This will wind up my mini-series on our recent trip from Daglan to Lyon, France’s culinary capital and the home base of the legendary chef, Paul Bocuse. In this posting I’m offering a few impressions of Lyon itself, plus some information on M. Bocuse.
The surprising city. I confess that my wife Jan and I hadn’t really done a lot of research on Lyon itself before our trip, so this first exposure to the city was something of a surprise. For some reason, I had expected Lyon to be a rather quaint city, chock full of little restaurants and a few great ones. Instead, it’s a sprawling, sophisticated city with lots of commerce and great shopping, and blessed by having not one but two rivers — the mighty Rhône on its east and the Saône on its west. At its southern tip, where the two rivers flow together, the shape of Lyon is reminiscent of Manhattan Island, except that the city is actually on a peninsula instead of an island. For long stretches along both rivers, it’s easy to think that you’re in Paris, strolling the banks of the Seine. I’m not sure why I was so surprised by Lyon’s sophistication, because it’s actually the third largest city in France (after Paris and Marseilles), but second largest if you include the metropolitan areas.
Bocuse: the empire. I certainly knew that Paul Bocuse is one of the greatest French chefs of all time. (The Bocuse d’Or competition he created in 1987 is often considered the ultimate competition for young chefs. With the final held in Lyon every two years, the competition now includes pre-selection events for chefs in Europe, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific regions.) But I had no idea of the extent of his operations. In addition to the three-starred restaurant at Collonges au Mont d’Or (where he was born, by the way), he lists 13 locations in France (including Le Nord, Le Sud, L’Est and L’Ouest in Lyon). Then there’s Le Sud Geneve in Geneva, Switzerland, and two locations in the U.S., including the Restaurant Paul Bocuse at the Culinary Institute of America in New York State. He also lists eight locations in Japan, and is responsible for l’Institut Paul Bocuse, which trains young people in hotel management and the culinary arts.
The branding. In all my years of working in marketing, I don’t think I’ve ever come across an enterprise where the personal brand of the business founder is so prevalent — often in capital letters, or turned into small statues, or created as drawings. Printed inside the napkin rings at the three-starred l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, where Jan and I ate on February 24, is PAUL BOCUSE vous souhaite “bon appétit.” His name is at the top of each plate in the restaurant (as you will have seen in Part II of this mini-series). His name and a caricature of him are on the bags we were given as we left his restaurant, to hold the book we’d bought and the large menu we were given, without asking. His name also appears on tableware like this dish for butter:
Small statues of the chef appear almost everywhere, including the handle of the front door to l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, and atop items like this holder for the salt and pepper grinders:
The focus on quality. For a hospitality business to grow into a true empire, there should be very few shortcuts, and instead a sharp focus on quality. And it’s obvious that Paul Bocuse has demanded quality in every aspect of his business. Here for instance is the spotless and brilliantly equipped kitchen at l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which I photographed after Jan and I had finished our lunch:
Another example of quality: At the restaurant where Jan and I had lunch, there are actually three top chefs who share the culinary duties in place of the 90-year-old Paul Bocuse — and all three have earned the distinction of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. They are listed on the menu as Christophe Muller (who earned his MOF designation in 2000), Gilles Reinhardt (2004), and Olivier Couvin (2015). This would be like an opera star having the Three Tenors as a back-up group.
The recognition. I’ll end this posting with excerpts from the 2015 Guide Michelin, the famous red book of restaurant and hotel ratings. In it, the editors devote an entire page to the great chef, titled “1965-2015: un jubilé de 3 étoiles pour Paul Bocuse.” Here’s some of what Michelin said, in an English translation that is provided on the back of the large menu that Jan and I were given: “A half-century in the firmament, in a guide which itself is just over a century old: what a performance by Monsieur Paul! Sparkling since 1965 on his famous Auberge du Pont de Collonges … are these three stars of which he has become a sort of herald. … Paul Bocuse symbolizes the figure of the great French chef: Rabelaisian and yet refined, a skilled technician but with a big appetite, an heir of tradition but also a pioneer.” Pretty remarkable, and I’m glad we made it to his three-starred restaurant.