We were shocked. We can still remember our wonderful 3-day stay at Maison Chapel in February of 2001. We arrived mid-afternoon of a greyish day that seemed to warn us of difficult times ahead. At that time, Alain Chapel, one of the founders of Nouvelle Cuisine, was already deceased—he died in 1990—but his widow Suzanne, still vibrant and full of energy, was at the helm, with Philippe Jousse, a close associate of Alain, as Executive Chef. The restaurant had lost one of the three stars Alain Chapel earned in 1973—and maintained for his whole life—but it was still considered one of the greatest French restaurants.
We were received by Suzanne herself and we felt quickly at home. It seemed that inside the weather was sunnier than outside. After making sure that we had a reservation for the restaurant in the evening and discussing plans for a gastronomic tour of Lyon and its surroundings, we went up to room 3 to rest a bit, and to call Paul Bocuse in Collonges-au-Mont-d´Or and Larivoire in Rillieux-la-Pape to get a table for subsequent days. Later on, after some rest and a shower, we dressed up, just a little, since the place was not too formal, and we went down a bit early to walk around the living room, look at a few books, and chat a bit with Suzanne. We ended up purchasing a newer edition of Alain Chapel´s 1980 book “La cuisine c´est beaucoup plus que des recettes”, Robert Lafont (eds).
At the right time, we were fetched by the Maître d`Hôtel and escorted to the attractive dining room. We had not told anybody, but it was François´ birthday and the couple was in a celebrating mood. As one would expect in such occasions, we started with a glass champagne while we glanced at the menu. After so many years, our memories are a bit fuzzy, except to say that one thing is sure: we really had a great time!
As starters, Chantal chose œuf poché (poached egg) on morels with asparagus, a classic of the house. Indeed, It was perfect, said she. François had a crème d´haricots de Soissons, a cream made from large white beans grown in Soissons, a town in the Picardie region, north of France (more on www.haricotsdesoissons.com). François loved the cream and later on asked for the recipe. He was told that it was very simple: you cook the beans, and eliminate the skins passing the beans in a fine seeve. You add to it warm milk, coconut purée and a fumet de crustacées, a stock made from shrimp and lobster. Mix it well to obtain a smooth cream. Then, you should season it with salt and add a small amount of lemon oil and zest. Voilà!
For main dish, Chantal ordered turbot in redwine sauce served with black trumpet mushrooms. François had skrei, a codfish from the Barents Sea, fished during winter in the Lofoten Islands (Norway) and considered the best codfish in the world. Chantal had already developed her resistance to white wine, so the sommelier after some consideration suggested a red Bourgogne, the Domaine Ramonet (today, Domaine Bachelet-Ramonet), Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru, Clos de la Boudriotte 1996. (ver www.bachelet-ramonet.fr).
For dessert, Chantal chose ananas sur un parfait au caramel, pineapple over a caramel parfait. As our readers know all too well, she is partial to caramel, so she was happy. François´ choice was in line with the winter season: a gelée d'orange sanguine, fruit secs rôtis en décoction de plantes sur biscuits aux épices, a complex mix of flavors. In case, you are wondering, a decoction is a method of extracting active ingredients from plants by imersing them in boiling water for a short period. No, it is not avant-garde molecular cuisine. Actually, it is a very old-fashioned means of obtaining active ingredients from plants, in this case, to enhance the flavor of the dessert.
We finished the dinner with coffees and mignardises. The total cost of the meal, including taxes and tip, was FF2305, or about €350.
The next day, we had dinner at Paul Bocuse, another star chef and a good friend of Alain Chapel. We enjoyed our dinner and, in particular, his exquisite black truffles soup, but the following day, we told Suzanne Chapel that between the two restaurants we had enjoyed our dinner at Alain Chapel the most. She acted surprised “Really?”, but we coud see the pride in her eyes...
It is really a pitty that David and Romain, the sons of Alain Chapel, did not manage to keep the Maison Chapel alive. One can imagine that having a father as famous and as talented as Alain Chapel was, could place a paralyzing pressure over the sons. When Alain Chapel died, Romain was only 7 years-old and David 10 years-old. Nevertheless, they prepared themselves well for the task. David, after graduating from the École du Commerce de l´IDRAC (International Management Institute), went on to get a master at the Grenoble Graduate School in Business, before joining the Alain Chapel team at its Kobe (Japan) location. Romain, who showed early interest in pursuing his father´s career, started in the kitchens of the Maison Troisgros, and went on to work under Guy et Pierrette Guilloux at LaTaupinière in Pont Aven, under Olivier Rollinger in Cancale, and with the Haeberlin family in the Auberge de l´Ill in Illhaeusern. He then returned to the Maison Chapel to work side-by-side with Philippe Jousse. He was determined to succeed and has worked hard, but it seems that the restaurant is located a bit far from either Lyon (15 miles) or Bourg-en-Bresse (28 miles) in a region through which most people zoom by in their fast cars without ever stopping for a meal. Those speeders don´t know what they missed... In the meantime, let us wish a new start to the Chapel family and great success in their next endeavours.