When Lyon-born French chef Christophe Paucod arrived in Japan in 1998, he came on a one-way ticket with no job prospects and no idea of what he would do.
But he had 10 years of professional experience cooking under his belt, starting at age 15, in some of the best restaurants in Normandy and Paris, and he also came with something that would turn out to be even more important — the spirit and culinary traditions of Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France.
Paucod was cooking at Plaza Athenee Hotel in Paris when he met, fell in love with and married his Japanese wife, who had gone to France to study at the famous culinary school Le Cordon Bleu.
“She told me that she had lived in my country for seven years and now it was my turn to live in her country,” he says with a smile. “So I came to Japan.”
Paucod found positions cooking in several fine restaurants in Tokyo, but in 2006 he felt he needed to strike out on his own.
“I wanted to make a story,” he says, “to return to my roots, and make a nice atmosphere of the place I was born.”
A year later, Paucod opened Japan’s first Lyonnaise bouchon in the Kagurazaka neighborhood in Shinjuku Ward. He named the restaurant Lugdunum — the ancient Roman name for Lyon — and in 2011 he received one star in the Michelin Guide.
Bouchons are unique to Lyon, Paucod explains. They are small, unpretentious eateries serving hearty traditional Lyonnaise food and good cheer. Paucod is a hearty Lyonnaise soul himself, whose joie de vivre is seen in his smile as he greets each customer coming though the front door.
The culinary traditions of Lyon today were founded on the home cooking of les meres lyonnaises — the mothers of Lyon. These female cooks of the city’s upper classes banded together to start their own restaurants after the French Revolution in the 19th century. And in contrast to the sophisticated cuisine of Paris, their Lyonnaise cooking was characterized by simplicity and subtlety, using the best local seasonal ingredients.
Paucod’s own Lyonnaise grandmother, mere Mauricette, was an excellent cook. And he named his version of a classic bouchon dish — sea bream mousse quenelles with crayfish and lobster sauce — after the grandmother.
Lyonnaise dishes often center around pork, using all parts of the pig except the “oink.” To make good on that tradition, Paucod went back to Lyon to study charcuterie, sausage-making — another Lyonnaise specialty — and he graduated with a license.
“We make all our cooked sausages upstairs in the kitchen,” he says with pride, pulling up on his notebook computer photos of pork sausages with whole pistachios, white sausages with truffles and blood sausages, which he serves on a bed of mashed potatoes with slices of warmed apple.
“Our guests are very happy with our sausages,” he adds. Other popular Lugdunum pork dishes include the traditional tablier de sapeur, a flat cut of breaded fried tripe, and his Lyonnaise salad of frisee lettuce with lardons of bacon, pig’s ear cake and a poached egg.
“I know every centimeter of this restaurant,” says Paucod, holding up his thumb and forefinger in a measuring gesture. “I wanted to create a real bouchon with an authentic ambiance.” Thus, he says, everything — the oak tables, chairs, floor tiles, cutlery, dishes and glassware, the wall wine cellar and the bar counter with its pewter top — was imported from France.
He gestures toward the elegant spiral iron staircase that connects to the upstairs dining room. “I saw a staircase exactly like that in France, but it was too expensive to buy and ship, so I took photos and a Japanese iron artisan made it for me.
“Even in the toilet, the sink is from France,” he says with a laugh. “We get good comments about our toilet. Customers say, ‘Oh, you have nice music in there, and small hand towels in the colors of France, red, blue, white.’ ” He laughs again. “It’s a small thing, but it’s important.”
Besides the traditional cuisine, bouchons are typified by their convivial atmosphere and by the warm relationship of the guests with the owner.
He chose the Kagurazaka neighborhood because, he says, it most resembles Lyon’s own ancient neighborhoods. “I wanted a district with no tall buildings, like Lyon. Kagurazaka is perfect because it had its own authentic ambiance already.”
