold water with fondue or it will congeal in your guts and you’ll die.  I’ve dramatized the end there a little for effect.  Instead you drink an extremely acidic swiss wine to cut the fattiness of the cheese.  To say the least it was divine.

Raclette though, holy crow, RACLETTE!  I’ve never had it.  If you haven’t here’s how it goes.  In this establishment a heavy electric desk-lamp object is plugged in on your table.  It’s like a desk lamp but instead of a lightbulb there is a heating element like what you would find in an electric stove.  Below that is a metal plate with wooden knobs that swivels to either side on a little arm.  On this plate, which adjusts closer or further from the heat source as you like, is placed a brick of cheese.  Shaped like two pounds of butter or like an actual brick I guess.  Every person at the table is given a long stemmed utensil with a squat curving blade at the end.  We are also given a small wooden basket of baked potatoes, pearl onions and pickles. After two or three minutes the top few millimeters of cheese melts (it has a rind which helps it maintain it’s shape) and you swivel the metal plate towards you, lift your plate (with your potatoes, pickles and onions on it) underneath the edge, and using your knife you scrape the top melty gooey layer off the brick and onto your waiting food.  Then you eat the heck out of it.  Raclette is a semi firm cow’s milk cheese which is similar but not the same as Gruyere.  Eat it.  Do it.

After that amazing meal of approximately all the cheese ever we jumped back in the car and all fell asleep, except the driver against all odds, and then disembarked and slept until the middle of the evening when what else could we do but make leftover turkey dinner sammies.  Right?  RIGHT!?

Next installment to come!

Christmas Day in Geneva!

After completing an amazing six week job in Louisville, Kentucky(more reflections to come on that in the New Year!), Josh and I hopped on a plane and now find ourselves in Geneva, Switzerland. We’re embarking on my dream vacation over the next three and a half weeks: Switzerland, France and Italy. Holy jeez! ImageInspiration for our trip? Our best friend Martin invited us to holiday with his family in Geneva, where his father is finishing out eight more months of his four year post here as a Canadian Ambassador.

We arrived just after noon on Christmas morning and were picked up from the airport and whisked to the Ambassador’s residence where Santa had somehow found us and left us a heap of prezzies (including black salt for me and a Swiss army knife for Josh. What the?!? Santa, you’re a real dapper Dan). Tourtierre for lunch, a two hour nap, and then champagne, duck fois gras and crudités during the cocktail hour, followed by a New Zealand Chardonnay, then a Bourdeaux from the 1970’s to go with our roast turkey, sweet potatoes, broccoli mash, roasted potatoes, baguette… and finally a sweet Sauterne paired with hand made Bailey’s truffles, lemon tart and chocolate roll and cookies and… and then Bailey’s… and…  good lord. All served on beautiful Wedgewood china from England- made expressly for the Canadian government.

The house sits on Lake Geneva, and on the clear Christmas Day that we arrived, and this morning as I sat by the window typing this, I could see Mont Blanc rise up from behind it. The home is lovely and impressive to say the least, and comes with a Raclette kitchen that I haven’t even seen yet (and don’t even know what that exactly is) to say the most. Our hosts are the kindest, most generous people, and I endeavor to have an opportunity to return their kindnesses.

We’re off to spend the day in Gruyere, where I expect to find the cheese. And an alien museum.

Listen. If the jet lag doesn’t get me, being thrust into the throng of large amounts of delicious food and drink just might, but don’t worry guys, I brought my draw-string eatin’ pants and a can do spirit.

 More travel food updates to come anon!
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