Purple and blue floodlights wash over the historic city hall in Lyon, its marble fountains and archways looking like a 17th-century monument primed for prom night. Inside, the champagne is free-flowing as chefs Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy huddle around one of the cocktail tables scattered across the black-and-white-checked marble floor. Chef Daniel Boulud joins the fold, and then France’s chef of the year, Emmanuel Renaut, completes the cabal. Beautiful bowls of creamy truffled eggs, truffley celeriac soup and oysters topped with more fragrant fungi are passed around as if black truffles were the new pigs in a blanket.
The official launch of the 2013 Bocuse d’Or may be a joyous event with 200 of the world’s greatest chefs in attendance, but the stakes have never been higher at this biennial international competition. In 1987, Paul Bocuse created the ultimate culinary challenge – the original Kitchen Stadium – pitting 24 promising young toques against each other in a high-end cook-off for five and a half hours in front of a rowdy audience of global well-wishers. Back then, it seemed obvious that the French should be judging everyone. Not long after the French Revolution, the sautéed frogs’ legs had begun to fly. Temples to the culinary arts were erected in Paris as France perfected countless cooking techniques, created most of the world’s mother sauces and, perhaps most importantly, dreamed up crème brûlée. In recent years, however, history and culture have become roadblocks. French chefs have been averse to change, but the world has changed around them. France hasn’t won the Bocuse d’Or in years despite having topped the podium more than half the time in the history of the event. This competition isn’t just about the glory of gold; it’s about the continuing supremacy of fine French food.
I’m here to taste the modern evolution of France’s haute cuisine scene. Travelling to the Alps and Lyon and polishing off my plate in Paris, I plan to eat old guard, new guard (and everything in between) in the hope of discovering what French food means in the 21st century.
In the shadow of Mont Blanc, where the horse-drawn calèches trundle après-skiers along cobblestone streets, sits the mountainside resort of Megève. It’s a glamorous base camp for Haute-Savoie cuisine, and the lure of the restaurants has started eclipsing the soft-pack moguls. There is a bell tower and skating rink, twinkly lights and a grand Christmas tree in the middle of the square. The honour of lighting the tree goes to local hero chef Emmanuel Renaut, whose restaurant Flocons de Sel, a pilgrimage for alpine gourmands, just earned its third Michelin star. Renaut is a judge at this Bocuse d’Or and a mentor to French competitor chef Thibaut Ruggeri.
Flocons de Sel is a grand alpine room with a soaring feature wall studded with 14 cuckoo clocks that go off semi-regularly, as if to announce the next course of, say, pea-size red cabbage and turnip gnocchi in a horseradish broth – humble ingredients made as dazzling as an Oscar-night Valentino. With the fish course, I learn that Michelin stars no longer give chefs immunity when it comes to sustainable cooking. “We used to put a tiny perfect square of sea bass in the centre of the plate, but we no longer do that,” says Renaut. “We cannot.” Instead, there’s white flaky fera from Lake Geneva, decked out in lemon meringues and citrusy buttered broth. “We used all the parts of the fera fish, all the trimmings,” explains the chef. “I like to do the technique, but you don’t know that I’ve done the technique.” Next comes the rib-sticking Savoie charm you expect of the French Alps: veal shanks, carved tableside and served with shared crusty pots of potatoes au gratin burbling with reblochon.
As we sip local Chartreuse with the chef, now out of the kitchen and into a white Lacoste with the collar popped, I think that this meal is a perfect expression of French hospitality – from the food on the plate to the wine in the glass to the cuckoos on the wall. Need it really change?
“Right now is the most exciting and beautiful time for French cuisine,” says Mathieu Viannay, executive chef at Lyon’s two-star La Mère Brazier, all sexy stubble with a lick of grey in his slicked-back hair. “We are eating very well in France.” After settling into a high-backed chair in one of the wainscotted rooms, I’m served what looks and tastes like a greatest hits list from grand-mère’s kitchen, delectable in its unfailing creamy cloak of tradition.
“You will not find this anywhere else, not even the Alps,” he says of the restaurant’s 100-year-old recipe for poularde de Bresse demi-deuil. (A chicken from nearby Bresse is cooked for four and a half hours at 162°F in a fragrant poaching liquid, sliced black truffles tucked under its skin, and then carved tableside and sauced in a white port cream sauce.) And, of course, he’s right. “We don’t have to change,” says Viannay after I’ve finished the diabolically rich meal and find myself casually checking my pulse. “We just have to be true to ourselves.” On the Bresse chicken front – totally. As for the rest of it, I can’t say I agree.
With contemporary chefs changing up menu cards daily, based on global inspiration and seasonality, 100 years is an awfully long time to be serving the exact same chicken dish. Of course, it’s about honouring history, but it also speaks of hubris – for the Bresse chicken is truly an amazing bird. So why drown it in cream? And why not remove or crisp the skin and get creative with the (perfectly cooked) garnish of veg? Why not… evolve it? History seems to be holding many chefs hostage. French food is often rooted in stories – every pastry is named after a saint or a bike race – but those are generally somebody else’s tales.
What’s exciting about Paris’ Yam’Tcha is that its stories are new. Chef Adeline Grattard and her Hong Kong-born husband, Chi Wah Chan, the restaurant’s tea steward, are creating French dishes with a Chinese twist. Butter and cream are almost non-existent, de rigueur French enamel and copper pots swapped out for steam heat and fast frying in woks. Grattard’s “half-cooked” potatoes are shredded, poached in oil and tossed with a lip-smacking homemade XO sauce, topped with a perfect piece of steamed turbot. What the dish lacks in looks it makes up for in raw sex appeal; it’s the Harvey Keitel of fish recipes. “The inspiration for the dish came from North China, where they eat the potatoes raw with chili,” Grattard explains. “I love that.”
