The ‘scandalous’ chef the world forgot

Uneducated, a single mother and the first person ever to receive six Michelin stars, Eugénie Brazier was a tour de force. So why doesn’t the world know about her?

With more restaurants per capita than any other French city and the home of Rue du Bœuf (the street with the most Michelin stars in the country), Lyon is France’s undisputed gastronomic capital. And although the city has become synonymous with the name Paul Bocuse (1926-2018) – with five restaurants falling under the late chef’s brand, and even Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse (an indoor food market) bearing his name – its culinary legacy began long before he rose to fame.

Known as “the mother of French cooking”, Eugénie Brazier (or Mère Brazier) never completed primary school and was forced to leave home at 19 after becoming pregnant. Yet, by the time she turned 40, she was running two restaurants and was the most decorated chef in the world. In 1933, she would become the first person to receive six stars in the Michelin Guide, a record that remained unchallenged until Alain Ducasse matched her in 1998. She was also largely responsible for teaching Bocuse his trade.

Brazier was no doubt a tour de force. So, why, then, have her achievements been largely forgotten, while those of chefs like Bocuse have been lauded?

One of her restaurants, the currently two-starred La Mère Brazier, is still running to this day under the guidance of chef Mathieu Viannay. Inside, the 1933 Michelin guide sits proudly in a glass case, while a photo of Brazier in a starched white blouse lines a sliding door. Although Brazier’s legacy is kept alive in the restaurant, few people know about her important contributions to French gastronomy. Viannay believes this is due to the time she was living in.

“Brazier is well-known to anyone who knows the history of French cuisine,” Viannay said. “When I reopened the restaurant in 2008, articles came out in 80 different countries. But Brazier came from a time when chefs weren’t in the media.”

Chef Mathieu Viannay runs the currently two-starred La Mère Brazier (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Given that famous male French culinary names like François Pierre de la Varenne, Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier all pre-dated Brazier but are much better known globally, the timeframe can’t be the only reason for her relative anonymity.

“Her gender had a huge role to play,” explained food historian Dr Annie Gray. “France’s culinary scene was largely split into two categories: haute-cuisine, prepared by those with classical training (mostly men); and cuisine de la grand-mère, grandmother’s style cooking, usually accompanied by the stereotypical image of the buxom woman at the stove.”

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the route to becoming a top chef in France followed strict rules. Boys aged between 10 and 13 would start apprenticeships in kitchens, working their way up the ranks. Training would follow, largely in Paris, but often with a spell in Nice and on the Normandy coast, working in casino resorts. Women weren’t made apprentices, and Brazier was no exception.

Growing up in the early 1900s, her family lived on a farm in La Tranclière, 56km north-east of Lyon. Under her mother’s instruction, Brazier began to cook as soon as she could hold a spoon. By the age of five, she could make two types of tarts, although she wasn’t allowed to light the oven. She was responsible for the family pigs, and her schooling was sporadic at best. She only attended classes during winter when there was less work to do on the farm.

Eugénie Brazier opened La Mère Brazier on Rue Royale in the 1920s (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Eugénie Brazier opened La Mère Brazier on Rue Royale in the 1920s (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Brazier’s mother died when she was just 10, and she took a job at a neighbouring farm to help provide for her family. But in 1914, the 19-year-old Brazier became pregnant out of wedlock and her father kicked her out, as it was considered scandalous in those times. To make ends meet, Brazier got a housekeeping job with a wealthy Lyonnaise family, the Milliats, placing her son, Gaston, in a pensionnat (boarding school). She travelled with the family each year as they spent winters in Cannes in southern France, and eventually took on the additional role of cook once the family decided to live there year-round. With no cookbooks to consult, she would ask merchants or local hotel staff for recipes and recreate them from memory.

After World War One, Brazier, now a more seasoned cook, started working in the kitchen of Mère Filloux, a restaurant in Lyon’s Brotteaux neighbourhood with an all-female staff, which was common at the time. Typically, bouchons (traditional restaurants) were run by women called “Lyonnaise mothers”, who served offal and offcuts of meat to hungry businessmen and silk workers.

