La Mère Brazier - The forgotten star of French cookery
Eugénie Brazier, the first woman to be awarded three Michelin stars, is widely regarded the "mother of modern French cooking".
During the First World War Brazier worked as a nanny in Lyon and took over as family cook after finding an affinity for it.
At the time, French women chefs were rare. But in Lyons there was a tradition of women kitchen professionals. The "meres" of Lyons were renowned.
Born on 12 June 1895, Brazier opened her first restaurant in a former grocery store in Lyon at the age of 26 and soon built a reputation for simple, elegant food. According to Eater.com, in the 12 years before the Lyon restaurant received its three stars, it was a culinary destination, attracting French Presidents and Prime Ministers and helped make Lyon a culinary destination.
On opening day at La Mere Brazier in 1921, she served lunch and dinner, crayfish with mayonnaise and pigeon with peas. It was a simple and elegant space; the main room had large bay windows overlooking the street and earthenware tile on the walls in cream, grey, and blue. The décor was sparse; the linen pressed and the silver and crystal on the tables sparkled. Women waited tables and Brazier never employed a sommelier, preferring to order direct from winemakers. As her reputation grew, the restaurant needed more space, and she would add more rooms, including upstairs.
Her cooking at La Mere Brazier would attract celebrities like Marlene Dietrich and Charles de Gaulle but Brazier never wanted to be a "celebrity chef" unlike her male peers such as the "King of Cooks" Alexandre Dumaine.
Brazier's most famous dishes include "beautiful dawn lobster", featuring brandy and cream, and "poultry in half mourning', in which truffle slices are inserted between the meat and the skin before the bird is poached.
Brazier's restaurants emphasized fresh, simple cuisine. Imaginative combinations of light, natural ingredients pleased this warm, robust cook; rich sauces and flashy presentations did not.
Here are five things you should know about Eugénie Brazier.
1. She turned down a French legion of honour
Brazier modestly claimed that the medal "should be given out for doing more important things than cooking well and doing the job as you're supposed to."
2. Her favourite ever meal was cooked by her mother
Orphaned at the age of ten, Brazier said she had "never eaten better" than a broth of leeks and vegetables cooked in milk and water, enriched with eggs, and poured over stale bread.
3. She was the first person to hold six Michelin stars simultaneously
Brazier earned three stars at each of her two restaurants, one in Lyon and the other in a hunting camp in the Alpine foothills at Col de la Luere.
Looking back, it now seems like the 1930s were a far more tolerant time for women in Michelin history.
4. Paul Bocuse, one of the best known French chefs, was her student
Legend has it that Bocuse was first put to work ironing napkins.
He later described Brazier as a "tough and modest woman who knew instinctively how to select the best of us".
5. Her first and only recipe book was published posthumously
Brazier began work on the cookbook two years before she died in 1977 but never finished it and it was only printed with the help of her family in 2009.
Her granddaughter, Jacotte, carried on the culinary tradition until 2008. In the same 60-seat Lyons restaurant Brazier opened, she offered Brazier's same time-honored menu. In 2008 it was taken over by Mathieu Viannay retaining the name, keeping some of the recipes and adding his own twist.
Of cooking, she would write that it’s "not complicated… you have to be well organized, to remember things, and to have a bit of taste." Among the many dishes she became famous for, volaille demi-deuil is a rich and aromatic masterpiece. An abundance of black truffle slices are slid between the flesh and the skin of a Bresse chicken, to perfume the meat while it poaches in bouillon. It’s finished with a cream-enriched sauce made from the reduced cooking liquid. Elizabeth David, the famous British cookery writer, described Brazier’s cooking as "calm, elegant, and seemingly effortless."
The narrative for the history of modern French cooking still largely belongs to Bocuse, thanks to his legendary Lyon restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. For Bocuse, it begins with Fernand Point. In the Great Chefs of France, the seminal chronicle of French gastronomy in the 1970s, Quentin Crewe mentions Brazier only in passing, and in Bocuse’s profile, he creates a version of his training that erases Brazier from his professional past. She’s not in more recent history books, either. In 2007’s Food: The History of Taste, all of Brazier’s peers are mentioned — Alexandre Dumain, Fernand Point, and André Pic — but not her.
Bocuse’s pursuit of the spotlight also marked a significant shift for chefs. Brazier was not by nature a celebrity chef, and her modesty played a role in keeping her out of the history books. "I have met and conversed with, many intellectuals, sophisticates, and I have always been mindful of who I am," she wrote. "I have an instinct that stops me from putting my feet on ground that is not mine." In her 1977 New York Times obituary, she is remembered for turning down a citation for the French Legion of Honor, feeling, "it should be given out for doing more important things than cooking."