Yam’Tcha’s timber ceiling, curved stone-and-grass entrance and pretty watercolour lily-pad mural whisper feng shui, not Michelin star (though Grattard has earned one of those too). No starched tablecloths on the eight tables, just bare wood and chopsticks. Franco-Chinoise seared sea scallops with spinach and Chinese herbs, lolling about in a vaguely Thai broth, are perfectly paired with a Trimbach riesling from Alsace. The kicker is a steamed Chinese “brioche” bun, which, taking a cue from the buzzy tables around me, I rip and dip into every last drop of that broth. (Are steamed buns the new baguette?) “As chefs, we travel because we have to look for new concepts, open our minds,” says Grattard. “You learn technique and many things in France, then go away and explore.”
That’s precisely what the smiling Guillaume Monjuré, voted best chef of 2013 by the influential Le Fooding magazine, and his partner, Chrystel Barnier, did before returning home to create a restaurant that almost defies France. Although it would look more at home on Toronto’s Ossington Avenue than in Lyon, Palégrié is where the future of French food can be found.
There’s one long wooden table, and instead of a team of chefs in the closet-size kitchen, there’s just Monjuré – and he does the dishes too. There are still loads of French technique, time-honoured ingredients and fine wines, but here the cooking is something much more than historical custodian. “We want to work with great products and not very many ingredients,” explains front-of-the-house Barnier while dishing out wafer-thin truffle-and-crème-fraîche pizzas hot from a Big Green Egg. “Purity: The most important thing is what’s on the plate and in the glass.” This translates into dishes that are upbeat and energetic: tender langoustine bathed in a consommé hit with lemon, orange and lime. A large hot river stone is set down before me, searing my filet of fera fish. The food here is spontaneous, exciting and a favourite among chefs – no wonder three-time Bocuse winner Rasmus Kofoed came here to eat just prior to this year’s competition.
Back at the Eurexpo exhibition centre, the Bocuse d’Or is in full swing. Red-faced chefs and sweet-faced commis – each chef has one assistant under the age of 21 – dash to the finish amid cheers from compatriots in the stands. Twelve teams present 10 minutes apart on each of the two days of competition, while the chef-judges get out their knives to critique the parade of gilded platters. There are horns and noisemakers, cheering and stomping. A round of “O Canada” breaks out as Canadian chef Alex Chen presents his gorgeous fish course, which features British Columbian geoduck and Northern Divine caviar from the Sunshine Coast.
A photo of Eugénie Brazier overseas the Art Deco bar at La Mère Brazier.
The presentation hall hushes as the winners are about to be revealed. Bronze goes to Noriyuki Hamada’s team from Japan, the first time the country has ever placed. The room erupts while his young commis covers his face as he cries. (It’s only the second time a non-European has reached the podium.) More cheers, and then that hush again as the silver goes to the rising chef country of Denmark, the team headed by Jeppe Foldager. Hugs and firm handshakes all around. And now the crowd is in a full-on froth, anticipating who the winner will be…
For the first time since 2007, gold goes to France, led by Megève’s new favourite son, chef Thibaut Ruggeri. Narrowing the gap between classic and modern, his turbot with a daub of sauce and cromesquis topped with a giant Alice in Wonderland-like pearl of mushroom coulis made for a dreamy landscape. His Irish beef “Rossini-style” (foie gras, mushrooms, red wine), served with truffle soup and other magical-looking accompaniments, boasted a presentation so elegant and precise, it was like a food version of Versailles. Ruggeri had crossed an invisible line in the sand by respecting other countries’ products and cuisines enough to show them reflected in his own cooking. He took a chance, experimented, and, in doing so, made a lasting impression on the judges.
Paul Bocuse himself presents the golden statuette to Ruggeri, who hoists it above his head in victory as the French crowd goes insane. The national anthem plays as a newfound pride fills the room and sweeps out into the streets of Lyon, and beyond.
01 Du Pain et des Idées was voted one of paris’ best boulangeries in 2012 in a city where good bread is a right. Great hunks of country bread smell of wood smoke, while buttery “snails” – puff pastry coiled around pieces of pink candied almonds – are mind-altering.
02 Whip up some modern classics at Bocafina, a sleek cooking school overlooking Lac d’Annecy. Recipes like filet of local fera fish with grapefruit, crumble and beurre blanc are simple and stunning.
03 The new Novotel Lyon Confluence is located in the heart of the emerging confluence district, a massive mixed-use neighbourhood with shops, museums, public spaces and a university. Like the area, the Novotel’s 150 rooms are clean and modern, while the bar overlooks the sparkling Saône river.
04 Le Chateaubriand is a lively bistro where Basque chef Iñaki Aizpitarte marries France’s best natural wine list to intriguing tasting menus. We loved the turbot with sesame and elderberry.
05 Tuck into E. Dehillerin (circa 1820), a rickety Parisian outpost for the tools of the trade, from copper pots to a situation-specific duck press.
06 La Ferme de Joseph, an alpine restaurant and shop in Megève, makes the freshest cheeses imaginable; watch feeding cows through the shop’s picture window.
07 Les Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse is where you can sip champagne and suck back oysters while doing a grocery run. Don’t miss the cheeses at La Mère Richard or Sibilia’s saucissons.
Air Canada operates non-stop flights between Montreal and Geneva. From Geneva, Lyon is one hour and 45 minutes away by car, while Megève is an hour away. Air Canada offers the most year-round non-stop flights to Paris from Toronto and Montreal.