Inspirational chefs from the French tradition

In the last 20 years we have seen a new phenomenon in mainstream media: the celebrity chef. Before this era, the chef was generally in the background. The chef was not someone we would talk about, unless, of course, the food was exceptionally bad - or good! The chef was not seen or heard. The chef cooked.

There is a forgotten legend in cooking history who had two restaurants. Both gained three Michelin stars, and she was the first person to have six stars: a very high accolade. Her name was Eugénie “La Mère” Brazier, from Lyon (1895-1977).

Eugénie Brazier

She is quoted as saying: "In my life I have met, and conversed with, many intellectuals, sophisticates, and I have always been mindful of who I am."

This is a woman who has unfortunately been written out of history, but is regarded by some high-profile chefs as “one of the pillars of global gastronomy.” (Paul Bocuse)

Contrast that with this quote, actually written for the introduction of a biography of “La Mère”, his chef and mentor, by no other than Paul Bocuse, who was a major figure in French cooking:

"I never forget that I was one of her more remarkable pupils."

Perhaps Bocuse’s statement is demonstrative of a marked difference in generational attitudes?

Paul Bocuse

These figures from French culinary history have been significant influences in my own professional career, and probably influence the Bistro in Redfern in quite subtle ways that I do not even understand. Many customers will comment on how the place "feels so French".

The story of Eugénie Brazier is completely inspiring for any budding restaurateur. This woman started as a very humble (poor) country girl who lost her parents, had a son out of wedlock (surely risqué at the time), and worked quietly and surely into securing three Michelin stars for both of her restaurants. This is a classic work-from-5am-to-midnight-every-day story. But when reading this autobiography, one finds she is not a victim of some evil patriarchal hierarchy, or some even more corrupt capitalist conspiracy. She just knew who she was and acted as she saw fit and made a lot of people happy (eager patrons included Charles de Gaulle and Marlene Dietrich.)

There is a funny story about a regular customer who came to Madame Brazier’s restaurant with a young lady who was not his wife. He clearly felt a little embarrassed to be found in such a predicament. Chef Eugénie said to the man: “Monsieur, I understand, just because you follow Mass in a cathedral does not mean it is not permitted to say a prayer in a small chapel.” What a gracious thing to say to an uncomfortable guest, and so FRENCH!

Eugénie Brazier and Fernand Point

La Mère was cooking in the same period as Fernand Point (1897-1955), a chef noted as one of the great innovators of French cuisine last century, in particular the 'Nouvelle Cuisine" movement, which was a move to a lighter style of French cooking and the use of a lot more vegetables. He could still put away a good meal. For a standard solitary breakfast after a morning shop at the market for his three-star restaurant, he could put away 2-3 chickens and a bottle of Champagne... One gets a sense of the extravagance of the period when reading the history of French cooking. Fernand was also known for his largesse towards his customers, as he was one of the first high-profile chefs to "come out" of the kitchen, and he would tour the dining room to make sure the patrons were satisfied, satiated and happy.

Point also shared an obsession with a lot of contemporary TV chefs in engaging in a fanatical, almost religious fervour for fresh, local produce, which I thought was interesting. We keep thinking as humans that we are into something "new". Some things change, but perhaps the really important things stay the same. It is something to do with a quality of human touch. With love and care, through our work and pleasure, we restore one another.

More musings soon...