With The Lion of Lyon
Our stomachs were filled with Edmund Fallot mustard sauces when the guys finished shooting our ‘lunch.’ We packed the van and began our caravan to Lyon where we were to meet one of France’s most famous chefs… Paul Bocuse, the father of nouvelle cuisine. He’s so famous, in fact, that his cooking earned him France’s highest civilian award, the French Medal of Honor, bestowed on him by President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
By the time we reached Lyon it was after dark and we were hungry and tired. We were booked at the old-world Grand Hotel Mercure Chateau (a/k/a the ‘train station’ hotel) and when we saw the hotel sign from the autostrata, we gave out a group weary sigh of relief… However, finding the hotel once we left the autostrata was another matter altogether. The hotel seemed to have completely disappeared.
Driving through the streets of Lyon at night isn’t the best way to see the city. But here we were, once again ‘touring’ a town, as we tried to track down our lodgings. The van was behind us and Barry kept assuring Jim and Jason through a walkie-talkie that our hotel was just around the corner. He lied. Around every corner was just another dark street filled with French people in cafes eating cheese and sipping wine. Though we did discover a lovely carousel in the middle of some plaza we kept driving around. But it's charm eluded me...
My stomach growled. I growled. Finally, even Charlie had had enough ‘touring’ and forced Barry to stop the Passat in front of a little hotel… not our hotel. The van stopped right behind us blocking the street. We didn’t care. Armed with a desire to end our endless search, or maybe just his strong desire to use the bathroom, Charlie jumped out of the car and ran inside. Ten minutes later he was back with directions to our hotel which, we discovered, really was just around the corner.
We pulled into a parking space in front of the hotel. We still couldn’t figure out how we lost it because there, just meters away, was the imposing old train station that the hotel was built to service tired travelers back ‘in the day.’ It was very dark standing there on the street barren of trees or foliage and the illumination from the hotel and street lights gave the whole area a mysterious aura. I expected a misty fog to waft down at any minute. We grabbed our bags and went inside.
Walking into the hotel was like walking into ‘old’ Europe. The name “Grand Hotel” suited it. I could visualize men in waistcoats and spats carrying silver-headed walking canes and women in form-fitting skirts to their ankles, high-buttoned shoes, gloves and large picture hats arriving at the station with their Vuitton steamer trunks that bellmen collected on baggage carts as they entered the lobby. High up over mahogany paneled walls and a substantial front desk were large, pastoral landscape murals.
I just wanted to sit in one of the lobby’s easy chairs and soak up the atmosphere. But food service in the hotel’s restaurant was about to end for the evening, so we all quickly settled into our rooms then met in the restaurant for dinner. With lush red carpets, red leather high back chairs surrounding tables covered with cream linen table cloths, the room was very elegant. Very – uh - ‘French.’
At dinner we met my sixth guy. Oliver. Because Paul Bocuse didn’t speak English and none of us spoke French that well, the show hired a translator who showed up in the form of a twenty-something Swiss student studying in France. Dressed in jeans and tee in that throw-away chic so many Europeans are born with (especially if they speak French), his dark brown hair tied back into a pony tail, his personality fit his appearance. Young ‘fluff,’ but charming. The meal was ordinary, but we didn’t care. Not every restaurant can be four stars… not even in France. The guys finalized the next day’s agenda then we were off to bed.
For the show Monsieur Bocuse was making his renowned truffle soup then priced at $50 a bowl (it's now $90) on his menu. But first we were to meet him at his favorite indoor farmer’s market where ‘we’ would tape him shopping for the ingredients of the day… then back to his restaurant to shoot him making the soup.
It was fun following him around as he talked to his extended ‘family’ of food merchants while Oliver translated and the guys taped. Well, it was fun until I had to go to the loo. I’m not crazy about public restrooms, especially public restrooms in such a big venue. But nothing compares to a public restroom in a big venue that has holes in the floor instead of toilets. Talk about your “old Europe.”
The shoot at the farmers’ market over, we drove to Bocuse’s restaurant… an exquisite space in an old stone building. We walked through the tall wooden gates and entered a tiled courtyard with carved frescos and mosaics on the stone walls. Atop the outside walls were large splashes of bright reds and greens.
Inside, there was a separate room for the bar and “cocktail lounge.”
In the entry, the china was on display for sale for anyone wanting to take home a souvenir. I just had to buy a charger to use as a cake plate and a small cheese plate to bring home for a friend.
By the time Monsieur Bocuse was ready for his close-up, it was lunch time and the dining room was packed with people. The kitchen was too busy with cooks and sous chefs preparing meals, waiters bustling in and out and my guys: Jim working the audio; Richard directing Jason as they followed Bocuse from stove to counter preparing the soup; Oliver interpreting everything except “BAM” which Bocuse learned from his friend, Emeril; Charlie organizing things and doing paper work; and Barry overseeing everything. There was no room for me and nothing I was needed for. The bar was empty, so I sat down, pulled a paperback from my backpack and read while smells from the kitchen invaded my senses.
Finally the shoot was over, all the patrons had gone and Monsieur Bocuse invited us to sit down in the kitchen at the long picnic-style dining table used by the sous chefs, cooks and waiters on their food breaks. Chilled bottles of sancerre were opened and poured for me and my six guys.
I was admiring the Chagall-like artwork of the menus stacked on a nearby table...
when a waiter served each of us a bowl of truffle soup topped with a chicken pot pie-type of pastry crust. We broke open the crust and dipped into the soup filled with carrots, mushroom, beef, celery, fois gras and hundreds of dollars an ounce black truffles. Bocuse uses black truffles because, unlike white truffles, one can cook with them. White truffles disintegrate. A bottle of Bordeaux appeared on the table… the only wine Monsieur Bocuse said should be served with this soup. I watched Jason look at the bowl wondering if he was going to at least give the soup a try. We explained that truffle was just a fancy word for mushroom. He tentatively put a spoonful in his mouth and as he chewed on a truffle he smiled. I don’t think he thought it was a mushroom, but I think he was the first one finished. I’m not surprised - it was the most amazing soup I’d ever tasted.
When the individual soup tureens were removed, we all started to get up to leave, but quickly sat back down when a platter of ripe, stinky cheeses was brought to the table… followed by a salad… followed by red mullet topped with a potato crust which was scalloped to look like the scales of a fish (the presentation was only matched by the taste of the fish and potato mixture)… followed by a chocolate bombe dessert… and many bottles of white and red wine. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
As we were about to leave, Richard and Monsieur Bocuse wanted to have a picture taken together. They had bonded. Bocuse in his two foot high chef’s hat, arms folded across his chest in his famous pose and Richard standing beside him. I snapped. No flash. I tried again. Still no flash. No one else had a ‘snapshot’ camera. But Bocuse wasn’t about to give up. He went to his private rooms on the second story above the kitchen and brought down his own personal camera and gave it to me. He and Richard posed again. I snapped. No flash. We gave up, made our good byes and headed back to the hotel and early to bed. We were off to Provence in the morning except Charlie, who went ahead on the train to do a bit of location scouting for our next shoot: that olive grove with a 1,000 year old tree I wrote about recently. The grove’s olives make a very delicious and very expensive olive oil… But olives were the last thing on my mind as I fell asleep with visions of truffle soup dancing in my head.