Martin Klein meets Christophe Muller

The Guardian of the Temple

Paul Bocuse has a crown prince: Christophe Muller, who has been managing all French Bocuse restaurants for five years, always in accordance with the Chef of the Century’s principles. The 44-year-old from Alsace puts it more modestly: “We are merely the guardians of the temple.” His other task is perhaps just as important to him: he prepares all of Monsieur Paul’s meals as his personal chef. Christophe Muller welcomes me outside the L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, the most famous restaurant of all. Bocuse and his team have held three Michelin stars since 1965, longer than any other chef in the world. It’s impossible to imagine French cuisine without him.

Christophe’s black patent-leather shoes shine in the evening sun, every fold in his toque has been perfectly starched and ironed. His snow-white chef’s coat is adorned with the blue, white and red collar that distinguishes him as an MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) – the greatest distinction for French chefs. The competition takes place every three or four years. Out of hundreds of candidates, all of whom have been preparing for years, only very few are awarded the coveted title. Among Christophe’s colleagues at L’Auberge, however, there are always at least five more MOFs, which is equally unique. I’m still a little star-struck when Gilles Reinhardt meets me in the kitchen. We attended hospitality school together in Strasbourg. Today, Gilles is a chef at the gourmet restaurant. In the centre of the kitchen stands a mighty Molteni. Like the stove itself, the many copper pots and pans also look a little old-fashioned – but the heat is distributed extremely evenly in this heavy cookware. And the pans don’t cool down when meat, fish or vegetables are placed in them. This makes it possible to cook hotter at lower temperatures. Nothing gets burnt. Even the sugar for Christophe’s tarte Tatin melts completely evenly – and without the customary spoonful of water.

Madame Bocuse greets the chefs just before the evening service, as she does every day. Christophe conjures up a small menu for Madame and Monsieur. A short while later, Paul Bocuse calls his patissier over to the table: the patron wants more vanilla in the sauce for his îles flottantes. This dessert has been on the menu for decades. Christophe also composes his Guest Chef menu for Restaurant Ikarus with timeless Bocuse classics, all of which a gourmet should try at least once in their life.

Especially the pike quenelle with crayfish. Christophe serves the tender quenelle individually. To shape the portions, Christophe has had two pairs of spoons custom-made. They are extra large with a special curvature – and Christophe is going to lend us a pair for his Guest Chef menu to ensure that the quenelle are perfectly formed. Christophe also adds scallops to his pike filling, a little trick that makes it especially smooth. Later on, the finished quenelle is placed on an equally classic crayfish fricassee, garnished with a crispy pastry fleuron and a meticulously peeled mushroom. The mushroom looks like a dollop of cream – Gilles and I learned how to cut a mushroom like this back in hospitality school. For my young chefs, I might need to organise a mushroom workshop first.

My personal Bocuse favourite should not be missing from the menu either:  truffle soup with a puff pastry cover. Monsieur Paul composed this dish in 1975 for a dinner with Valerie Giscard d‘Estaing. The soup is quite rightfully his most famous dish – when the crispy pastry cover is taken off, a dense, meaty truffle scent escapes from the lion-head tureen. The orchestration of this culinary moment would alone have been enough to earn a place in the chef’s hall of fame. But the fact that the soup tastes so good is not just down to the ingenious preparation but also to the amount of truffle that Christophe uses. It’s the ideal time: January is peak season for black truffles in Périgord!

For the main course, we will serve “Lievre à la royale”. It’s a rabbit ballotine, kind of like a pie without the pastry. The recipe originates from the 19th century, and Bocuse has rediscovered and refined it. The filling is complex, the cooking time long. But we’re accustomed to that at Restaurant Ikarus. I’m more worried about whether our guests will dare try the regal rabbit. Christophe waves aside my concerns – of course, only the very best French wild rabbit is used in his dish. According to the chef, the complex sauce alone would be enough to win over any doubters. It goes especially well with the finest French red wines.

Christophe explains to me that new chefs are often a little shocked to find out that the main part of the menu at Bocuse’s restaurant never changes. But it’s very difficult to cook these famous dishes just as well every time. Some regulars dine here up to a hundred times a year. Others only come once a year, but they eat the same menu that they had on their wedding day fifty years ago. Both are seeking the perfect classic. And even if similar dishes can be found in many Lyon restaurants, at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges they’re always cooked to perfection. To make a name for themselves, young chefs now have to find their own style and create their own recipes or completely reinterpret traditional ones. Hardly anyone has the ability or opportunity to preserve France’s culinary heritage at three star level. But Christophe Muller and his colleagues at Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or in Lyon manage it – and they’ll be doing so in January, when they visit us at Restaurant Ikarus in Salzburg. We’re delighted to be dedicating this month to Paul Bocuse. It will be a wonderful finale to a very special year in which Monsieur Paul celebrated his ninetieth birthday.

Recorded by Hans Gerlach

"L´AUBERGE DU PONT DE COLLONGES"

40 Quai de la Plage
696600 Collonges au Mont d´Or
France

Tel: +33 472 429 090

Web: www.bocuse.fr

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