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A Name You Should Know: Eugénie Brazier

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How history erased this influential French chef

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Welcome to A Name You Should Know, a new series celebrating the people who created the culinary world we know today.

In the history of the Michelin guide, it was a woman who first held the most stars simultaneously, six in total. In 1998, her 65-year reign came to an end when Alain Ducasse won three stars each for his namesake restaurant in Paris and the Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo. But before Ducasse, this woman had more stars than her peer and friend Fernand Point, the great French chef at La Pyramide, and the man who would become the father of modern French cuisine. Her Michelin achievement puts her in the company of chefs like Joël Robuchon of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se. So how is it that we know so much about these men and so little of Eugénie Brazier?

There is some dispute as to whether it was Brazier or Marie Bourgeois (of La Mère Bourgeois) to receive the first three stars ever awarded by Michelin. They both are on record in 1933 and remained peers until Bourgeois’s death in 1937. When Michelin returned to awarding stars after World War II, Marguerite Bise of L’Auberge du Père Bise joined Brazier as a three-star chef.

Looking back, it now seems like the 1930s were a far more tolerant time for women in Michelin history. Just one generation later, the man who would become the king of French cuisine, Paul Bocuse, would famously say during an interview in the 1970s that he would rather have a woman in his bed than behind the stove in his restaurant. That sentiment ushered in a period of skepticism toward women chefs that is still with us (if you think cutting women out of history is a problem of the past, just consider contemporary restaurant rankings of today). The Michelin guide followed Bocuse’s lead, and 50 years would pass before another woman (Anne-Sophie Pic) received the three-star honor.

Brazier was awarded those first six stars having been in professional kitchens for just 15 years. She was 38 years old and the chef-owner of two establishments, La Mère Brazier in Lyon and a restaurant at Col de la Luère. In a career that spanned half a century, it’s scrimping to focus solely on that singular achievement. Her two restaurants held six Michelin stars for a total of 20 years. La Mère Brazier held three stars for 28 years.

An image of Brazier currently oversees her restaurant, La Mére Brazier, which is still open.
An image of Brazier currently oversees her restaurant, La Mère Brazier, which is still open.
Photo: Facebook

Her rise is all the more astonishing in light of her humble beginnings. Brazier was born on June 12, 1895, on a farm near Lyon. She grew up knowing poverty and hard work, but considered her agrarian roots idyllic. Woven into the stories of her young life are memories of the many delicious things she ate and made. In her posthumously published cookbook, La Mere Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking, she recalled a soup her mother brought to her while she was tending pigs in the pasture — a broth of leeks and vegetables cooked in milk and water, enriched with eggs, and poured over stale bread for substance — saying she had "never eaten better."

Brazier was mostly uneducated, attending school sporadically, but recalled in her book as always being "ready for anything that might challenge me." There was no shortage of difficulties, beginning with the death of her mother when she was 10, having a child out of wedlock at 19, and living through two world wars.

At the outset of World War I, Brazier went to work as a nanny in Lyon for the Milliat family, who also owned a bakery. She would eventually take over as the family cook because she enjoyed "working at the stove," she wrote. But the need to earn more money to support her son Gaston led her to work at La Mère Fillioux, a "high-class establishment" where the kitchen was "always women only." The Mère Lyonnaise were women who moved out of domestic employment to purchase small restaurants of their own, most offering limited menus. They secured the city’s reputation for exceptional cuisine. Brazier learned many things, including the famous dish volaille demi-deuil (or poularde de Bresse demi-deuil), chicken in half-mourning, but jealousy and drama came between her and Mère Fillioux, and she left for another kitchen.

Seven years after arriving in Lyon, at the age of 26, she purchased a small grocery store on rue Royale, and it became La Mère Brazier. On opening day, she served lunch and dinner, crayfish with mayonnaise and pigeon with peas. It was a simple and elegant space; the main room had large bay windows overlooking the street and earthenware tile on the walls in cream, grey, and blue. The décor was sparse; the linen pressed and the silver and crystal on the tables sparkled. Women waited tables and Brazier never employed a sommelier, preferring to order direct from winemakers. As her reputation grew, the restaurant needed more space, and she would add more rooms, including upstairs. In the 12 years before the restaurant received its three stars, it was a culinary destination, attracting French Presidents and Prime Ministers as well as celebrities like Marlene Dietrich.

A stout woman, Brazier is often pictured in the kitchen working proudly at her range. She’s always immaculately dressed in white cotton button-up shirts with short sleeves and white cotton aprons with big scoop pockets, a towel at her waist. Her hair pulled up in a bun; she wears an easy smile for the camera. Often she would leave the stove to greet guests as they arrived.