By 1922, Brazier had saved enough money working at Mère Filloux and other restaurants to buy a grocery shop, which she turned into a small restaurant. There, she began making a name for herself preparing dishes like crayfish in mayonnaise, roast pigeon and country-style peas and carrots. She later moved to a larger restaurant on Rue Royale in central Lyon, which is the site of the present-day La Mère Brazier. In 1928 she opened a second restaurant, also called La Mère Brazier, with a farm and cookery school, in the hills 19km outside Lyon at Col de la Luère.

Eugénie Brazier was the first person ever to receive six Michelin stars (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Eugénie Brazier was the first person ever to receive six Michelin stars (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Being outside Paris was both key and detrimental to her success. The Michelin Guide (originally a motoring handbook designed to boost sales of Michelin tyres) inspired people to travel more, and as Lyon was a popular stop for motorists heading south from Paris, the notoriety of the city’s restaurants – including Brazier’s – grew. However, Paris was home to the great culinary schools like Le Cordon Bleu, and it held the crown for haute cuisine, which was more highly regarded than the traditional style of cooking largely found in Lyon.

“Brazier’s dishes remained firmly and unapologetically rooted in Lyonnaise cuisine, familiar and recognisable dishes that didn’t try to approach the gilded cuisine of Paris,” said Maryann Tebben, author of Savoir-Faire: A History of Food in France. “Bocuse was also based in Lyon, but [after training with Brazier] he apprenticed with [famous chef and restaurateur] Fernand Point and worked at the Lucas Carlton restaurant in Paris. His Parisian training was in full view.”

After the outbreak of World War Two, when France fell to German occupation, Lyon stood in Vichy (so-called “free”) France. Brazier was allowed to continue operations, but quickly fell afoul of the Nazis, after complaining that stringent rationing was affecting the quality of her food. The restaurant closed in 1941 for the duration of the war and Brazier was imprisoned, although she never disclosed why.

La Mère Brazier is still running to this day on Rue Royale in central Lyon (Credit: Anna Richards)

La Mère Brazier is still running to this day on Rue Royale in central Lyon (Credit: Anna Richards)

After Brazier resumed work at the end of the war, she began to train aspiring chefs at her farm-restaurant in Col de la Luère. Paul Bocuse and Bernard Pacaud (founder and chef of L’Ambroisie in Paris) were among her protégées.

In 1953, the director of New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel tried to hire Brazier to run their restaurant, offering a hefty annual salary. Brazier declined, refusing to uproot. She was even offered the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit, but again declined, saying that the award should be “reserved for more important things than cooking well”.

Brazier died aged 81 in 1977, leaving the running of her restaurant to her granddaughter, Jacotte. In 2004, the restaurant closed, remaining empty until 2008, when it was bought by Viannay.

For Viannay, the restaurant’s history is of paramount importance. He describes himself as “a gatekeeper”, knowing the institution will live on long after he is gone.

Chef Mathieu Viannay has modernised the menu at La Mère Brazier (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Chef Mathieu Viannay has modernised the menu at La Mère Brazier (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

The simplicity of ingredients and elements of Brazier’s traditional style of cooking are two things that he has kept consistent since Brazier’s time. Although he’s modernised the menu, old favourites such as Bresse chicken and cervelle de canut (a soft Lyonnais cheese infused with herbs) still regularly feature on the menu.

While Brazier’s legacy lives on through the restaurant, the gender divide in the culinary world still exists, as only around 6% of Michelin-starred restaurants in France are helmed by women. French chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who has followed in Brazier’s footsteps as a culinary pioneer, is currently the only women in France to have a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.

“Brazier deserves to be on the podium with the grandfathers of French cuisine,” said Gray. “With restaurants like noma closing, the age of ridiculously intensive preparation is over. There’s room for French cuisine to take a look at itself and change.”’s World’s Table “smashes the kitchen ceiling” by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future. 


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