By Thaïs Jacquet
When entering a Lyonnais Bouchon -traditional lyonnaise restaurant-, you will feel your senses heightened by your surroundings: the smell of « Gratton » (fried pork fat), the warm sound of people enjoying their meal, the feel of all the movement in the kitchen and the rustic decor letting you dive into one of the most traditional places in Lyon. Don’t expect less of the food, with simple yet exquisite popular dishes. Bouchons are the ideal balance between culture and gastronomy. A cuisine that has been going on through generations and that uses all the of the local resources in Lyon, to create a simple cuisine yet of quality, a concept that sells not only in Lyon but all around the world now.
Your experience will start with the appetizer, the starters, then followed by the main meal, cheese and finally the desert. A little warning, the faint-hearted might not be fond of the mainly offals based menu.
Lyon, being located in a very wealthy region of France will offer you a wide range of quality products: wine, local products -such as meat, vegetables, cheese coming right from the Alps, and more. But despite Lyon having a reputation for its traditional cuisine, the city has taken another turn, with an aim to be different. I could not think of a better place to witness this unique journey of food.
Lyon’s gastronomic history begins in the Middle-Ages when the city was mostly a place of passing, for traders. Since then, the wide variety of products and the richness of the lands had always been a source of attraction to Lyon.
But let me tell you more about when Lyon started having a world-wide reputation, a history that is not so far from us yet constantly growing with generations going by. It started with the ‘Mothers’ at the beginning of the 20th Century. « For Lyonnaise gastronomy, the Mères Braziers were clearly a source of inspiration. There was a time when the ‘Mères’ were on top. They are the ones who built Lyon’s reputation. Bocuse too, who worked with them. They were ‘étoilées’ (starred), and gave rise to a lot of chefs and restaurants. », said Philippe Bachmann, former chef and teacher at L’Institut Bocuse.
Philippe Bachmann described Lyon in three words: gastronomy, comfort and river. With those words, I picture Lyon in my mind. The two rivers crossing the city, cobblestoned streets filled with restaurants, people having a drink on the quays, surrounded by the mountains.
With the variety of places to go for a bite, there is always something to suit all tastes. From bistro food ‘à la carte’ to wandering around Les Halles, from a Bouchon to buying ‘Lyonnaiseries’ at a caterer for a picnic, or even going for a ‘planche’ (charcuterie and cheese served on a wooden board) and some wine if you find yourself craving this typical French appetizer. Ludovic Vessiere, the owner of the known butchery and caterer La Maison Vessière explained to me how they were trying to offer a lyonnaise experience with food as well as a wide range of other products to satisfy everyone; « The dishes we make are mainly from Lyon but we do a bit of everything to please as many people as possible and to respond to our costumers’ demand. », something you will find to be a peculiar aspect of Lyon.
Even though it would be heavenly to spend your entire time devouring French delicacies, don’t forget about other cultural activities Lyon can offer you. Lyon’s old town holds many things to discover; St Jean’s cathedral, many historical museums, the ‘traboules’ are a true maze linking houses and streets. Don’t forget to have a artisan ice cream (with bizarre flavours like bacon or violet) before you head to La Croix-Rousse slopes, where you will be able to enjoy one of Lyon’s finest view if you manage to get yourself all the way up the hill -for the lazy ones, a funicular will bring you there in just a few minutes.
Lyon, being a city with a strong cultural and historical heritage has however been facing changes in its cuisine and in how customers consume it.
«There is an evolution in consumption, nowadays people favour quality over quantity, which is beneficial to us. », said Ludovic Vessiere. An opinion that Philippe Bachmann shares, witnessing the changes in the city but also as being a teacher, allowing him to observe what the future generation expects and wants to create. « Making them cook a blanquette is not in their interest ‘Come on Chef, it’s not in our time anymore. We want to do gastronomy and sparkling thing’ » he often hears. He described nowadays cuisine as more visual rather focused on the taste, gastronomy consisting in having tiny portions with many different dishes and with a lot of work behind the scenes, « It’s quite similar to tapas, but tapas are not gastronomy. Not the same work, not the same visual. ».
Despite being one of the most gastronomic cities in the world, going to a gastronomic restaurant is not the same as going to a normal restaurant. Gastronomy has become an elitist environment, both for the costumers and the people working in this field. It has become very expensive, and apart from foreigners travelling to Lyon, France’s economic situation does not allow people to go for gastronomic food unless it is a big occasion », explained Philippe Bachmann. « It is reserved to an elite in creating it, but consuming it as well. » More than a challenge for anyone interested in a career in gastronomy.
Elitism has always been part of the food environment. Good thing Lyon has more to offer that traditional lyonnaise cuisine and gastronomic restaurants.
One of the biggest changes in Lyon is how varied the places to eat are. Food from all around the world: the best Asian food you could eat in Lyon is definitely in La Guillotière’s Asian canteens, Italian, Spanish, Lebanese food in the rue Mercière or even restaurants specialized in serving one ingredient cooked in many different ways -for salmon or mozzarella lovers and if you are ever interested in North African food, you can genuinely find good places all over the city.
When it comes to the creation of food, I asked myself whether gastronomy was a form of art or artisan. « When it comes to gastronomy, it is bound to be a mix of both: arts and artisan. I think it is a field that has evolved, but will always be an artisan. It is a job that you learn and with experience. It’s about transmitting knowledge; and a form of art, with the creation of a dish, it is like creating a music note, a painting. » explained Philippe Bachmann to me.
When talking with Ludovic Vessiere, he gave me the same vision: he took the business after his dad who transmitted the knowledge and passion of the career to him and gave him an interest in studying butchery and catering as soon as he reached the age of 16. « To me, gastronomy is a form of artisan but can turn into art when there is love for the profession ». Those insights into the world of cuisine and gastronomy revealed not only a hard-working field but also the love and passion behind it and how much a career in this field can offer.
If you ever wondered what are the criteria of a former chef when going to a restaurant, « a good dish with a good price will work, but one needs an ambience, a finishing touch in the plate, good prices, a good table and service. » added Philippe Bachmann.
Creating a dish can have a different meaning to everyone, may it be the simple pleasure of cooking for yourself or for others, or working in the field and having the pressure of creating a ‘masterpiece’ with every detail of the dish analysed, or it could just be the basic natural need of feeding yourself. But in the world of cuisine, it is about the creation of a moment and an experience. « We remember a restaurant not by eating there but by what has happened. ». Philippe Bachmann could not have phrased it better.
The journey of food is very broad in Lyon. Take it from me, taking a cooking class was an incredible experience: it made me feel like a little chef for a few hours and the dishes were delicious -keeping in mind they gave me the recipes at the end. A bit of a show-off whenever you want to have friends over for dinner won’t harm anyone.
If the experience of going to a restaurant is not enough for you, Lyon is always offering many other activities related to food: tasting events, cooking classes, a food truck and a beer festival, musical and food experiences and more.