Exploring The Bouchons Of Lyon

Before Lyon was known for its food, it was first famous for its production of silk.

But the two came together in the late seventeenth century with the establishment of "bouchons," initially informal restaurants established by women experienced in cooking. Their purpose was for the city's rich families to feed hungry workers each morning when they came off night shifts at the city's silk factories.

The men were known as "canuts," their morning meals "machons," and the restaurants were called "bouchons" after the tied bundles of straw that marked their entrances.  The meals generally consisted of inexpensive cuts of meat – often the organs – but the cooking experience of these women tended to elevate bouchon food beyond simple "mean" cuisine. 

Today, there are about 80 bouchons in Lyon, and they form an experience unique to that city's dining scene, one that also serves as a magnet for thousands of food tourists annually. Earlier this fall, I was in Lyon and sat down with Chef Joseph Viola, who heads an organization of 23 of the more ambitious eateries formed in 2012 called Les Bouchon Lyonnaise.

Chef Viola, who operates three restaurants locally, has his home base at Daniel & Denise, just around the corner from the city's famous Les Halles de Lyon market that has now added to its name that of the city's most famous chef, Paul Bocuse.

As his staff prepared for the lunch crowd, I sat down opposite Chef Viola, a friendly man with swept-back gray hair, owl glasses, and a well-trimmed mustache, at one of the restaurant's tables covered in a red and white tablecloth, with one of his staff translating my English and his French.

The Daily Meal: Les Halles – Paul Bocuse is just around the corner.  Were you shopping there this morning?

Chef Joseph Viola: No, but we work directly with the same producers, most really small ones, who are at Les Halles. We call them in the evening about what they have and what we'll need the next day, and they deliver around 7 a.m. the next morning.

Are there many of them?

We probably work with 15 to 20, but not all of them have to deliver every day.

Does your menu change often?

We try to have about five new items on the board every day for our customers. But it depends on what the producers have available.

How do you describe your cuisine, or a typical bouchon's cuisine?

A bouchon typically serves traditional dishes that would otherwise be forgotten today.  At the same time, here, we consider ourselves a "bouchon gastronomique." 

What are your some of your signature dishes?

Probably quenelles and pâté en croute. [A glance at Chef Viola's menu on a given day might include calf's head cooked in court bouillon and served with herb sauce, chicken vol-au-vents, crawfish omelette, pike quenelle in Nantua sauce, and Bresse chicken with morels].

You have on here on your tables bottles of Cotes du Rhone wines with both your name and that of the famous producer Michel Chapoutier. How is that venture going?               

We wanted to start with a bottle of Rhone red and a bottle of white. Now we plan to produce new wines from a region where neither of us has worked before, but I can't talk about where yet. We are considering exporting these wines, but for now they are sold only in France.

And what about your line of food products – the jars of pâtés and fruit preserves?

We sell them here at the restaurants, as well as online.

You have three restaurants here in Lyon. Do you plan to expand out of the region or out of France?

That is what I would like to do. (Smiling) Do you have any suggestions?