After roasting in their brown morel broth, these scallops pass under the eagle eye of chef Nicolas Le Bec. A Brittany-born perfectionist, Le Bec was the last Lyon-based chef to be honoured by the Michelin guide. His cooking philosophy when he arrived in Lyon was “the best of what is simple”. It was a tough task in a town hailed as THE capital of gastronomy and he had to break the mould to earn his two Michelin stars. His culinary audacity proved to be a hit.
France’s second city, Lyon is not taking its gastronomic reputation for granted. Breaking down walls to build new ones in their place, the city doesn’t intend to be a prisoner of its own achievements. Neither does Nicolas Le Bec. He’s to leave behind his two stars to move to where the rivers Saone and Rhone meet, Lyon’s quartier for the 21st century. One hundred and fifty hectares incorporating docks, bars and flats, one of Europe’s biggest urban projects. The site will also house Le Bec’s new concept restaurant; or rather several concept restaurants rolled into one, for he wants there to be a little something for everyone: “Lyon is calling on international architects, as we can see on this site, it’s bringing in sports stars from all over the planet. It’s shopping abroad for doctors and engineers, so yes, there is an international synergy going on here.” A synergy of town and private planning in France’s boom town, but its chefs think Lyon should settle on one dominant gastronomic flavour. “There’s a lot of talk about whether we’re looking to do brassery food, concept cooking or haute cuisine,” says Le Bec.
The Cité International is another fresh and active district of Lyon and the meeting place for a particular band of buddies, the chefs of the Toques Blanches Lyonnaises, an association worth 70 years of input and support from Lyon’s best chefs. Of the 111 members, many have their own company. They are faced with increasing competition in the sector. They see the British and Spanish coming through the ranks, and the Japanese who have fully got to grips with the French savoir-faire. To help, Lyon heads an international network of 17 towns around the world wanting to pool knowledge and resources, and add their own flavour to the mix. The President of the association says: “The problem is that in our business it’s a little closed. The very fact of travelling and meeting other chefs, and to host chefs coming from abroad, for us it’s fabulous. It opens our minds. We’ll be able to discover new products, new techniques, perhaps cooking techniques, new tools, all thanks to these meetings.” The ingredient common to all their kitchens is quality.
Lyon wants its chefs and restaurants to be the motor driving the whole gastronomy industry. Michelin stars or not, the town expects them to innovate within the boundaries of tradition and put to the fore the incredible wealth of produce the surrounding area has to offer.
When in Lyon, do as the Lyonnais… go to one of the Saturday morning markets, a source of town pride. Sales here are more than double the French national average. Alain Alexanian is a market regular and used to swapping recipes with the wealth of local producers. As part of his rapport with food, he looks for what he calls “intelligence”:
“Intelligence is simply saying: it’s not enough for it to look good and be well presented, sweet or savoury. It’s more about the food suiting our diet. And the thing that suits our diet best of course, it’s the markets, the fruit and veg, the fresh fish, fresh meat and everything around it. That’s what is intelligent for us.”
What gives Lyon’s markets an edge is the region’s climate, which provides for an abundance of fresh and varied seasonal products; enough to fill some 350 markets held in the town every week. The produce is often sold to customers by the farmers themselves, in fact they make up a third of Lyon’s market sellers. For those buying, the quality lies in the freshness. “It’s really good. Just look at those raspberries…raspberries in syrup, you don’t find that anymore. That’s the advantage of this sort of market,” enthuses one happy shopper.
In a city where buying and preparing good produce has been elevated to an art form, cooking can never really be perfected. Sociologists have been sounding the death knell for traditional family recipes, but all is not lost. Cooking blogs are flourishing, mothers DO still teach their children to cook. Professionals and amateurs still learn off each other.
Cooking lessons could almost include a module on culture, for this Brazilian food student at least: “I think that gastronomie is IN French culture…even people who can’t cook well, they know how to use seasoning and condiments…so I wanted to learn the culture and the gastronomy and I’m in Lyon so I’m in luck!”
At the age of 82, and after heart surgery, top chef Paul Bocuse is still going strong. His nickname locally is “the Pope of French gastronomy”. He lends his name to a research centre, the Paul Bocuse Institute, which is part financed by local communities.
From October 2008 sociologists, nutritionists and economists will get together here to discuss ways of improving dietary behaviour across society. Amongst other things they will examine the link between health and pleasure at the dining table. In France, food is often not just food. It is about pleasure, and conviviality. Could it be that the French possess a code for healthy eating? Certain figures in Lyon’s gastronomy circles believe so anyway. The town’s deputy mayor says: “The French model is so far resisting bad eating, and we think we may be able to pass on these codes to other countries to develop. Regular meals, eating meals at fixed times in the day helps to build an appetite, instead of nibbling all day long and becoming obese. For a French person, eating is an act of pleasure.”
The Lyonnais insist their town is the centre of the gastronomic universe, but they are at least ready to listen to outside ideas.