• A plate of quenelle, a fish dish typical of Lyon (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It’s known as the “stomach of France”, where you can have dinner for breakfast, and even the salad is stuffed with bacon.
Lee Tran Lam

6 Jun 2019 - 1:14 PM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2019 - 1:34 PM

There are some places you need to visit as a chef.

For Jordan Toft, the Sydney executive chef behind Bert’s and Coogee Pavilion, Lyon in France is one such destination. Renowned French food critic Curnonsky called Lyon the “world capital of gastronomy” in 1935, food writer Bill Buford moved there because that’s still true more than seven decades later and not long ago, GQ called it “the real capital of French food”. 

Toft has always been attracted to Lyon’s reputation for “rib-sticking” and farmhouse-style food, the humble cuisine spearheaded by the Mères Lyonnaises  (“Mothers of Lyon”), who got their culinary start as domestic cooks for bourgeois families, creatively using up every scrap of meat, even unpopular cuts. They later ended up running restaurants across town.

“They’d use all the parts of the pig and they’d smother it in cream and butter and sauce,” says Toft. He compares this hearty style of cooking to a mum giving you a massive hug.

One famous “mother” was Eugénie Brazier, the first chef to be awarded six Michelin stars simultaneously (an honour she maintained for 20 years) and mentor to Paul Bocuse, Lyon’s most famous culinary son (the local markets are even named after him). Brazier was taught by Françoise Fayolle, aka Mère Fillioux, who only employed women in her kitchen. Mère Fillioux’s famous method of cooking chicken in a pig’s bladder is still served at Restaurant Paul Bocuse today, albeit in a grand style that comes with a 260 euro price tag.

For Toft, it’s not showy Michelin-starred fare that attracts him to Lyon, but the working-class food that originally fed local silk factory employees, who looked for rich meals after finishing night shifts:

“Nine to 10 in the morning, that would be their dinner, it would be pâté, roasted meats, tripe, cheese and a glass of wine.” That’s why he wanted to visit: Lyon was the “unfancy Paris” designed for hearty appetites, the place also known as the “stomach of France”.

“For a time there, there were these restaurants for men, where you couldn’t enter unless if you were under 175 pounds,” he says.

“And you were charged 5 centimes (cents) per kilo you weighed and you could eat as much as you wanted: things like breaded offal, gribiche, the pate and pig’s trotters that I love.”

So when Toft moved to France in 2006, to cook at a chalet in the Haute-Savoie region, he was sure he’d soon be in Lyon. He just needed to get behind the wheel and it was just over two-and-a-half hours away: the home of bacon-filled salade Lyonnaise, tripe soup and Venus-shaped quenelles.

Lyonnaise salad (salade Lyonnaise)

Crisp, lightly dressed cos lettuce served with warm smoky bacon, crunchy croutons and an oozy poached egg – it’s enough to make your mouth water! Serve this classic French recipe as a dinner party starter.

But then, he found himself driving straight by eight times and never stopping.

“It was always a city I’d wanted to go to, and I just kept going past.” When he did make plans to properly visit, something always ended up happening. It was funny: “the Lyon Curse, I never got there”. And then he was back running restaurants in Sydney.

Finally, 13 years later, armed with a Eurail pass, he found himself in the “unfancy Paris” he’d dreamed of. In April, he visited Daniel & Denise, one of the bouchon-style traditional restaurants that Lyon is famous for. A bouchon means “cork” in French, but also refers to the straw brushes that local silk workers used to clean their horses. Its bistro-like setting offers classic dishes – Toft ordered pâté en croute, calves’ liver, chicken covered in morel mushrooms and cream, macaroni gratin and fried potatoes.

“You can see that those bouchons are not only a rite of passage for someone from Lyon, they’re proud of it,” he says. This image of “real”, unpretentious food is an unshakeable part of the city’s charm.

Charlotte Gonzales-Poncet, the chef behind Sydney’s new Jounieh restaurant, grew up in Gabon – but Lyon definitely influenced her family diet.

