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Lyon's gastronomic cutting edge

Renowned for its tradition of gastronomy, the French city now hosts a cutting edge research center.

On left, Chateau de Vivier; on right, the institute's Research Center. (Courtesy l'Institut Paul Bocuse)

LYON, France — Walk the staircases and corridors of l’Institut Paul Bocuse, and the lions of French gastronomy follow your every move. Their portraits hang on the walls and their names are printed, always at eye level, on signage and placards throughout the renovated Chateau de Vivier in France’s gastronomic capital.

Escoffier. Troisgros. Point. Robuchon. Brazier. And, of course, Bocuse himself — a seminal French chef of the 20th century.

What happens inside the kitchens and classrooms of this part of the Institute would be familiar to them all. They practiced classical French culinary technique, and the intention of the Institute’s culinary degree is to pass along that torch of tradition.

Step outside the chateau, however, and walk toward the Institute’s ultra-modern Research Center and you are faced with all that is new and edgy about the culture of food in Lyon. The architecture of the two buildings reflects the spirit of the operations inside: ancient and traditional in the chateau, new and innovative in the research center, where the activities fall decidedly beyond the forte of Escoffier.

The researchers and professionals in the Institute’s laboratory are not chefs or sauciers or patissiers. Their tools are pen and paper, not knife and cutting board. Scientific research methodology, not classical culinary technique. Computers, not cookbooks.

A run-down of research projects currently underway illustrates how far the research center’s lab is pushing the Bocuse envelope. France in general has no shortage of schools or training programs for the culinary arts; what is innovative about the center’s work is the cross-disciplinary nature of the fields of study. Most researchers are completing doctoral degrees. They commit to spending at least three years at the Institute, and all projects must directly address the subject of food and nutrition. From there, the students’ programs diverge:

Xavier Allirot, for example, studies metabolic and behavioral consequences of meal deconstruction; or, put more simply, the body’s responses to eating the same amount of food all at once or at several points throughout the day. Allirot’s colleague, Philomene Bayet-Robert, is developing an experiential marketing model for gastronomy. Another researcher models the perceived quality of lighting in the hospitality industry. A researcher who specializes in anthropology is conducting an “ethnographic study of culinary know-how and technical gestures.” Another project addresses “commensality,” or the social aspects of eating, among young people in France, Spain and Germany.