In 1933, Eugénie Brazier (1895-1977) became the first chef to win six Michelin stars; three for her restaurant in Lyon, and then another three for her second restaurant, located outside the city.
The second person to win six stars was Alain Ducasse, 65 years later, in 1998.
Eugénie Brazier was born and raised on a farm in a village between Bourg-en-Bresse and Lyon.
As a child, she was taught how to cook by her mother, and she went to school only during the winter months when she wasn’t needed to work on the farm.
As a result, although she was literate, she struggled with writing.
She was only ten when her mother died, after which she was sent to work on another farm for board and keep.
In 1914, aged 19, she had a son, whom she called Gaston.
She left him with a wet nurse and went to Lyon, where she entered domestic service as a nanny.
But when the cook fell ill, she was sent to work in the kitchen.
She found her vocation
She cooked by instinct and by asking for tips from other cooks.
While spending the summer in Cannes cooking for her employers, she discovered that she could manage even difficult recipes like hollandaise sauce.
“Cooking is not complicated,” she wrote some time later. “You have to be well organised, to remember things and have a bit of taste. I learned to cook by doing it – as simple as that.”
Feeling she had a vocation, she found a job as an apprentice cook in an all-female restaurant in Lyon, where she learned to make delicacies like artichoke hearts with truffled foie gras and quenelles au gratin with crayfish butter.
In 1921, aged just 26, Brazier opened her own 15-seat restaurant.
She impressed an important guest
She had very little money at the time, but her partner Pierre, who was a chauffeur by day, helped out in the evenings, sweeping the dining rooms, sharpening knives and preparing wine.
It was a typical bouchon Lyonnais, very much like the numerous ones which exist today serving large portions of straightforward food (much of it based on offal) in a warm and cosy atmosphere.
Gradually she expanded the restaurant, so that she could seat more people, and her reputation began to grow.
She struck lucky when the director of a car oil company ate at her restaurant.
He was so impressed that he invited her to cater for the company’s annual banquet for 200 guests.
Signature dish cements fame
Brazier became famous for her poularde pochée à la façon de la Brazier, chicken with thin slices of black truffle pushed under the skin.
Once it was poached, the black truffles showed through the skin, making it look as if it was in half-mourning.
By the late 1920s, the dish was being offered by other chefs all over France, cementing her reputation.
A forceful character
She was reputed to be a big, forceful woman with a loud voice, a colourful vocabulary and strong forearms, who wouldn’t put up with any nonsense.
She was obsessed with hygiene, keeping her food stores meticulously clean, and she hated food waste.
She used trimmings and leftovers to feed the staff, and anything left on diners’ plates she fed to the pigs.
She always used high-quality seasonal produce. In doing this, she was following in the footsteps of another brigade of Lyonnaise women who, during the early 20th century, put their home-grown culinary skills to work by opening their own restaurants in the city’s historic centre.
Lyon became food capital of the world
Known as les Mères Lyonnaises, the cooks had access to fresh ingredients from the lush surrounding countryside, and because of the city’s geographical crossroads location, they inherited recipes adapted from Italian and other international cuisines.
They offered a limited daily selection of home-made and traditional dishes like eels stewed in wine, chicken with truffles, and quenelles (a type of dumpling formed into a short, fat sausage shape, boiled and then served with sauce).
Their generous portions of these savoury and full-flavoured dishes attracted people from all classes and laid the foundations of Lyon’s reputation as the world capital of gastronomy.
In line with this, Mère Brazier’s cooking was simple but of the highest quality, and influenced generations of cooks to come.
She trained Paul Bocuse and Bernard Pacaud amongst others.
Move to the country
By 1928, she was exhausted and frequently arguing with her son, by now also a chef.
The upshot was that she left him in charge of the restaurant in Lyon and went to a chalet she owned in the hills above the city in the Col de la Luère.
As people went to visit her there, she cooked for them and, in 1929, opened a second restaurant in what had begun as a simple country retreat.
Elizabeth David reviews country restaurant
The famous food writer Elizabeth David described it as “Airy and cool, surrounded by a large garden and much greenery, this was for a time my favourite restaurant in all France.
“The menu scarcely changed from year to year. With the exception of one dish of fish quenelles with a rather rich sauce, the food was all comparatively plain.
“There was no showing off, no fireworks. The calm confidence, the certitude that all here would be as it should, which one felt upon entering the establishment was somehow communicated to her customers by Madame Brazier herself, invisible though she was in the kitchen, and by her front-of-the-house staff.
“The restaurant could have been in no country but France, the cooking practised by Madame Brazier and her brigade was the cooking of the French provinces at its best and also its most traditional.”
Restaurants revived after war
She kept both restaurants open during the war, despite being arrested for buying supplies illegally, and after the war restored them to their former glory.
Her son Gaston continued to run the Lyon restaurant, assisted by his wife Carmen and later on, his daughter Jacotte Brazier.
Meanwhile, Eugénie ran her restaurant, trained young chefs and began collecting her recipes into a book.
She retired in 1968 at the age of 72, handing the business over to Gaston, who died in 1974, at which point his daughter Jacotte took the reins.
It was around this time that Eugénie Brazier turned down the Légion d’honneur.
“It should be given out for doing more important things than cooking well, and doing the job you’re supposed to do,” she declared.
She died in 1977 at the age of 81, after which the restaurant at Col de la Luére closed.
Her granddaughter Jacotte continued running the Mère Brazier restaurant until 2004, and then in 2008 it was bought by Michelin-star-chef Mathieu Viannay who kept the name, restored the 1930s interiors and designed a menu using Brazier’s classic dishes.
Her recipes were published posthumously in 1977, with forewords by Paul Bocuse and Bernard Pacaud.
A second edition of Les Secrets de la Mère Brazier was published in 1992, and a third in 2001.
It has also been published in English.
A street near the restaurant was renamed Rue Eugénie Brazier.
Granddaughter ensures Eugénie’s legacy
In 2007, Jacotte founded the Association des Amis d’Eugénie Brazier in her grandmother’s memory, saying she was inspired by working with the Fondation Paul Bocuse.
“My aim is to help young women enter the world of haute cuisine,” she says.
“I sponsor them through their training, and help them financially. The association is sponsored by Paul Bocuse and Bernard Pacaud and has around 300 members; their contributions go towards giving individual grants – usually around 500-1000 euros – to around a dozen young women each year.”
They work closely with professional lycées, including the Lycée Hélène Boucher in Lyon.
The association also promotes books about cooking written by women.
The Eugénie Brazier Literary Prizes include the Grand Prix awarded to the female author of a cook book, the Prix de l’Iconographie is awarded to an illustrator or photographer of a cookbook, the Prix du Roman or l’Essai Gourmand is awarded to a food-related novel or essay, and there is a prize for a cookbook from ‘Francophone countries and elsewhere’.
Women chefs must be loud and make a fuss
Jacotte continues: “I always say to young women, ‘be strong, fight for your place, fight to be recognised’.
“Women don’t get any favours in our profession, and sometimes they don’t fight hard enough to be seen.
“There are around 500 female chefs in France. I took part in making a television programme about nine female chefs.
“They all had a Michelin star, but the programme never once named their restaurants or even mentioned where to find them!
“Women don’t protest enough. They don’t struggle, shout or make a fuss.”
In English, Eugénie Brazier’s recipe book is called La Mère Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking.