Lyon's gastronomic cutting edge

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.

Agnes Giboreau, director of research for the center, credits its ability to be innovative in part to its independence from other universities or national institutes. The center is also very young, having opened its doors less than two years ago.

Giboreau said students’ research must have a direct link with “real life,” that is, how people live and how they spend money. In fact, many researchers have relationships with corporations. Bayet-Robert’s research into a marketing model for gastronomy, for example, is funded in part by Relais & Chateaux, a France-based collection of luxury hotels and restaurants.

“Our main objective is to combine pleasure and health,” she said. “The center was born to help society eat healthfully through knowledge of the pleasure of eating.”

What the center also does is tip the scale toward innovation and forward-thinking, even within the very traditional context of a school dedicated to France’s classical culinary techniques. It is a pattern that is apparent throughout Lyon, both within its restaurants — especially its renowned bouchons, or casual restaurants that feature “grandmother-style” cooking — and within specialty shops ranging from chocolates to spices. They are all grounded in tradition, yet their contemporary experiments indicate an eagerness to stay current.

Palomas, a chocolate shop in rue Colonel Chambonnet, responded to the call for innovation by refashioning the generations-old dragees candies from almond-centered to chocolate-centered. Cheese shop Au Fil a Beurre persuades its customers to consider cheese as an appetizer (taken at the end of the meal in the French tradition) and to experiment with unusual pairings like Mimolette cheese with carrot jam, Comte with vanilla powder, Roquefort with pineapple and chevre with clementines.

But not every Lyonnais follows the innovation ethos. Jean-Louis Gelin, owner of Bouchon La Meuniere, believes that the traditional ways of cooking and new experiments can exist in the same city but not in the same restaurant or shop.

“What I love is to protect what exists, to protect the tradition,” Gelin said. “I do it for the young people.”