Full disclosure: I did not actually cook in Paul Bocuse’s kitchen; that would have truly been a Moment Parfait. But I did find myself in his immediate vicinity at SIRHA in Lyon some fifteen years ago. Attending that trade show brought me pretty close to foodie heaven not just because of the fantastic products I discovered but because I also had the opportunity to observe talented chefs pushing the envelope in food prep, execution, and presentation. Buyers at food shows move at a very slow pace: we are continuously stopping to shake hands with vendors, watch videos showcasing pots, pans, or knives, and sample food bites (I know, you all want my job right now.) I was leisurely walking the aisles of the show when traffic came to a standstill. I figured there was a compelling demo a few booths ahead. I then realized the source of attention was actually in the aisle. Initially, I only caught a quick glimpse of a white toque towering over the crowd; a short while later, I found myself just a few feet away from Monsieur Paul. Sporting his tall chef’s hat, he was also dressed in his “frog coat” adorned with the blue, white, and red striped collar that can only be worn by recipients of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France* award. He was escorted by a small entourage and I assume he was making his way to the Bocuse d’Or competition**, an international event that started in 1987, long before Iron Chef and Chopped became popular TV entertainment.
Since I didn’t have private transportation (nor the budget!) to head out of Lyon and experience Bocuse’s celebrated restaurant in Collonges, I thought the next best thing would be to have dinner at one of his brasseries in the city. As luck would have it, Brasserie de l’Est was a mere fifteen-minute walk from my hotel. I loved the location –an old gare– and the décor: a stunning iron-and-glass marquise above the entrance, an open kitchen, a miniature train circulating on miniature tracks above the dining room. I remember being so impressed with the simple salade gourmande: lovely bouquets of mâche dressed in an olive oil vinaigrette with shallots, tender coeurs d’artichauts, perfectly cooked haricots verts, topped with a buttery slice of duck foie gras.
As soon as I flew back to California, I had to recreate that perfect salad and add it to my repertoire. The recipe was not listed in Paul Bocuse In Your Kitchen, the very first cookbook I bought after moving to the US but, by then, I was able to execute a satisfactory rendition. The funny thing is that I grew up around women who routinely produced 4-course meals twice a day but I didn’t actually start cooking until I left France. Chef Paul, Chef Jacques (Pépin), and Julia (Child) became my teachers through their books and their TV shows. Soupe à l’Oignon, Sole Meunière, Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon, Mousse au Chocolat: I had savored all those dishes throughout my childhood but these iconic figures are the ones who really taught me how to cook. Paul Bocuse just passed away last week. He was a giant, the pope of French cuisine. His lessons and his passion will always stay with me. Come to think about it: his French Onion Soup sounds simply perfect right now.
Paul Bocuse’s French Onion Soup
Soupe à l’oignon de Paul Bocuse
2 tbsp butter
4 medium onions, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp flour
6 cups beef bouillon or water
½ an 8-ounce loaf of French bread, cut in half lengthwise
2 cups freshly grated Swiss cheese
2 tbsp butter (for layering)
2 tbsp breadcrumbs
Melt 2 tbsp butter in a large saucepan, add the onions, and brown slightly. Stir in the flour and when it begins to color add the bouillon or water, stirring constantly. Cook over moderate heat uncovered for 15 minutes. Toast the bread under the broiler, then cut into thick slices. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. In a soup tureen that you can put in the oven, place a third of the bread, sprinkle with a quarter of the cheese, 2 tsp of softened butter, and a little pepper. Make three layers in this way, then pour the soup into the tureen, sprinkle with the breadcrumb and the remaining cheese, and place in the oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese and breadcrumbs have browned. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
La toque: tall (and stiff) chef’s hat
La gare: train station
La marquise: in this context, a glass and iron porch above an entrance
La mâche: lamb’s lettuce
Le coeur d’artichaut: artichoke heart
Le haricot vert: slender green bean
La soupe à l’oignon: French onion soup
La sole meunière: sole with a butter lemon sauce
Le coq au vin: rooster in red wine
Le boeuf bourguignon: beef stew in red wine
La mousse au chocolat: chocolate mousse
*Meilleur Ouvrier de France: for some insight on what is involved to get this culinary award, watch the trailer to The Kings of Pastry, an entertaining and fascinating documentary.
** Bocuse d'Or: watch highlights of the 2017 competition. The US team took Gold for the first time!