“Salade Lyonnaise is a dish we would have at least once a week for dinner,” she says. Her father made it with a mustard and walnut oil dressing, while her mother (who once lived an hour south of Lyon) would often cook poulet aux ecrevisses, a chicken and crayfish dish that Gonzales-Poncet loved so much she’d drown pasta in the remaining sauce.

Salt pork with lentils was another Lyonnaise family favourite (her dad found it hard to keep his cravings for it in check) while the blood sausage that was tough for her kid-appetite to enjoy ended up later shaping her palate: “I am a huge fan of it now.”

Slow-cooked salted pork with lentils

Stage 9, Issoire - Saint Flour: In Saint Flour, one of the most rustic French towns of this year's Tour de France, the locals love pork meat and small goods. 

The chef (who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurant L'Atelier in Arles, France, and hatted Sydney restaurants like Felix and Fred’s) says that, “Lyon is the capital of gastronomy, so it has always been a very important influence in my cooking experience.” Even though she’s currently cooking Middle Eastern food at Jounieh, she says, French “cooking culture” still inspires her menu.

Gonzales-Poncet credits the location of Lyon (which is cut in half by the famous Rhône river) for its culinary importance.

Before road transport existed, having a major waterway run through Lyon helped it access many ingredients. Toft agrees, saying that being close to Charolles (for vegetables), Savoie (for fish), Dombes (for game), Bresse (for “the best chicken in the world”) and the Rhône and the Beaujolais (for wine) gives Lyon a culinary advantage.

Chef Daniel Southern grew up in England, and his parents would often take him on 11-hour drives to the South of France, where they’d bought a business.

There’d always be a stop around Lyon that’d be punctuated by “dodgy French coffee” for breakfast and ‘fancy' sausage, lentils and mustard for dinner – “although I asked for less mustard back in those days,” Southern says.“Beautiful fresh curly endive, bacon, egg and a tangy shallot dressing in the form of a Lyonnaise salad to me was heaven at the time.”

These experiences undoubtedly influenced the French-trained chef, who worked at Melbourne bistro L'Oustal and will soon cook at the new late-night brasserie Margaux. While he has many theories about why Lyon remains a culinary capital, Southern realises that answer is actually simple: unlike the “unfriendliness” he felt in Paris and Marseille, the city radiated a family-style warmth when you were dining out.

Perhaps you could compare it to the hug from a mother of Lyon.

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Lyonnais cheese dip with herbs (cervelle de canut)

This dip was created in Lyon, the silk capital of France in the 19th century, and the French title translates as "silk worker's brain" meaning it is "soft". It's often served with hot baked potatoes, but is lovely on toasted sourdough baguette.

Tripe with white wine and black bean sauce (tripes au vin blanc et sauce aux haricots noirs)

What I loved about Lyon was the authentic bouchons (restaurants) that serve dishes passed down from generation to generation. The highlight of bouchons, for me, were the offal dishes on offer, and tripe was always the star of the show.

Lyonnaise salad (salade Lyonnaise)

Crisp, lightly dressed cos lettuce served with warm smoky bacon, crunchy croutons and an oozy poached egg – it’s enough to make your mouth water! Serve this classic French recipe as a dinner party starter.

Beef bourguignon royale

My beef Bourguignon royale is magic. I serve it with pan-fried potatoes – à la Lyonnaise – and a green salad drizzled with a simple vinaigrette. Use either Shiraz or Cabernet for this casserole, "but never Pinot".

Rabbit with mustard (lapin a la moutarde)

Where I grew up in Lyon, rabbit is often cooked in red wine, which is a shame because rabbit is such a beautiful, delicate meat and the red wine can overpower it. My recipe uses white wine and that is why I love this dish.

Chicken with artichokes (poulet aux artichauts)

Stage 19: Bourgoin-Jalileu - Aubenas French chef, Gabriel Gaté, talks about the food from the region around the beautiful city of Lyons and prepares a superb dish of Sautéed Chicken with Artichokes. Sommelier, Christian Maier, marries the great dish with a wine from the Rhône region. For more Tour news visit the Tour de France website at tdf.sbs.com.au. More Taste Le Tour recipes