Kagurazaka, which translates to “Slope of the Music of the Gods,” has been an entertainment district since the Edo Period, and during the Meiji and Taisho eras was the premier geisha quarter of the Yamanote area. It’s still possible to see geisha walking along the maze of narrow cobblestone back streets and alleyways.
Paucod also wanted a location on the first floor so he could have large front windows. “Here in Kagurazaka it’s like a small village. All the shopkeepers say, ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning!’ ” And when shopkeepers or local customers pass by on the street, “I can see them through the windows and wave and say hello. I like this very much.”
Kagurazaka also has perhaps the largest concentration of French residents living in Tokyo. The Institut Francais du Japon, with its language classes, culture center, cinema and restaurant, is located in the neighborhood. And for more than 40 years, the international French school, the Lycee Francaise Internationale, was in the neighborhood as well, until last year when it moved to Kita Ward.
Although he goes back every year to Lyon to eat and research, Paucod, now 40, with a successful restaurant and two children in Japanese schools, has no thoughts of returning to France. “Japan is home,” he says. “When I return here from visiting Lyon, I return home.
“What I really like about Japan is the feeling of civisme,” he says, using the French word for public spirit.
“This is very important for me. The people are polite, respectful, completely different from France,” he laughs. “You don’t feel stress in Japan. You can walk anytime, anywhere safely. People think of others. I have a lot of respect for this civisme.”
This love of public spirit explains why two years ago Paucod and a handful of other French chefs banded together to help feed the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster.
This small group of French and Japanese chefs was organized by Patrick Hochster, a longtime French resident of Tokyo and president of a real estate agency. Eventually, through Hochster’s efforts and energy, the group expanded into a larger cadre of French and Japanese volunteers and coalesced into La Caravane Bon Appetit, supported by a multitude of French and Japanese corporate sponsors.
“Hochster is the locomotive force of this organization,” explains Paucod.
The caravan has gone 28 times to the prefectures in Tohoku affected by the disaster. The menu of each trip is different depending on the specialties of the participating chefs.
The caravan started during the first week of April 2011, travelling back and forth from Tokyo each day for seven days to seven different towns, serving more than 3,500 multicourse meals to the survivors.
Hochster coordinates with local officials and residents to decide which town or village to visit next. Last Monday, the caravan travelled to the city of Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, to a community center with temporary housing for more than 120 families.
A few days in advance, the three participating chefs took over the large kitchen of the French Embassy to prepare 600 portions each of the three-course meal. Paucod prepared the starter — codfish brandade topped with pimentos and red peppers. Chef Andre Pachon prepared the main dish of garbure, a robust stew of ham, cabbage, white beans, carrots and other vegetables. And pastry chef Frederic Madelaine baked apple Tarte Tatin.
Upon arriving, the group of 43 French and Japanese volunteers who went along quickly set up tables, chairs and tents, while the chefs and their assistants heated up the main dish.
Toys were also laid out as donations for the children.
Unfortunately, the cold overcast day in Tamura cut back on the number of guests who turned out and only about 150 meals were served. But most of the residents came back to the serving line for seconds or thirds of the delicious food. Some even brought nabe pots to fill up for the next day’s meal.
Despite the weather, there was plenty of good cheer with abundant red wine, bread, cheese and even gift bags of chocolate. Plus during dinner, a Japanese singer-guitarist and a French chanteuse playing a hand-cranked organ, an orgue de barbarie, with cardboard scrolls of music provided a musical accompaniment that prompted some of the elderly residents to get up and dance.
“You know,” says Paucod, “April 2011 was the busiest time we’ve ever had at Lugdunum. People were coming out again to restaurants to enjoy life. It was incredible.
“For me the best is to see a happy guest eating and drinking wine with conviviality.”
For many Tohoku people, he adds, the situation hasn’t really changed even after two years. The temporary housing that people have to live in isn’t home for them. Providing them food and drink is the least we can do, he says.
The caravan will continue, says Paucod. “This story is not finished.”