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April Bloomfield's First Trip to France

Chef April Bloomfield always thought of French food as emotionless. Then she traveled to Lyon and learned that truffle soup can make you cry.

On the list of people you might expect to see crying in public, April Bloomfield ranks somewhere between Simon Cowell and Vladimir Putin. Bloomfield, the 37-year-old chef and co-owner of three exceptional New York City restaurants—the Spotted Pig, The Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar—didn't earn two Michelin stars by letting emotion take control of her. But, here, in Lyon, on a Thursday afternoon, Bloomfield has turned the color of rhubarb. She dabs at her eyes with a stiff linen napkin. "Good job I'm not wearing any mascara," Bloomfield says. "I'd look like Alice Cooper."

April Bloomfield: with Fergus Henderson
April Bloomfield with Fergus Henderson. Photo © Marie Hennechart.

Bloomfield is crying over a bowl of soup. Specifically, a bowl of soupe aux truffes noires VGE—the truffle soup that the venerable Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse, in whose restaurant we're eating lunch, first made in 1975 for then French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. It's not exactly the monogrammed china, or the burnished silverware, or the correct waiters who deliver the dish—crowned with puff pastry like a golden toque—but the sum of their parts that has sent Bloomfield into a swoon. The soup and the environs in which it was born, bred and replicated represent the apotheosis of centuries of refinement: a civilization in a tureen. "It's so grand," Bloomfield says. This is her first time in France.

Bloomfield grew up in Birmingham, England. From there it's only a short trip to Calais, in France, but her family took few vacations, and the ones they did take were spent camping at the English seaside. Bloomfield aspired to be a policewoman, but she missed the entrance exam for the local force. Her older sisters were cooks, and soon she had joined them in the trade. In the years that followed, when she had the time or inclination, she didn't have the money to make the trip across the Channel; when she did have the money, she didn't have the time or inclination.

Besides, Bloomfield's training at London's Italian-inflected River Café had instilled in her a sort of vicarious chauvinism. Italy was her lodestar—the adopted homeland of her imagination and still a major source of inspiration. France was over-reduced sauces and turned potatoes, an affront to her rustic sensibility. Bloomfield favors simplicity over showmanship and likes to construct dishes around as few ingredients as possible. At the Spotted Pig, a roasted squash and mozzarella salad with grilled chile is almost exactly that, and there's no sauce on her celebrated burger: It's topped only with Roquefort. The Breslin is slightly less spartan (the lamb burger is accompanied by cumin mayonnaise). Gratuitous fanciness—for instance, in the form of a fine dice—is anathema in Bloomfield's kitchen. "France was always a little scary to me," she says. "I had the preconception that France was a bit hoity-toity." When she uses the word Frenchy in her kitchens (as in, "That dice looks a little Frenchy"), it's not a compliment.

April Bloomfield: Lyon, France
Lyon, France. Photo © Marie Hennechart.

There's a self-protective edge to Bloomfield's bias against French cooking: In the culinary sphere, the entente cordiale between England and France has generally been one-sided. At a summit in 2005, the former French president Jacques Chirac was overheard joking about the British, "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad." For Bloomfield and a cadre of like-minded chefs who have enhanced the reputation of British food in the past 20 years, it was a point of pride, and maybe of necessity, to look for inspiration in places that weren't France.

Still, after The Breslin earned a Michelin star (the Pig has one, too), her business partner, Ken Friedman, decided it was nuts that one of the Anglo-Saxon food world's biggest talents had never experienced la grande cuisine in its natural habitat. "I realized, 'God she's never been to France,' " Friedman recalled. "It's like being a great basketball player and never going to Madison Square Garden." So Bloomfield and Friedman, along with chef Fergus Henderson of London's St. John and his business partner Trevor Gulliver—all old friends—convened in Lyon for a sort of France 101 tour. The plan was to eat their way through the city in 24 hours.

Lyon was settled in 43 BC by the Romans, who knew it as Lugdunum. It is France's third-largest city, but it is considered the nation's gastronomic capital, even more than Paris. This is largely because of what the journalist R.W. Apple, Jr., called its "privileged geography," where some of the country's finest agricultural regions converge: the freshwaters of the Alps to the east (pike, crayfish), Beaujolais and Bresse to the north (wine, chicken) and the Rhône to the south (cheese, more wine). Food people want to go to Lyon like music people want to go to Austin. Salade lyonnaise—frisée's greatest hit, with chunks of bacon and a poached egg—is a tourist attraction. But Lyon retains a winningly mellow feel. Its old neighborhoods are laced with vaulted passageways called traboules, which once allowed the city's silk workers to scurry between their homes and workshops. (The traboules are also said to have been useful between 1942 and 1944, when the German army occupied Lyon.)

April Bloomfield: at Paul Bocuse
Paul Bocuse. Photo © Marie Hennechart.

