By Laurence Haxaire

French onion soup, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

These women first set up their own business after the French revolution, in the 19th century. Most of them were former house cooks forLyon’s rich and affluent families. They started treating the canuts, silk weaving workers, to popular meals. Later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed General de Gaulleas VIP at their table.

Their recipe? Simplicity and subtlety in contrast to the Parisian sophistication. They gave a feminine definition of gastronomy: an honest cooking with taste and spirit, but most of all―with local and seasonal top quality ingredients.

Les mères lyonnaise: French women chefs and their guests

Their customers were not coming for a fancy experience. Most of these women chefs came from rural families and didn’t get much education. Their reception might have been surly, their characters sturdy. Little choice was given to their guests, but the quality of their meals was perfect.

For more than a century, les mères lyonnaises were more famous than all the personalities of Lyon. Edouard Herriot, mayor of Lyon and French Secretary, was calling Eugénie Brazier―who was the first woman to get three stars from Michelin in 1933―“the second mayor,” Les mères lyonnaises revolutionized the kitchens of Lyon and beyond.

Les mères lyonnaise: French women chefs and the chefs in their kitchens

Today’s bouchons, restaurants with traditional cuisine lyonnaise, male chefs are in the mères kitchen in Lyon. Mathieu Viannay for example has been reviving successfully Mère Brazier’s bouchon for a few years: “Artichauts et foie gras”, “Poularde de bresse demi-deuil” or “Paris-Brest et Pralin” are still à la carte. Paul Bocuse began his career at this same stove before becoming a worldwide star. These days, bouchons adopted a more modern spirit―sometimes with an uneven quality.

When you are raised in Lyon in the mères atmosphere, you learn first that the availability of the ingredients will design the menu―you might not know what you will cook for lunch until you go to the open market in the morning. And you might have to change your menu every day. In fact you don’t have the mères spirit if you are not an open-minded and a creative cook. In your kitchen, you might read a recipe before preparing a meal. But as soon as your ingredients are on the countertop, put this recipe away. Just look, smell, taste and… cook the best you can. “Simply but subtly” is a French leitmotiv, (a recurring melodic phrase to suggests an idea, character, or thing).

Simple, straightforward French cuisine that has come from the kitchens of these exceptional women chefs. They have influenced generations of great French men and women chefs with recettes, recipes such as Salade Niçoise, Pissaladière (famous onion-like pizza), Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée (onion soup), Poulet au vin blanc (chicken in white wine sauce), Canard aux olives, (roasted duck with olives), and Gratin dauphinois (potato gratin, usually made with gruyère cheese).


Les secrets de la mere Brazier, by Roger Moreau, Jacotte Brazier, Roger Garnier and Paul Boscuse.Édition SOLAR (2009). This is a biography of Mère Brazier with 400 of her recipes and some of her famous menus with comments.

VOCABULARY: French to English translations

À la carte: Ordering items listed individually on a menu.
Artichauts et foie gras: Artichokes with foie gras.
Bouchons: Name for the mère’s restaurant. (Today, the name for a little restaurant with traditional cuisine lyonnaise. This name “bouchon” is just used in Lyon. English translation for “bouchon” is “cork”.)
Canard aux olives: Roasted duck with olives.
Canuts: Silk factory workers.
Gastronomy: Study of the relationship between food and culture.
Gratin dauphinois: Potato gratin, usually used for a recipe that calls for gruyère chese.
Leitmotiv: (From the German Leitmotiv “leading motif”.) A recurring melodic phrase used to suggest a character, thing, or idea.
Les mères lyonnaises: Women chefs in the region of Lyon, France, dating back to 1759 and widely known up to the 1930s.
Michelin Guide: Reviews and rates top restaurants and world chefs with a ratings system of one to three stars. The highest rating is three stars.
Paris-Brest et Pralin: Praline.
Pissaladière: Onion pizza.
Poularde de bresse demi-deuil: Fatted chicken raised in Bresse with a stuffing of foie gras, truffles, etc…
Poulet au vin blanc: Chicken in white wine sauce.
Recettes: Recipe.
Salade Niçoise: Mixed salad of various vegetables topped with tuna and anchovy.
Soup à l’Onion Gratinée: Onion soup.

Laurence HaxaireLaurence Haxaire received her Master’s Degree in Science and Technology from the Food Industry. She became a journalist and writer specializing in food and flavors after working for the flavor extraction industry inGrasse, the perfume capital of France. Laurence was born in Romans-sur-Isèrre, a bustling town in southeast France famed for its longstanding tradition of shoe-making. She was raised in Lyon, the food capital of Europe, in a family where food was part of a smart education. Her family now lives in Bordeaux, France. Visit: (Website)

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, The African Queen of Parisian Cuisine, excerpts from Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to BLACK PARIS: Get Lost and Get Found, by Kiratiana Freelon about the “African Queen of Parisian Cuisine,” featuring suggestions such as Le Petrossian 144, Paris, where the head chef is Rougui Dai, a Frenchwoman of Senegalese decent. There are more than 2,000 French restaurants in Paris. Of the 400 that the Michelin Guide found worth listing, only 77 receive one of their coveted stars. And of those starred restaurants, only one has a black, female head chef: Le Petrossian 144. 

French Cuisine: Cooking schools in Paris founded by women, by Barbara Redmond who writes about extraordinary women who cook: from Anne Willan, Marthe Distel, and Elisabeth Brassart, to “Les trios gourmands,” Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. Including a directory of cooking schools in Paris.

The Veuve Barbe-Nicole Clicquot and other Widowed women entrepreneurs, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who tells about the fast track to business independence or indeed, any kind of independence. Two hundred years ago, for many women, this independence was gained through widowhood. The story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, better known as Veuve (Widow) Clicquot, was a story that also happened to Louise Pommery, Lily Bollinger, and Mathilde Laurent-Perrier, and a few others. 

French Onion Soup – a Paris meal to remember, by Michelle Hum who recalls the aroma of sweet caramelized onions, dry wine, and rich broth rising from the steam from her bowl. With the first taste–serendipity. Recipe included for Julia Child’s Soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup) from her cookbook, The Way to Cook

Paris, a particular shade of gray, by Mary Evans a former cooking school director and founder of The Write Cook. Mary recalls the cozy refuges in her long ago memories of Paris and shares her recipe for Chicken Bouillabaisse.

Boudin blanc — yes, chef! by Barbara Redmond, who shares her experience making the traditional French Christmas sausage in her home kitchen with a professional butcher.


Text copyright ©2011 Laurence Haxaire. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.