Mères Lyonnaises: The Female Superstar Chefs
I have written and rewritten this post so many times I am starting to see cross eyed. What started a simple post celebrating a classic French dish, Volaille Demi Deuil, or Chicken in Half Mourning has become an ever expanding education into an important and often untold chapter in the annals of great cooking.
This post is dedicated to all the great women Chefs and cooks, especially my mother, that I have been fortunate to share the ranges with. This story belongs to them, it’s their story.
I started researching the origins of Chicken in Half Mourning , which was one of the crowning culinary glories of Francoise Fillioux, 1865-1925, the first superstar “Mères Lyonnaises“. The term “Mères Lyonnaises“, or mothers of Lyon (France), refers to a long lineage of female Chefs beginning in the mid 1700’s who brought the gastronomic spotlight to Lyon, the undisputed gastronomical capital of France. Their influence and impact helped define and shape classic French cooking in modern times.
I tended to think of professional kitchens as mostly a male domain studded with a few token female here and there. The reality is many male cooks got their starts in these women Chef’s kitchens, most notably present day living legends Chefs Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc.
This exceptional woman… taught all of us about flavors and gave us a taste for hard work and work well done. There would have been no success for any of us without her. – Paul Bocuse
The first recorded mother was Mère Guy, who in 1759 operated an open air restaurant on the banks of the Rhone river that specialized in Matelote d’Anguilles, a hearty red wine based eel stew. The tradition continued with her two granddaughters who inherit the restaurant and spread onto many other female Chefs throughout the centuries including Georges Blanc’s grandmother Elisa, Marie Bourgeois (who got the first three Michelin star rating among the Mères) and most importantly Eugenie Brazier. .
Born in Burgundy on June 12th, 1895, Eugenie grew up on her poor family’s farm struggling with hardship from the start. By age 5 she was put in charge of the pigs having to make sure they did not venture past the family’s stone walls interspersed with milking cows three times a day, everyday. She was only able to go to school during the winter months when the demands of farm life weren’t as great. Her mother passed away when she was ten years old and she was sent to work on other people’s farms to earn a living and help feed the family.
The farm diet was very simple and meager. Breakfast consisted of a light brothy soup, lunch was always bacon fat cooked with cabbage and potatoes or a macaroni gratin which she would later perfect and serve at her restaurant and then more soup for dinner. On Fridays she was allowed to eat a thin waffle called a gaufres with prunes as her weekly treat. Her sister remembered life as unhappy and hard, but Eugenie remembered it more fondly though still studded with bitter lessons. The grueling, never slowing life shaped her for the restaurant world she would soon enter and conquer.
By age 19, she scandalized the family name by being pregnant out of wedlock and her father kicked her out. She left for Lyon, where she worked as a domestic for the Milliat family with her son Gaston. Joseph Milliat, a baker, had a home in Lyon and wintered in Cannes in a Hotel. They would take the whole family and most of the servants. This is where Eugenie started really cooking since she had mastered all the family Chefs’ recipes. One day Joseph had asked her to poach a large bass and serve with a sauce Hollandaise. Not knowing how to make Hollandaise she spoke with the caring concierge who taught her the proper way to emulsify the yolks and butter. Lessons were learned and mastered by a strict, unflinching regime.
Working for Mère Fillioux
Needing more money she got a job at the upscale Mère Fillioux working for a business savvy woman Chef with a discerning palate. Life at Fillioux’s was hard. She often complained that Mère Fillioux was extremely jealous of her talents and always hellbent on reprimanding her. She almost was fired for preparing a rabbit dish for the staff meal that Mère Fillioux traditionally liked to cook. Fillioux questioned the kitchen staff on whose rabbit stew they preferred and everyone liked Eugenie’s better. which sent her into a jealous rage.
During the month of August, Mère Fillioux closed her restaurant and Eugenie had to find work to support her son and sisters. Soon one month per year turned into a permanent year round position at Brasserie du Dragon. The jealousy continued as diners thought Mère Fillioux had opened a new restaurant because of Eugenie’s cooking skills. Guests would recount to Mère Fillioux about the marvelous roast chicken they ate at Brasserie du Dragon and she would reply that Eugenie was only a dishwasher at her restaurant, not worthy to cook. This jealousy backfired as Eugenie’s reputation grew.
Prior to widespread automobile travel, regional restaurants were simple affairs, equipped with very primitive kitchens by today’s standards offering a very localized cuisine. Guide Michelin began in 1900 when brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, tire manufacturers, published a guide for French motorists. The Michelin guide was created as a marketing piece to help sell cars and create the need for tires. The guide was loaded with useful information for motorists like lists of mechanics and gas stations in addition to hotels and restaurants to try. It quickly evolved into France’s premier authority on regional cuisine.
Eugenie opens her own restaurant
Eugenie took her small life savings and opened a restaurant on a shoestring. Her first menu included small crayfish in Mayonnaise, pigeon with peas and an apple flambeed in rum that was a favorite of her son Gaston. The crayfish were sold to her by the proprietor of Brasserie du Dragon with the understanding they could be returned that night if she had any left. All the hard work of washing tablecloths, cleaning and cooking fell to her and her boyfriend. She could only afford to buy chairs two at a time and would often borrow chairs for service. One day she was washing tablecloths in a public fountain to save money when her neighbor, a baker, had 40 chairs delivered to her. She questioned the baker who replied “No, you didn’t order any, but I know your customers sometimes do not know where to sit. I don’t like them standing up, I am not asking you for any money. Pay me when you can.” Money was so tight that even the dining room was heated by the glow of her stove. Her farm upbringing paid dividends in being able to cope with heavy workloads and hard situations.
She quickly rose to stardom and opened a second restaurant nearby. During World War II when rationing was in effect she had a hard time obtaining food products for her menu. She constantly broke the rationing rules, getting fined and even ended up in jail for a week. She never forgot the hardships she endured and always kept a few seats in the kitchen for domestics and chauffeurs. One time a wealthy family came to eat. The wife gave Mere Brazier some beautiful noodles to cook for her poodle. A gentleman she assumed to be their chauffeur was hungry and asked if he might have something to eat as well. Eugenie was angry that the family had neglected him, ushered him into the kitchen and cooked the dog’s noodles with a beautiful steak and fed the dog leftover scraps. He turned out to be a famous General who never forgot her kindness. Her story is that of an undying spirit, le feu sacre, who never gave up or compromised her dreams.
“Cooking is not complicated. You have to be well organized, to remember things, and to have a bit of taste. I learned to cook by doing it, simple as that. – Eugenie Brazier
Eugenie is first chef in the world to get two 3 star Michelin ratings
Classic clip of Paul Bocuse relating his apprenticeship under Mere Brazier on Anthony Bourdain’s amazing TV show, Parts Unknown.