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Paul Bocuse: Lunching with the culinary lion of Lyon

Paul Bocuse is probably the most famous French chef in the world, yet his restaurant is not forbidding or pretentious. The dining room is similiar to many three-star restaurants where the decor and ambience has evolved through decades of family ownership.

It is warm and attractive with patterned wallpaper, chandeliers, a large fireplace, and round tables with fresh pink roses in small silver vases.

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There is some fine furniture, and there are two large portraits of Bocuse, one very dramatic and rather striking by Annigoni, which makes him look like an emperor-chef.

The restaurant is an unassuming building with the entrance through a neatly kept courtyard on one side, except for the name in large letters along the roof, and the lifesize statue of a lion at the front, which has no doubt helped earn its owner the title lion of Lyon.

On the banks of the River Saone, it is in easy cab distance from Lyon, and the highways are plainly marked with signs for those who are driving.

As you enter, you can look through a wide window into the kitchen where chefs are in action, working against a background'of gleaming rich copper.

This is one of the few three-star kitchens with decor that is more than functional. Antique scales and cooking tools decorate the walls, and there is the oven with its glass door, monogrammed with a brass mnitial B, where the celebrated truffle soup gets its golden topping.

Bocuse is often criticized for leaving his restaurant for frequent trips around the world, for being too commercial, for cooking lessons he gives in Osaka, and for his interests in restaurants in Orlando, Fla., Tokyo, Rio, and Hongkong; but there is no question of his great talent as a chef.

He was careful to establish his restaurant on an unshakable foundation before launching out on publicity tours, and he shares the love of the current generation of chefs, of traveling around the world, exchanging culinary discoveries with their colleagues.

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In spite of a reputation for being the most flamboyant of his profession, his high standards as a master and creative chef have never faltered.

Together with Fernand Point, his teacher, Bocuse has done more than anyone else to put new life into the profession. He is the one all other chefs look to as the leader.

He was the chef chosen to receive the Cross of the Legion d'Honneur as Ambassador of French Cooking And to organize then-President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's famous luncheon.

He was friendly and informative when I asked him about the various influences that have produced the ''nouvelle cuisine'' and for some idea of how and wherK it all started.

''Cooking is not influenced. It is dictated by the land, by the fruits and vegetables and other food products of the area,'' he said. He is concerned with taste above anything else, working always to preserve the essence of an ingredient.

Bocuse introduced many of the basic trends, such as the lighter sauces bound by crushed tomatoes and other ingredients, in place of the usual flour; and he was first to cook his fish ''pink at the bone.''

Lightness, a delicacy, and a natural reduction of flavors are typical of the new cooking; food is never smothered in heavy sauces. But Bocuse doesn't believe in giving up all the experience and teachings of centuries of French cooking.

''Cooking is primarily butter, cream, eggs, and even the flour, which is often disparaged,'' he said.

''But Point used to say, 'Give me butter, butter, and still more butter.' This is still true today.''

The Paul Bocuse menu always includes the bass-like fish called loup, in a pastry case shaped and decorated like a fish. It is one of his trademarks.

So is the Bresse chicken poached inside a pig's bladder until magnificently tender. The less expensive meal is always decided by what he finds fresh in the market each day.

Presentation is not one of the most important aspects of Bocuse's cooking, although he has proved many times that he can produce very elaborate dishes.

Certainly those he created especially for Mr. and Mrs. Giscard d'Estaing were elegant, but his own taste, he explains, is for the country foods of his region, simply cooked.

My lunch there began with superb salmon, thinly sliced, served with lime, herbed mayonnaise, and capers.

Then came the famous truffle soup, created especially for Valery Giscard d'Estaing. It was listed on the menu as Soupe aux truffes noires V.G.E. (plat cree pour l' Elysee en 1975).

It looks like a great golden puff ball -- beautiful, with very flaky pastry on small white soup bowls.

Your spoon crashes through the pastry, adding flakes to the broth with its luxurious truffles and bits of foie gras.

The fish I chose was the Assiette bretonne au beurre de ciboulette homard, saint-pierre, rouget, turbot. It was a combination of different fish, light and perfectly cooked with a delicious butter sauce.

After a pale pink ice to refresh the palate, the entree was the famous Volaille de Bresse ''Mieral'' en vessie, sauce fleurette, a classic dish, but Bocuse's own recipe for it. The chicken is cooked in a pig's bladder, served with cream and egg-yolk sauce and a mixture of corn, peas, and chanterelles.

The cheeses were beautiful, three different chevres (white goat cheeses) and a special and different Brie than those we have at home.

Desserts include an excellent selection of classic dishes and beautiful fresh fruit, notably wild strawberries and raspberries as well as a small tray of exquisite tiny cookies, marzipan, petits fours, strawberries, and tiny raspberry tarts.

Bocuse's third Michelin star came about after he had created his prestigious dishes -- the Loup en croute a la mousse de homard (Sea bass with lobster mousse in pastry), Poularde de Bresse en vessie (Bresse Chicken in Pig's Bladder), and Soupe a la jambe Pavilion (Ham Soup Pavilion).

He prepared and served the Loup en croute for a dinner for the press that I attended in New York ity at Lutece, on the occasion of the publishing of his cookbook,''Paul Bocuse's French Cooking'' (Pantheon, $20).

Paul Bocuse is a famous luxury restaurant, but although a dinner is expensive , around $50, most people think it is worth the experience.

Here is the Bocuse recipe for a classic French apple dessert. Tarte Tatin (Upside-down Apple Tart) 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar 2 pounds apples 2 scant cups flour 1 egg Pinch salt

In a 9-inch skillet spread 7 tablespoons of butter generously, then sprinkle generously with half the sugar.

Peel apples, dry with a cloth, core, cut into quarters or thick slices and arrange together tightly to cover bottom of pan. Sprinkle remaining sugar on top and add 11/2 tablespoons melted butter.

Place over high heat for about 20 minutes; the sugar should caramelize but remain light brown.

Meanwhile mound flour on pastry board and make a well in the center. Place in the well the egg, salt, and remaining butter, softened.

Mix all together, adding some water if necessary, to produce a soft dough that can be rolled into a circle as thin as possible.

Cover pan with this dough pushing edges inside the pan. Bake in a 325 degrees F. oven 30 to 45 minutes, until juice has almost all evaporated.

Invert Tarte Tatin on a serving platter. Cool. Serve with cream.

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