On the ride to Paul Bocuse, the mood was hushed. As our taxi traced the curves of Saône River, Friedman, who normally resembles a weathered surfer, combed his hair with his fingers. Bloomfield had produced a formal black suit for the occasion. She was wearing cuff links. She could have been a nervous college graduate on her way to a job interview.

We pulled up to the restaurant. There were geraniums in window boxes. Parts of the building that were not covered in murals—roosters, molded desserts, portraits of the patriarch—were painted the color of asparagus. "It's like Father Christmas's house, isn't it?" Bloomfield said.

A valet in scarlet livery greeted us. "Bonjour!" Bloomfield said.

The truffle soup, along with bottles of Taittinger and a 2009 Jean-Luc Colombo Hermitage Le Rouet Blanc, made 70 miles down the road, soon diluted the group's inhibitions.

"Merci Bocuse," Friedman said, as a troupe of waiters delivered loup en croûte feuilletée—sea bass in pastry—with sauce Choron, a kicky orange béarnaise made with tomato puree.

The pastry mimicked the form of a sea bass down to its last scale. The fish itself was stuffed with a lobster mousse: hidden treasure. The preparation was as fussy as it was rich. But Bloomfield loved the dish's sense of whimsy. "You know when food just makes you smile and feel like a kid?" she said.

The next course was Bresse chicken, cooked in a pig's bladder. If a turducken spent a summer with its fancy French cousin, this would be it. The bladder was stretched tight, like the skin of a drum. Punctured, it yielded an extravagantly juicy bird. "So moist and chickeny!" Bloomfield said. Another local poultry classic, chicken lyonnaise, got her thinking. Maybe at home, she'd infuse the sauce with lots of vinegar, rather than the modest amount the Lyonnais prefer.

April Bloomfield: French Kitchen
French kitchen. Photo © Marie Hennechart

After lunch, the men surrendered to sleep. Bloomfield, undeterred, bounded off to Vieux Lyon ("old Lyon"). After a quick pression (draft beer), she peeked into a boucherie (butcher shop) on a lazy square. The place was spare, with white walls and a few elegant cuts of meat behind glass. The butcher was a woman, in a cute outfit instead of a bloody apron. "I thought they'd have big hunks of meat hanging everywhere," Bloomfield said. At the Quai St-Antoine market, there were rabbits with bright red livers; apricots; tiny wild strawberries that, Bloomfield said, "were so sweet they tasted like bubble gum." She popped into a cutlery shop. The French genius for display was on display. Spoons gleamed from velvet-lined boxes like scepters. She bought some L'Econome paring knives with brightly colored wooden handles to take back to her cooks.

The sky was still pale. Swifts flew loops around the cathedral turrets. At nine o'clock, everyone met at Bouchon Comptoir Brunet, a bouchon run by Gilles Maysonnave. Bouchons are traditional Lyonnais canteens, light on fanfare and heavy on meat. Amid frayed banquettes and plastic flowers, they serve regional specialties: andouillette (tripe sausage), cervelle de canut ("silk-workers' brains"—a fromage blanc–and–herb spread). Being French, they must be certified by a regulatory body to be called "authentic" bouchons. Lyon has about 20, and Brunet is one.

The meal got off to an antic start, as a stern and possibly insane waitress extracted our order in the manner of a dominatrix from a Pedro Almodóvar movie. When Friedman lost his napkin, she replaced it with a towelette packet, as punishment. All was soon assuaged by the appearance of several of Maysonnave's homemade terrines, including beef, chicken and skate. Bloomfield stuck a fork into a veal one. "What part is this?" she asked Henderson. "The muzzle," he said.

April Bloomfield: with Ken Friedman
April Bloomfield with Ken Friedman. Photo © Marie Hennechart.

A plate of quenelles de brochet arrived—pike dumplings shaped into graceful ovoids, as though bony fish were as easy to mold as sorbet. A decadent shellfish sauce set off their delicacy, like a heavy piece of jewelry does a floaty gown. "I've never eaten anything like this," Bloomfield said. "They're fluffy, crunchy on top where they've been baked. They taste fun, too; they make me giddy." They would be good, she thought, rendered even more dumplingy and baked on Swiss chard. She hadn't known the French had comfort food.

The evening ended late, with gin and tonics under a faded umbrella at an outdoor café. France! Bloomfield had loved the braises, the market frites. "Maybe French food isn't scary anymore," she said. "I thought it was the polar opposite of what I do, but some things were super-rustic, so simple and perfect." She began to think. What if she punched up the crispy potatoes lyonnaise with a little lemon juice and crushed red pepper? Could she make a salade lyonnaise with fried eggs instead of poached ones? "There's bacon in the salad anyway, you might as well cook the eggs in the fat," she said. Lyon had been an education. Bloomfield decided to stay another day.

Lauren Collins is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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