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She Was the First Six-Star Chef

March 18, 1998|LEILAH BERNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the culinary world these last two weeks, the e-mail messages have flowed like wine. French chef Alain Ducasse has accomplished the seemingly impossible by being awarded an incredible six stars--three apiece for his two restaurants--in the newest Guide Michelin. Many called it an unprecedented feat.

But more than 60 years ago, another French chef was also awarded Michelin's top rating for two restaurants. And that chef was a woman.

Eugenie Brazier was propelled into the highest ranks of French cuisine when each of her two restaurants--La Mere Brazier in Lyons and La Mere Brazier in Le Col de la Luere, in the mountainous countryside 12 miles outside the city--received three stars. That year, she became the first woman to receive Michelin's three-star ranking and the first French chef to receive the top ranking for two different restaurants. Her six-star record held until this month.

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.

"It would be stretching things to call her the spiritual grandmother of all the good young cooks," said Gault-Millau guidebook co-founder Christian Millau at the time of her death in 1977. "But she was an anti-big restaurant, anti-big cuisine person, and their spirit is the same."

The menus at her two restaurants were the same and stayed the same during Brazier's career. Each meal began with a plate of local sausage. The fish course was quenelles de brochet, then came her famous poularde en demi-deuil (chicken in half-mourning) and, after, fonds d'artichauts au foie gras (artichoke hearts with foie gras), which was usually served with a young Beaujolais.

Elizabeth David, the famous English cookery writer, once called Brazier's artichoke dish "a perfectly simple and straightforward salad" and "one of the most delicious salads I have ever eaten."

Born in the Burgundian village of Bourg-en-Bresse in 1895, Brazier became an orphan at age 10 and was sent to work on a farm. At 19, she left for Lyons, where she worked as a domestic and then in the restaurant of Mere Fillioux, the celebrated provincial chef--called by some the greatest of all cuisinieres--who employed only women.

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.

Mere Fillioux's simple and unchanging menu inspired Brazier's when she opened La Mere Brazier in Lyons' Rue Royale in 1921 at age 26. Her small restaurant was instantly popular, although some believed this was because of Brazier's friendship with Prime Minister Edouard Herriot.

Later, she opened at Le Col de la Luere, where a young Paul Bocuse apprenticed and learned Brazier's "la nouvelle cuisine." Bocuse not only mastered the art of preparing pure, simple meals, but would become a leading proponent of this new movement in French cuisine.

In 1968, however, Michelin demoted her Le Col de la Luere restaurant to two stars, and Brazier retired four years later.

Today, her granddaughter, Jacotte, carries on the culinary tradition. In the same 60-seat Lyons restaurant Brazier opened, she offers Brazier's same time-honored menu.

She started to tell stories of the restaurant--how her father ran the Rue Royale restaurant with her mother, Carmen, while Mere Brazier ran the mountain restaurant; how the Le Col de la Luere space was converted from a wooden bungalow during the war; how she worries that there is no one in the family willing to run the restaurant after she is gone. But then she stopped abruptly.

"It is the middle of the dinner hour," she said by phone. "I must run and get back to my guests."

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