Two 3-star French chefs explain their quest for quality
While La Pyramide attracts you with its nostalgic charm and tradition, and the flamboyant Bocuse surprises with his famous truffle soup and pastry-covered fish, the restaurant of Alain Chapel appeals because of its supreme good taste.
These three restaurants all have the top rating, the three stars of the Michelin Guide, but they have completely different personalities, which emanate from their owners and make their restaurants more than just an evening of fine dining.
Alain Chapel is an artist, a philosopher, a man in love with his work and a seeker of perfection. The restaurant bearing his name is in Mionnay, a tiny village on the road from Lyon to Geneva.
His menu is like no other. The superb food reflects his preoccupation with foods grown in the area, which are about as near to perfection as nature can make them.
Of all the regions in France, it is the one known for its supreme gastronomic luxury: Ain for its cattle and dairy farms, Bresse for its blue-footed chickens. The freshest of vegetables, the crayfish of Nantua, the cheeses of the Auvergne to the west and of nearby Saint Marcellin.
Chapel describes his food as simple, bourgeois cooking, but it has been called brilliant, offbeat, and imaginative.
His culinary approach is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, he explains, aimed at refining away the superfluous until the goodness and flavor has been released.
Even conventional dishes have unexpected touches. He is known for his soup greens, grasses and herbs from the fields that most would overlook.
One of the highlights of his menu is something not on it, the tiny fish called gudgeon that come from Lake Annecy. Much has been written about these fish which Chapel fries with parsley and serves in a folded napkin before the dinner order is taken.
Then there are the unusual dishes, such as stuffed calf's ear, (Oreille de veau farcie, comme en Bugey) and stomach and back of a fish called daurade (Ventre et dos dorades roses de petits bateaux).
The service is without fault, friendly and attentive. Everything seems to have an elaborate simplicity.
Chapel's supreme culinary skills have made him a gastronomic king in an extraordinarily short time. But he is a quiet, retiring sort of person, somewhat aloof with a touch of arrogance. You will probably not see him in the dining room chatting with the diners.
Chez la Mere Charles, as the restaurant was called formerly, was originally a country bistro when Alain's mother and father bought it and built up a reputation with traditional Lyonnais food, acquiring one star in 1958.
Alain became chef de cuisine in 1967. He made many changes -- the menus and kitchen, the gardens, the comfort, luxury and beauty of the rooms.
In two years he had two stars and in 1973, the third star. In a very short time he became known as one of the top-half-dozen best chefs in the world.
The restaurant building, often described as modest, is covered with green ivy and built in cloister style with a red tile roof. Three arches at the walk connect a lovely garden with dining room and inn. The rooms are exquisitely appointed and luxurious.
Mrs. Chapel, Alain's mother, was at the desk when I arrived; his books are on sale there. Jams and preserves are exhibited for sale in an adjoining room, as well as at selected stores in Paris, London, and New York.
The all-white dining room has been described as stark, and it is plain in comparison with most French restaurants -- but very elegant, with handsome stone floors and bare white walls with gold sconces.
There are windows on the garden side, a fireplace, beautiful flower arrangements -- some quite large -- and warm lighting.
The china is lovely with different hand-painted flowers on each plate; a small pepper mill is on the table, but no salt.
After dinner we sat in the lounge discussing the new French gastronomic revolution. ''More than anyone else, it was Fernand Point who instilled in all of us the 'new spirit,' '' he said.
''Point was the first person to understand that there were two kinds of cooking -- doing one thing always the same in a big kitchen with a brigade -- and the other kind, the bourgeois cooking, the la mere restaurants, where the cooking is done with love.
''I would prefer to call it a return to a cuisine of love - so much love of one's work that one refuses to repeat it endlessly and thoughtlessly but wants to continually change it and create with it something nearer to perfection.
''Troisgros, Guerard, Bocuse, Giradet, they understand. Rather than do one kind of cooking, they combine both -- the regional dishes and the cooking of their special training and creativity.
''To achieve this we are turning back to the eternal verities of our mothers and grandmothers.
''If I couldn't go on creating -- if I were forced to repeat myself every night -- you wouldn't find me here. I would have gone fishing,'' Chapel said.