Lucy in Lyon – All About French Cooking

Lucy knows French cuisine. She grew up in New York, travelled the world, married a Frenchman and now lives in Lyon. She was involved in an extensive translation of the France Guides of Gilles Pudloski, researching and providing descriptive interpretation of restaurant menus from all over France, with more than 16,000 regional and classic French dishes researched and cataloged by city Lucy Vanel
and, in the process, became a walking encyclopedia of French cooking. In the world of food, knowledge is boring without “doing“. Clearly a hunter-gatherer by nature, Lucy’s days start before dawn, inevitably pass through hours in the local markets, and end in her kitchen with students eager to share in the rituals of French cooking. Best yet for the rest of us, she’s also a great writer and photographer. For those who can’t make it to her kitchen, they can join on her kitchen notebook. During a visit in Lyon, Lucy took us in and shared local markets, natural wine shops, and Daniel et Denise – a beloved Bouchon by locals – for lunch. Over dishes like Quenelle au brochet and Ile Flottante, we discussed many things, food in general:

MP: You grew up in NY, lived in China and are now a woman entrepreneur in Lyon: how has the evolution shaped your palate?

Lucy: I was raised in the state of New York in a family of southerners who reminisced about foods I had never eaten.  You can say my tastes and interests in food were formed on a heavy dose of nostalgia.  Once I got to China in my mid 20s, this transitioned easily into a veritable passion for Chinese gastronomy because while I explored the regional cuisine in China, I was keenly aware that some of these meals were life stories in the making.  When a turn of events brought me to Lyon, France 13 years ago, I was already looking forward to discovering everything there was to know about not only local traditions in Lyon, but also French cooking in general.  This led me to choose work that allowed me to follow this passion and hone my education in that regard.

MP: How do you compare the cultures of eating in these places?

Lucy: Arriving to France after having spent years falling in love with Chinese food and cooking, I realized that both the French and Chinese talk about food a lot in general conversation, it’s not just among people that have chosen food as a hobby or interest, but everyone.  I mean, how telling is the most common greeting among friends in Chinese?  “Ni chi le ma?” (“Did you eat yet?”) In France, at the hairdresser, on the bus, whatever the milieu, people debate about food.  Dinner conversation among people who barely know each other can go on and on, just about what’s on the table in front of them.  The preparation of dishes in both cultures is codified. You know, that love and defense of how a thing should be or is historically done, coupled with a tendency for people to “place” the dish in front of them on the table, discussing its influences and sharing any stories they do know about a common reference. In these ways, the Chinese and the French are quite similar in their collective passion for food.  Both Chinese and French cuisine have a unique imprint or these reasons.  It is difficult to compare the actual cuisines themselves, being esthetically very different by nature.

MP: What was the moment that you felt yourself connected to French cooking in a real way?

Lucy: In the end, every dish and every morsel that comes out of any kitchen, be it restaurant or home, has its roots in family. I have to admit when I fell in love with my husband, I didn’t even give a thought to his family. I imagined we would always exist in this little bubble just the two of us floating over a glistening Paris cityscape.  So when I found myself married into a French family when we moved here, it took me slightly aback to find myself preoccupied with pleasing these people.  They had strong opinions. They were so surprised when I didn’t serve hamburgers when they came to visit. They were shocked that I was cooking French food.  It has been documented quite extensively, why not?  I had everything available to me at the markets.  Especially when I began to speak and read French, the resources proved to be endless, and I jumped on the opportunity to learn.  After a few years in France, my mother-in-law broke out her kitchen notebook and shared her recipes with me.  Although I had been cooking French exclusively up to that point, I really felt connected when she did this. It was a milestone.

MP: What are the fundamentals for a beginner to French cooking?

Lucy: First, always remember that the best French cooks can make “something out of nothing”. Try and get a grip on technique, by doing recipes with as few ingredients as possible. When all you’ve got are the little staples in every pantry knocking about, and you can create a memorable French meal from them, you’ll know you have arrived. Make puff pastry out of a flour, water, salt and butter.  Make a simple clear consomme.  Make stock and turn it into sauce with shallots, wine and butter. Remember that the less ingredients you use, the more simple and beautiful your dish will be. Remember next that French cooking follows the seasons.  Try and think about the seasons of the dishes you’re undertaking.  After you’ve wound your way through two or three times, I promise your love of French cooking will deepen to devotion. If you really really want to learn French cooking you must overcome any fear you have of doing everything from scratch.  Search your mind and figure out where your mental blocks are.  Are you afraid of making stock?  Puff pastry?  A home made genoise?  Pastry cream?  Choux?  Pork roast?  Learn to do it for real and then if you need to take shortcuts with bouillon cubes or store bought pastry, at least you’ll know what it should taste like.  Have fun doing it. If you need a helping hand, take a cooking class.

MP: Through your cooking, writing and photography, there’s a clarity of intention in the way you approach food. What were your influences?

