Vive La Gastronomie

 
Vive La Gastronomie

After a lost year (or two), Lyon Street Food and Taste of Paris, France’s most famous and well-attended food festivals, offer unparalleled windows onto the many-splendoured world of French gastronomy. Lucky foodie Jennifer Ladonne attended both.

The music is lively, the wine is flowing and spirits are high as visitors begin streaming in for the fifth edition of Lyon Street Food. Stalls line the soaring industrial style main hall of the Fagor-Brandt building, a colossal repurposed factory set in Lyon’s multicultural seventh arrondissement, where the four-day festival moved last year to accommodate an expected 30,000 visitors.

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Lyon Street Food Festival. © Brice ROBERT

At 6pm it’s way too early for most Lyonnais to think about dinner, but hungry from my train ride, I take advantage of the hour to scope out some of the chefs whose restaurants have revived Lyon’s somewhat dusty reputation as France’s food capital, a laurel it relinquished to Paris long ago. Though it’s not likely this patrician city will rival the capital anytime soon, in the past ten years Lyon’s great stalwarts have been joined by a group of young visionary chefs who have helped reinvigorate the city’s gastronomy, drawing a coterie of French and international foodies for a scene that’s both exhilarating and manageable. It’s this resurgent energy that Street Food’s founders Thomas Zimmermann and Emeric Richard are harnessing, bringing together 100 chefs from around France, as well as ten African nations, Belgium, and Asia as this year’s featured guests.

But it hasn’t been easy to slough off Lyon’s buttoned up, traditional approach to dining: “People were laughing when I said we’re going to do a big street food festival. ‘Oh’, they said, ‘but we want to be seated at a table, to be served’. But the festival has been fully attended since its creation; every edition, every day, every hour,” said Zimmerman.

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Lyon Street Food Festival 2021. © Brice ROBERT

Attendance has grown exponentially each year since the festival kicked off in 2016. For this edition, the floor space has doubled, divided into six giant spaces that include a rollicking Belgian beer hall (where visitors can enter a lottery to win their weight in beer); an outdoor lot for food trucks; an Asian street market; a massive space for the African guest chefs with a live-music stage and wide-open spaces for dancing; a wine district; the Sugar Hangar for sweets; and several bars. Over the festival’s four days, visitors of all ages can participate in some 200 60-minute workshops that range from gardening with Japanese aromatic plants, Chinese calligraphy and Kung Fu in the Asian market area; dozens of cooking and wine tasting classes; and fun classes in everything from street art, mask-making, hip-hop dancing or roller-disco in the ‘expression’ area. Add to that 70 live performances, 15 concerts and 50 live DJ sets and you have what amounts to a giant, all-inclusive street party.

Juggling notebook and pen, tote bag and a glass of champagne – handily proffered in a chic unbreakable flute – eating with my fingers will be a challenge. But I can’t resist starting with the well-staffed stand of the Institut Paul Bocuse – a major presence at the festival – founded by the legendary three-star chef, a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine in the late 60s whose name is synonymous with Lyonnais gastronomy. Though Bocuse died in 2018 at the age of 91, his now two-star restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, and institute are bastions of the great French culinary tradition that put Lyon on the map.

Tonight Florent Boivin, a meilleur ouvrier de France (best craftsman) and the institute’s executive chef, presents a ‘hot dog’ made of silky house-smoked trout served over lightly pickled vegetables on a melt-in-your-mouth brioche bun. “I’ve been experimenting with the fermentation of this bread for a month,” Boivin divulges, and I believe him. Deliciously messy as it is, it doesn’t exactly fit my idea of street food, but that’s all part of the fun.

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Bocuse at the Lyon Street Food Festival. © Brice ROBERT

A few stalls down, Joseph Viola, another MOF and the chef at Daniel et Denise, Lyon’s best-known bouchon, is having a ball posing for pictures and laughing with customers while he and his staff turn out pint-sized ‘hamburgers’; it’s a perfect illustration of why Zimmerman receives 400 applicants a year from a huge variety of chefs eager to cook at the festival.

“There’s less pressure on the quality, it’s more fun. Here they have the same status as the people they serve, they interact, they talk – and they love it.” But as democratic as it is, there’s plenty of room for stars.

At the 2019 festival (Covid stopped the 2020 edition), diners could sample food from the likes of Mauro Colagreco, voted World’s Best Chef that same year for his restaurant Mirazur on the Côte d’Azur. This year’s superstars include Mathieu Viannay, the two-star chef at Lyon institution La Mère Brazier, and Anne-Sophie Pic, the only three-star female chef in France, who will serve up her take on street food on the festival’s last day. By the time I’ve sampled a half dozen delicious and generous plates – all democratically priced at a reasonable €5 (entrance costs €9) – there’s an animated crowd of couples, families, and friends out on the town juggling cardboard plates and wine glasses, packing the long communal tables and just starting to hit the dance floor in the festive Africa room. It’s an exuberant scene, and I’m reminded of Zimmerman’s response to my question as to why he continues with a festival that’s not a big money-maker for the organisers.

“Why am I doing this? It’s very simple – we eat,” he explains. “But the reality is we eat next to each other. You’ll see, you have people from every social status, every colour. Food brings people together. And that’s very important and that’s why I’m proud That’s what moves me.”

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Taste of Paris. © Vincent Nageotte

FROM STREET TO SALON
Whether by design or coincidence, Lyon Street Food and Taste of Paris overlapped to the hour this past year, but the similarities pretty much end there. Taste of Paris unfolded in Paris’s elegant seventh arrondissement in the newly opened Grand Palais Éphémère, a vast edifice constructed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower as a stand-in for the historic beaux-arts monument – where the festival has been held for the last four editions – while it undergoes a four-year restoration.

If Street Food is a jubilant street party, Taste of Paris is a sophisticated bacchanal, a celebration of haute-cuisine and French art de vivre, a favourite French idiom loosely translated as that ineffable something that imbues the French lifestyle with charm, elegance and delight. But most of all, it’s a celebration of chefs.

“Taste of Paris is today one of the only festivals in France where you can tour all the Parisian addresses of the moment in one session and taste the cuisine of the greatest chefs,” affirms Mathilde Delville, the organiser of the event. Think chefs clad in white coats and toques working in focused assembly lines in spotless kitchens to turn out exquisite dishes. It’s fun to see, but the major draw is the opportunity to sample the gem-like creations of the biggest names in French and Parisian gastronomy. No small thing, since festival goers pay between €6 and €12 per plate, after the €25 entrance fee (€22 if booked online). To sample three-star chef Kei Kobayashi’s lightly smoked salmon tartare with spicy tomato foam and Kristal caviar, for instance, costs €12; at his restaurant, Kei, it would set you back somewhere between €165 and €320.

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Taste of Paris. © Vincent Nageotte

Ninety chefs appeared this past year, in interviews, cooking classes and the food stalls, including an “ecotable”, where chefs from Paris and the provinces team up to cook dishes with a low environmental impact. All this is interspersed with stands featuring a range of French delicacies to discover: olive oil from Provence, oysters from Brittany, caviar, cider, wine…

Behind a towering display of Champagne Laurent Perrier, whose counters flare out in a star pattern to accommodate the throng of thirsty Parisians, the Eiffel Tower glitters (the best tower views are from the VIP lounge at the back of the space, but don’t even think of getting past the greeters without an invitation). This is by far the most popular display in the room, as each dish presented on the festival menu is paired with a suggested Laurent-Perrier champagne, a major sponsor of the event. Though crowds are elbow-to-elbow, servers are brisk and the wait for a flute (€10-€16) rarely tops five minutes.

For French speakers, a programme of half-hour interviews with the country’s premier chefs offers a window onto gastronomy and the French soul with questions like, “What makes you get up in the morning and cook?” and “What are the local ingredients that most inspire you?”. Last year’s speakers included three-star chef Alexandre Mazzia, whose A/M in Marseille is a major destination restaurant; Glenn Viel, of l’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence, who earned his third star this past year; and the ground breaking Nadia Sammut from Provence, the first non-gluten chef to earn a Michelin star.

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Taste of Paris 2019. © Vincent Nageotte

BONHOMIE ABOUNDS
You don’t have to speak the language to sign up for a master class with a star, where you can learn how to make the perfect black truffle raviolis, pair wine and cheese, or choose just the right oyster. Already at 7pm, the evening opening hour (the first session runs from 11.30am till 4pm and the second from 7pm to 11.30pm) eager visitors are grabbing tables and flutes of champagne and lining up at the eight restaurant stands, which rotate every day to accommodate a total of 32 chefs. This past year the festival went the extra mile to include France’s growing number of female chefs and pastry chefs, who’ve been notably sparse in earlier years.

By 10pm, couples are swaying to retro hits from the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Eagles played by a live band at the centre of the exhibition hall, and I’ve already refilled my cashless card – twice. The atmosphere in this soaring space has taken on the hazy goodwill of a giant cocktail party, whose guests are enjoying a much-needed – and long-awaited – moment to enjoy eating and drinking together once again. Lyon Street Food drew a record 35,000 participants this year and served 140,000 portions. Taste of Paris welcomed 32,000 visitors and served up 105,000 dishes.

Taste of Paris returns on May 12-15, 2022; Lyon Street Food will return on June 23-26, 2022.

From France Today magazine

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American journalist Jennifer Ladonne, a Paris resident since 2004, writes regular features on French heritage, culture, travel, food & wine for France Today magazine, and is the restaurants and hotels reviewer for Fodor's Paris, France and Provence travel guides. Her articles have appeared in CNN Travel, AFAR, The Huffington Post, MSN and Business Insider.