Every morning she inspected the dining room, linen, and cutlery. The refrigerators and cold rooms were emptied and cleaned daily. About cooking and cleanliness, she was fastidious. Her training had given her an eye for impeccable ingredients. In her cookbook, she recalled a poultry producer grumbling about her demands, saying that soon "the poultry will be manicured before delivery."

Of cooking, she would write that it’s "not complicated… you have to be well organized, to remember things, and to have a bit of taste." Among the many dishes she became famous for, volaille demi-deuil is a rich and aromatic masterpiece. An abundance of black truffle slices are slid between the flesh and the skin of a Bresse chicken, to perfume the meat while it poaches in bouillon. It’s finished with a cream-enriched sauce made from the reduced cooking liquid. Elizabeth David, the famous British cookery writer, described Brazier’s cooking as "calm, elegant, and seemingly effortless."

Poularde de Bresse demi-deuil, as it’s currently served at La Mère Brazier.
Poularde de Bresse demi-deuil, as it’s currently served at La Mère Brazier.
Photo: Facebook

In 1928, seven years after opening La Mère Brazier, Brazier took over a hunting camp at Col de la Luère, west of Lyon. In the beginning, it was rustic, with no running water or electricity, but the tables still sparkled and the menu was the same as her restaurant in Lyon. It’s here that a 20-year-old Paul Bocuse became her commis, honing his skill under her watchful eye. In the foreword to her cookbook, he pays tribute to Brazier, characterizing her as a "tough and modest woman who knew instinctively how to select the best of us, in the same way she picked the best produce."

The narrative for the history of modern French cooking still largely belongs to Bocuse, thanks to his legendary Lyon restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. For Bocuse, it begins with Fernand Point. In the Great Chefs of France, the seminal chronicle of French gastronomy in the 1970s, Quentin Crewe mentions Brazier only in passing, and in Bocuse’s profile, he creates a version of his training that erases Brazier from his professional past. She’s not in more recent history books, either. In 2007’s Food: The History of Taste, all of Brazier’s peers are mentioned — Alexandre Dumain, Fernand Point, and André Pic — but not her.

Bocuse’s pursuit of the spotlight also marked a significant shift for chefs. Brazier was not by nature a celebrity chef, and her modesty played a role in keeping her out of the history books. "I have met and conversed with, many intellectuals, sophisticates, and I have always been mindful of who I am," she wrote. "I have an instinct that stops me from putting my feet on ground that is not mine." In her 1977 New York Times obituary, she is remembered for turning down a citation for the French Legion of Honor, feeling, "it should be given out for doing more important things than cooking."

Two years before she died in 1977, Brazier began work on a cookbook. It would languish unfinished for decades until her family saw it through to completion, publishing it under the title Les secrets de la Mère Brazier in 2009. The English version — La Mere Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking — was published in 2014 and is equal parts history, recipes, photos, and tributes. It’s a record of the Brazier family’s illustrious past (her son Gaston also cooked at La Mère Brazier), and it helps to fix Eugénie in our memory — all the more important after her story began to disappear after her death. In 1998, a headline in the New York Times proclaimed that it was Alain Ducasse to reach the achievement of “A First for Michelin Guide: One Chef Wins Six Stars.” (The Times issued a correction five days later.)

But chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy, when asked about Brazier’s hidden legacy, said she suspects Ducasse’s people "wanted to advertise him as the first chef with six Michelin stars." According to Cohen, Brazier’s legacy "has been stolen from her." To date, Cohen’s mostly right. During her time, the French gastronome Curnonsky called Brazier the greatest chef in the world. Women chefs who would follow could look to her example and know what was possible. They could create professional lives that reached just as high.

But the ground that belongs to her can only disappear if we let it, and chefs like Cohen refuse to do that. History is not nearly so small, exclusive, and self-congratulatory. To fully embrace Eugénie Brazier and her achievement is to correct the course of a journey gone adrift, turning back toward truth. Hers is a cautionary tale of what we stand to lose, reminding us of just how vital the search is for other women that need to be known.

Sources / Additional Reading

‣ Bernstein, Leilah. "She Was the First Six-Star Chef," Los Angeles Times. Blake, Anthony and Quentin Crewe. Great Chefs of France. ‣ Brazier, Eugénie. La Mère Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking. Chelminski, Rudolph. The French at Table. David, Elizabeth. An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Jacotet, Dominque. "Déjeuner-Bavardage Avec Jacotte Brazier, Petite Fille de la Mère Brazier Chez le Chef Eric Hubert," Cuisine Plurielle. Marguin, Christophe. "Praise of Eugénie Brazier," Bulletin de l'Académie Culinaire de France.Mesplède, Jean-François. "Eugénie Brazier, Un Héritage Gourmand."

Deborah Reid is a Canadian writer and chef based in Toronto. Alex Fine is a freelance illustrator based in Baltimore.
Fact checker: Dawn Mobley
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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