Lucy: My mother had a drawer just below her sewing machine where she filed the letters her brother sent to her, typed single spaced, filling the front to back of a legal sized piece of paper on a Selectric.  He did this as warm up each day before he began his job of writing novels.  I discovered these letters, dating back to the 1960s, when I was 13 years old.  This was a time of rules for me at school – rules and formats about writing.  But the letters were like little biscuits, simply delectable pieces of prose from a brother to a sister, and although I knew in my bones that they were excellent writing, they didn’t follow any rules I was aware of.  Reading them had a strong influence on my understanding of writing as a medium for expression.  Second, for a few years even while I was studying art at the university, I wanted to become a philosopher.  I briefly changed my university major to this field but eventually went back to art. Within the context of my studies in both fields, I was taught to cut out extraneous fluff (from the philosophical side) and to learn where my voice was (from the artistic side). To go back and rewrite, or reshoot a photo when it isn’t quite correct, to keep cutting away until you feel it’s just the way it needs to be, not afraid to start again, to toss it and pick it up again later.  In many ways, this applies to just about everything I do now.

at Daniel et DeniseMP: How do you think of Lyonnaise cuisine and palates? What are the trends that you think lead to this point and where do you think it’s headed?

Lucy: Lyonnaise cuisine is very much rooted in tradition, something I thank goodness for every single day because I can find veal trotters, beef cheeks and sweetbreads very easily along the course of my errands. I adore the local cuisine and do everything I can to bring it to the forefront in my classes. There was a trend among local chefs in the past years to open up multiple restaurants, cafes and bistrots around town but that’s been largely curbed by the economy.  Supper clubs and clandestine dining is starting to become popular around town, which is interesting.  Offal has always been on some menus because it was in the local tradition, but for awhile there it was becoming less common in market based restaurants around town and only the bouchons were serving up some pre-cooked food service versions of dishes that could have been much much better if they were prepared in house.  Lately I’ve seen a real comeback for variety meats out of modest kitchens in small eateries run by people who care about quality. Following Lyon tradition is doing this city a great service.

MP: What dishes do you consider Lyonnaise specialties? (simple list)

Lucy: The only thing I can say to this question is that there is no simple list.  There are the things that are historical specialties, served in bouchons around town because they have a place in Lyon’s history.  You can read this list on any brochure or website involving food tourism here, but it is not necessarily where you’re going to find what makes Lyon the gastronomic capital of France. It’s a complex story, but what I can say is that specialty involves a culture that supports devotion to traditions, upholding standards when it comes to the dining experience as a whole.  It’s what goes into the collective market basket here as well, and people who keep up the demand for quality.  Ferreting that all out is what I have devoted my life to here, and I don’t think I could ever provide anyone with a simple list!

MP: How did you navigate a gastronomic capital like Lyon to find the best in town?

Lucy: First, you explore and follow your nose.  Use common sense.  Check out what others have to say if you don’t have the time to do your own investigating. Don’t focus only on any one type of dining, obviously.  Do go to a bouchon, but understand that it doesn’t represent Lyon gastronomy as a whole.  If you make it the fixation of your stay, you’ll really truncate your understanding this way.

MP: What are the 5 must-do in Lyon for a visitor to experience the Lyonnaise food world?


1.  Go to the outdoor markets, even if the place you’re staying does not have a kitchen.  Lyon has over 40 outdoor markets and there are plenty of opportunities to sample interesting foods this way. The market on Quai St. Antoine (metro Cordelier) is an interesting one on weekends, and Croix Rousse (Metro Croix Rousse) is great on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

2.  Visit Les Halles Bocuse, and take the time to really observe what goes on there, the butchers and poultry vendors, the cheese mongers, the pastry, and everything else in between.  If you’re into oysters, a dozen with a filet of simple local Macon at Les Halles is a must.
3.  Lyon is at the northern tip of the Norther Cotes du Rhone region, at the southern tip of Burgundy, and brushes up to Beaujolais and Savoie, which means that a lot of great wine and a lot of local knowledge centers in Lyon.  Find a caviste and have a taste.
4.  Do reach out beyond the Lyonnais Bouchon experience, and seek out simplicity and seasonability in a restaurant menu. Many small local eateries offer delightful dining experiences.  The menus are posted outside of each restaurant.
5.  A visit to the boutiques of both Bernachon and Weiss, both local chocolate makers that roast their own beans, should be on your list if you like chocolate.  Bernachon has a salon de thé where they serve house pastry that features their chocolate, where you can have a rest and a treat.

MP: What’s going on in your “Plum Lyon” kitchen?

Lucy: At this point I’m working on a set of slow cooked regional dishes with variations on the sauces to round out a winter offering.  Since everything we cook here depends on what we find at the market, during the winter the hues change to muted tones, and in cooking that translates to simmered dishes, sauces and emphasis on technique.  We’re getting ready here at Plum for the events surrounding the Bocuse d’Or and World Pastry Cup competitions in Lyon. At Plum, we are welcoming old and new friends who need a place to rest their feet by the fire, refill their cups, cook up their market finds, and talk about La Cuisine Lyonnaise, of course.

All the food photos are by Lucy Vanel.

PLUM LYON Teaching Kitchen:
Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook: