I’m on the train for Paris as we speak – the TGV, the fast train that like Lenin’s sealed train from Vienna to St. Petersburg, doesn’t stop and that goes straight from Lyon to Paris in two hours. This train zooms comfortably through a gorgeous day outside – about 65 degrees and sunny, and a Very Kind Man hauled my impossibly heavy bag onto the rack for me.
I tried to pack lightly and given the length of the trip, I really did. I brought the ends of bottles of shampoo, makeup, face soap, deodorant, contact solution, hairspray from St. Louis, then threw all of them and my smouldering brand-new hair dryer away this morning and will get new ones tonight in Paris after I get to the apartment. However, despite the fact that I gave away a bunch of the cooking equipment, two books, the striped chef’s pants, the clogs that weighed a good 6 pounds and the heavy backpack case they all came in, I STILL managed to collect more stuff. I stuffed in my aprons, four towels to hang on your belt, the two chefs ‘ jackets and of course a bunch of Lyonnaise silk mousseline scarves (they’re light, they’re small!) and the 5 pound Complete Paul Bocuse cookbook that 88 year old Paul Bocuse signed for me, “A Martha, Le bonheur est dans la cuisine [Happiness is in the kitchen, or in the cooking.] Paul Bocuse.” We didn’t get to meet him when we went to his restaurant and toured the beautiful kitchen and met the MOF who runs the kitchen. Chef Bocuse had a serious back operation this spring and is in a rehab center. And he still signed books for us. Very precious books.
We went to his restaurant on Thursday night – the night before our last day of cooking. It’s the only 3-star Michelin restaurant in Lyon and it feels very much like the way it was when Julia and Paul Child ate there. There is a wall of perhaps 8-10 murals in the courtyard as you enter the restaurant with great chefs and descriptions of them. The light was shining on my American heroes, James Beard and Julia Child, so the pictures didn’t come out. But Erica and I are here with Paul Bocuse and friends.
The Michelin star system is as brutal as the competition for the MOF (meillure ouvrier de France, see the entry “Polite and Practically Perfect, below).
It’s a wildly rare honor to have one star, let alone three, and losing a star is horrific. A famous chef committed suicide several years ago after he lost a star and descended from three to two. The pressure is tremendous. The restaurants try to keep their presentation fresh, absolutely chic, creative, modern, with every detail compulsively perfect.
Stars add to bookings, stars add enormously to the amount restaurants can charge, stars add to the reputation of the chef. Three stars is the apex of the pyramid. Paul Bocuse has been given the [I think unprededented] honor of having three lifetime stars. The other example of amazing-in-the-star-department is next-generation chef Alain Ducasse, in whose school I’ll be studying for five days in Paris. Ducasse, also author of many cook books, is the only chef to have NINE Michelin stars concurrently – three each for three restaurants for which he’s chef de cuisine (one is the beautiful restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. He’s another culinary and PR genius.
But back to Paul Bocuse – it’s an old-fashioned restaurant, with the classic food, presentation, and ambiance. And it’s absolutely full. We went on Thursday night, and virtually every table was booked. Here’s my dessert:
We had dinner with the whole class and Chef Patrick – very fun. I had a beautiful lobster starter, then loup (sea bass) with a bernaise sauce flavored with a little tomato in a pastry crust. That was staggeringly good. Then cheeses, then dessert, then coffee. I kept imaging the Childs, and James Beard, and my grandparents eating the same food in the same room, laughing with friends over fabulous food – having a wonderful evening. It happened. It all happened.