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.